Migrants/Refugees: An Ongoing Challenge for Journalists

“Our problem is with asylum, not refugees,” wrote Nayla Tueni, editor-in-chief of Lebanon’s Annahar daily in a front-page editorial this week.

It was symptomatic of the conflicted views reporters and editorialists - often one and the same - disseminate about refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, and the toll a ballooning crisis is taking on the media.

<em>Screen shot of Nayla Tueni</em>’s<em> editorial in &quot;Annahar&quot;</em>
Screen shot of Nayla Tueni’s editorial in "Annahar"

“Whenever someone criticizes the issue of asylum, be it Palestinian or Syrian, and warns of its enormity, he/she is accused of being antagonistic and racist,” Tueni said of ready-made, jump-the-gun charges by detractors.

It’s beyond complicated.

Lebanon’s population is said to be 4.5 million – give or take – and the number of refugees it’s hosted from Palestinians, to Iraqis, to Syrians (in more recent years) is calculated at close to half that, if not more, depending on whose figures one uses.

Statistics vary from international organizations to Lebanese government registration figures, plus many of the displaced go undocumented and fall through the cracks.

<em>Screen shot of INSI report summary of emotional toll on journalists</em>
Screen shot of INSI report summary of emotional toll on journalists

There are moves afoot to relocate Syrians to “safe zones” along the Lebanese-Syrian border, but that faces countless political, economic, sectarian and security hurdles.

To many Lebanese, the refugees are straining Lebanon’s rickety infrastructure, taking citizens’ jobs, contributing to a growing crime rate, and being used by terrorists in their midst to undermine the country’s existence.

Beyond the hyped, fear-mongering and/or sympathetic reporting, an almost neglected side effect is the impact on video journalists, photographers and reporters relaying the story.

The International News Safety Institute (INSI) produced an invaluable report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism on the adverse effects of refugee coverage on journalists.

“The Emotional Toll On Journalists Covering The Refugee Crisis” comes not a moment too soon and describes the stress they feel, a/k/a “moral injury.”

<em>AFP freelancer Will Vassilopoulos on covering refugee crisis (Abu-Fadil)</em>
AFP freelancer Will Vassilopoulos on covering refugee crisis (Abu-Fadil)

According to an executive summary:

Moral injury rather than PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or depression emerged as the biggest psychological challenge confronted by journalists covering the migration crisis. Given that moral injury is strongly associated with journalists becoming actively involved in helping refugees, the industry needs to reach consensus on defining appropriate expectations in situations such as these.

Award-winning Greek-Canadian Agence France-Presse (AFP) freelancer Will Vassilopoulos knows this well.

He told the 24th Annual Conference and 23rd General Assembly of COPEAM, the Permanent Conference of Mediterranean Audiovisual Operators, in Beirut in May that he and other journalists have had to balance coverage of refugees flooding into Greece with helping save, and sometimes carry corpses of, countless asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

He also spoke of how he felt he hadn’t done enough to help the refugees who overwhelmed several Greek islands’ resources.

The INSI report quoted him as saying:

‘The feeling of guilt was very strong,’ he recalled, when breaking the news to the refugees that despite their joy at arriving on Greek shores they still had 60 kilometres to go to the town where they could be registered. ‘For sure, you’re keeping your journalistic integrity, you’re not changing history,’ but, ‘the problem is there is so much grey.’ Vassilopoulos recognises there were times when that grey threatened to become overwhelming.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict and influx of millions of refugees into neighboring countries, Arab journalists’ coverage has been limited to certain angles and manipulated to serve political ends and agendas, said Amman-based Rula Amin, Senior Communications Advisor/Spokesperson at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ Director’s office for the Middle East and North Africa.

“And in that context it (media coverage) missed out on the crucial important aspect of the refugees’ needs, which are their rights, rights for asylum and right to pursue their lives in dignity and with full protection,” she explained.

<em>Rula Amin with refugees in Lebanon (courtesy Amin)</em>
Rula Amin with refugees in Lebanon (courtesy Amin)

I asked Amin, a veteran of CNN and Al Jazeera English, what reporters were getting right, and what they had missed in this story.

“What reporters are getting right is the misery of the refugees’ living conditions,” she said. “Anybody who visits a refugee camp or refugees living in urban areas will be immediately overwhelmed by the difficulties, the challenges and the hardship these people are enduring.”

But what's missing is the larger context, how best to help them, how best to receive them, what the host countries’ obligations are, she added.

Another missing aspect is a healthy questioning of the standard impact of the influx of the refugees on the host communities, Amin noted.

“It's very true that the influx of this huge number of refugees will burden any society, its government, its infrastructure, and it puts an additional financial burden, but it's important to note also the influx of funds and aid from donor countries to the host community to help share the burden,” Amin said.

Lebanon’s Al Joumhouriya newspaper headlined an article “Displaced Syrians Establish Comprehensive Economy at Expense of Lebanese.”

<em>Screen shot of Al Joumhouria report on Syrian refugees&#39; parallel economy</em>
Screen shot of Al Joumhouria report on Syrian refugees' parallel economy

Away from the humanitarian aspect of the Syrian displacement to Lebanon, and far from the overwhelming circumstances the displaced Syrians face, facts show the presence of over 1.5 million (refugees) on Lebanese territory, most of whom have settled and established businesses and commercial enterprises, while the remainder have jobs in Lebanese organizations, replacing Lebanese workers.

Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t, with your reporting.

But the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees also contributes to the growth of consumer markets, through their purchasing power, a contribution to the economy absent from the narrative, Amin argued.

So are refugee-related international organizations and NGOs doing a credible job of providing journalists with information they need or are there problems of communication?

“I think, as a former journalist, it's the job of good reporters to get the story right, regardless of whether the UN agencies are doing their job right,” she insisted.

How, then, can journalists continue covering it without suffering from "refugee fatigue" and guilt about their inability to improve the refugees' situation?

“We can't afford to grow numb to human suffering, we can't shut our eyes to the huge price these people are paying and we can always learn from the resilience of the refugees, their strong will to overcome the hardship, to make ends meet, to give their children an education,” Amin concluded. “Their determination to survive is always inspiring.”