The Refugee Crisis

Maike Meyer
10 min readJan 19, 2021

On media misrepresentations of migrants, mediated fear as well as mistrust towards the Muslim culture amongst the European public.

A sticker reading ‘refugees welcome’
Sticker reading ‘refugees welcome’ from Pexels.

What is now referred to as the ‘Refugee Crisis’, originated in 2011 and started with a group of teenagers who had organised an anti-government protest criticising the Syrian government. The Assad regime harshly set out to stop such protests but were met by an increased resistance due to the violent nature of the regime’s attempt to control the protest. In effect, the Syrian population demanded President Assad’s resignation and called for a new election, in which they hoped for a fair, law-abiding election process.

The protest which was ultimately influenced by the Arab-Spring movement with a general call for democracy and freedom amongst a large number of middle-eastern countries, led to continuous feud within Syria resulting in a civil war. Rebel forces formed in order to gain control of the city and were met by Assad’s regime that continued to act with violence, laying the foundation of what is known as the Syrian civil war.

The war in Syria has cost over 500 thousand lives
The war in Syria has cost over 500 thousand lives. Photograph: BBC News/Getty Images

According to an estimate of the UK government, over 500 thousand people have lost their lives to the civil war and 11 million people in Syria are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. What’s even more shocking is that more than half of Syria’s citizens have seen no alternative escape but to flee the country, resulting in over 6 million refugees displaced amongst its neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt. Of Lebanon’s 1 million refugees at least 70% live under the poverty line, adding to the growing suffering of the Syrian people.

Essentially, the most devastating fact is that less than 1% of Syrian refugees are ever able to resettle without fear and feeling unsafe.

Its closer to home than one may imagine

The uprising is now “more than just a battle between those for or against Mr Assad”. It has become a battle between religious parties in dispute over control of the country, in which the Sunni fraction is in dispute with the Shia Alawite sect, favouring President Assad. What’s even more significant is that to date, major superpowers such as the US as well as some influential EU members such as the UK and France have influenced the war. The war has also provided a growing opportunity for the IS (Islamic-State) terror group to thrive from the unstable conditions within the country. This has given further fuel to destruction, oppression and constant fear amongst the Syrian population.

The war in Syria has created and shaped alliances between countries that very much represent the West and the rest of the World. Russia, Iran, the Hezbollah and the Shia Muslim group have formed alliances supportive of Assad’s authoritarian regime and westernised countries such as Turkey and the US but also Lebanon and states in the Arab Gulf, are supplying the rebels (a large group of different rebel fractions, some with terroristic missions) with resources and training.

Syria in ruins from destructive bombings and air raids
Ruins from bombings and air raids in Syria. Photograph: Arab News/AFP

What is left is a country that has seen mass destruction, in which those remaining citizens that have decided to stay, live in a constant state of fear and terror and some make the difficult decision to flee their country, seeking better chances of life and peace.

Europe and the refugee crisis

In a mass movement of refugees fleeing to Europe between 2015 and 2016, nearly 5.2 million refugees successfully arrived on European shores, risking their lives every step along their journey to flee from war, violence, terror, poor economic structures and mass destruction. Latest figures dating back to 2018, shows that more than 130,000 people attempted to reach Europe by sea, making the consequences of the Syrian war an evidently increasingly more local, European issue.

Perhaps, what is more significant is the fact that since the eruption of the refugee crisis in 2015, EU member states have failed to reach a unified solution to manage refugee camps, distribute asylum seekers and support refugees. When the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel, openly admitted all refugees were welcome in Germany, many gave up everything they had and made their way across the Mediterranean Sea, through Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria, or Austria.

2015 was the year the media focused on immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers

The refugee crisis was possibly the single most dominant topic across most European news outlets during 2015 and feasibly contributed to the lack of interest and aid within Europe for the inhumane conditions of such migrant camps once in Calais and on the Greek island Lesbos, that still exist 5 years down the line, which are overcrowded, with new refugees arriving every day.

A Unicef camp on the greek island of Lesbos

Predominantly, media coverage around migrants, refugees and ‘refugee policy’ dominated news coverage between the years of 2015 and 2016. What emerged was a strong right-wing reporting and anti-multicultural notions that misrepresented refugees and spun negative discourse around migration, asylum seekers and Muslim and Arab religions.

In the height of the tense relations between refugees and governments in Europe and the constant media coverage of every single detail, the public turned to the media in order to make sense of what was happening and when.

How the media spun the image of an ‘invasion’ and created fear amongst the public

During, the height of migration movement from Northern Africa, the Middle East and East-Asia, a large scale of the western media reported the events in a negative light. The media used certain words that exaggerated and dramaticised the events and perhaps further fuelled and supported right-wing minorities and encouraged hate and racial crimes. Words such as “floods” and “waves” were only used to emphasise the supposed amount of people, stimulating scepsis, negativity and possibly even panic amongst the public.

Political leaders only further catastrophised and underpinned the media, where specifically in Britain the Prime Minister of the Tory government dubbed the flow as a “swarm of people”. One conservative MP then further added that refugee numbers were so high, they were ‘swamping’ town and communities.
Using language relating to water has a “dehumanising and panic-inducing nature” which is further picked up by the media, such as the heavily trashy and often harsh tabloid The Sun, that communicates this to the public in “opened the floodgates to illegal immigrants”. In order to further visualise the language, the media such as the above-mentioned red-top newspaper often uses images of people crammed tightly together into for example a boat, merely to underline the notion of quantity of people.

Tabloid coverage on immigration
Tabloid coverage on immigration.

The UK media in particular seems to have a broad issue with migration, refugees and asylum seekers as they are often mediated in an unfavourable way, depicting individuals as “dangerous criminals” and demonising them to the extent that they are portrayed as “unwanted invaders or dishonest asylum seekers”. In closer consideration, the demonisation of migrants goes even further by reducing people to their ‘deservingness/un-deservingness’ in terms of their legal status to stay in a country. For example, families from Syria are portrayed as ‘deserving’ as they have fled the country due to the on-going war and terror. However, families that have chosen to leave their country in the belief of finding better social and economic opportunities abroad are mediated as ‘un-deserving’. As briefly mentioned earlier, tabloid newspapers who are traditionally conservative as well as extremely opinionated and harsh reported on such ‘undeservingness’ through headlines such as ‘EU Migrants to get British Pensions’ or ‘Migrants Rob Young Britons Of Jobs’. By playing upon the fact that migrants, refugees and asylum seekers could possibly take away Britain’s jobs and receive British pensions, the media aims to create dislike, misunderstanding and possibly ill-wishing towards such groups of people amongst the British public.

This concerning and growing negative public view of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants heightened during the terror attack in Paris in November 2015. Europe which had lived through an evidently overwhelming crisis that summer in which all its member states seemed to forget their European ‘togetherness’, was split between nationalist outcries blaming refugees for the growing terror threat and human activists, who desperately tried to support refugee camps but were simply left unsupported and abandoned by EU governments aids.
The Paris 2015 attack gave the media’s mis depiction and misrepresentation of those coming to Europe in desperate search for a better life, even more fuel representing “the anxiety that ‘our’ social order is disturbed by racial and cultural others”.

Media misrepresentation of Muslim culture, ‘othering’ and the act of linking refugees to crime and terrorism

After the attack in Paris 2015, EU countries were shaken by a series of terror attacks that horrified nations across Europe:

  • March 2016 — Brussels Bombing
  • July 2016 — Nice Lorry Attack
  • July 2016 — Munich Shooting
  • July 2016 — Normandy Church
  • December 2016 — Berlin Truck
  • February 2017 — Louvre knife attack
  • March 2017 — Westminster attack
  • April 2017 — Stockholm Truck
  • April 2017 — Paris shooting

During these shocking incidents, media discourse surrounding immigration, refugees and asylum seekers radicalised and intensified. A study conducted in 2016, amongst European countries, portrayed that an average of 59% of participants believed that there is a relationship between the rise of refugees within their country and the threat of terrorism where Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands were the countries with the strongest public view of connection between the two. Generally, since the start of the greater movement of refugees in 2015, there has been an increased antipathy for ethnic minorities and apparent scepticism of diversity across Europe, where the media only reflects underlying attitudes and mistrust towards change and diversity for Europe. Essentially, the media frames refugees, migrants and those in need of humanitarian aid as “outsiders threatening the well‐being of an imagined homogenous Europe”.

In December 2015, the sexual attack and mugging that took place in Cologne on New Year’s Eve was mediated in such a way that it was linked to men who were pre-dominantly of Muslim ethnicity, where the media dubbed it specifically important to exercise this fact in repetition. Ultimately, the public was shocked and associated it with a disregard of western values on their behalf. What is even more significant is that through media reporting the public reduced refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers that were pre-dominantly of Muslim origin from Syira and Iraq, to a “sexually lascivious oriental male”. What followed was the representation of the Muslim the rapist, associating to crime and terrorism.

The Sun front cover— The Guardian

The last 5 years has seen an increase in movement of the terror group known as the Islamic State (IS) within the middle east but also in the western world, in attempt to shake society and diminish our way of life by a series of attacks of which some are exampled above. Arguably, Europe and specifically Britain has gone shifted national security measures by which it now targets Muslims in fear that anyone could have terrorist intentions and could be a secret IS-fighter.
Notably, the media depicts British Muslims as “tolerated citizens” statutory to proof of their loyalty to the British way of life. Those with extremist opinions are portrayed as “failed citizens”.

Islamophobia in the British media

The British media tends to be quite critical of Islam and Muslim culture and likes to compare this culture with western principles in which it cleverly spins a distorted picture of an ‘us vs them’, creating distance between the British public and the Muslim religion. Mediatization of Islam and Muslim culture is reduced to notions of ‘orientalism’ in which the media frames the typical Muslim as controlling, overly religious and domineering whereas the Western world is presented as “liberal” and “modern”.

Europe and its rise of nationalism and isolationism

What is even more concerning is that there is an emerging right-wing fraction within a growing number of European countries which come with an increased ethnocentrism sustaining patriotic, isolationist and moreover nationalist interests of countries, which essentially gave room to political stunts such as the Brexit campaign in Britain.

Feasibly, one might conclude Brexit with a conflict amongst the population, due to the increase of fear of the unknown, of terror and the mediated demonisation of the Muslim religion. However, more significantly it evidenced a growing disaccord between countries, within the structures of the EU as a European alliance as the refugee crisis specifically highlighted the inadequacy of common policies.
Where EU member countries such as Germany stated they would welcome any migrant, asylum seeker and refugee from anywhere, whereas countries such as Hungary closed their borders and adopted a strict rule on who was allowed in the country throughout the height of the crisis. Financially struggling countries such as Greece were overwhelmed with the number of people entering the country by sea, resulting in large numbers of unregistered migrants, adding further fuel to the framed fear of the refugee.

A London protest in 2016, in aid of refugee hospitality. Photograph:UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

What the refugee crisis has led to within the EU is not only about disputes between member states but also a common rise in nationalism and popularity for nationalist parties amongst a number of European countries. Nationalist parties within countries of Hungary and Austria for example, took advantage of growing fear and call for national security amongst the population thriving on the fear of the population and calling for “renationalization of foreign policies.”

The Syrian war, the imminent threat of terror, the poor quality of living and the lack of basic neccessity is the dominant reason why so many people decide to give up everything in search of a better life and most importantly, peace. Unfortunately, media coverage dominantly narrates the topicality as a humanitarian crisis rather than portraying it in the light of failed EU politics, which would have to mean taking responsibility for the failed