The Dehumanization of MENA Refugees
By Melis Tarakcioglu
After hearing the devastating news on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the whole world stands in solidarity with the Ukrainian people. The actions of Russia are in direct violation with international law and Ukraine's sovereignty and integrity as a democratic nation is non-disputable. However, the racial biases that have emerged in Western media and among politicians show disturbing implications of internalized racism and exclusion of non-white refugees in society. This article will highlight this issue and call out racist and discriminatory media and commentary.
One of the comments made by a news anchor that really stood out was "We are playing the latest pictures of some refugees trying to get on trains or get out of Ukraine and what is compelling is just looking at them, the way they are dressed. They are such prosperous, middle-class people. They are obviously not refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to".
When asked what changed in Poland, since they were hesitant to take in refugees in the 2015 refugee crisis, NBC News information correspondent Kelly Cobiella answers "Just to put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from neighboring Ukraine. These are Christians, they are white, they are very similar to people who live in Poland."
These remarks made in the news imply that it is ‘normal’ for non-white and non-Christian countries to go to war. Many more remarks of this kind were made, including: "And this is not a developing third world nation, this is Europe". On the BBC, a former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine also commented “It's really emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed, children being killed”.
Charlie D’Agata, a CBS correspondent in Kyiv, said "This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European city". For one, the term ‘civilized’ is problematic in itself. In the early development of the term, it was used by anthropologists to differentiate between societies they found culturally superior, which the anthropologists themselves were usually a part of, and from those deemed culturally inferior. They referred to those cultures as ‘barbaric’ and ‘savage’, the term was applied in an ethnocentric way to describe other societies as ‘uncivilized’ and ‘backward’. Colonial states used the term when referring to their colonies, justifying their actions by calling people ‘uncivilized’ since they viewed the colonized people as underdeveloped and in need of their guidance to attain civilization. Therefore, when white refugees are referred to as ‘civilized’, it creates the image that non-white refugees are not as advanced or morally good, which is why they don’t deserve the same help.
This type of comments implies the ‘othering’ of non-white refugees by only justifying the pain of white refugees becuase they are “one of us”. We can see this view in the comment of the French news anchor Philippe Corbe: "We are not talking about Syrians fleeing the bombing… We are talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like our cars and who are just trying to save their lives".
The racist comments seen in the media were accompanied by similar remarks by politicians. A French politician referred to Ukrainian refugees as “high-quality immigration". Moreover, the Bulgarian prime minister stated that Ukrainian refugees are “intelligent, they are educated. This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists”.
Politicians have a platform to speak, which also comes with great responsibility. For them to use their platform to refer to Middle Eastern refugees in a condescending manner promotes anxiety and hatred among citizens rather than acceptance and empathy. These comments made above emphasize that Western media does not consider certain people worthy of safety if they are "uncivilized" or from a developing country. This narrative normalizes tragedies happening all around the world outside of Europe. Moreover, it promotes the dehumanization of non-white refugees, undermining their experiences, as if tragedy is expected.
However, this was not the only time the media have been racist and excluded the narrative of refugees. According to studies of Tariq Amin-Khan, the development of the aforementioned offensive commentary was facilitated by a racially embedded process of securitization in Western societies. This caused the expansion of the military, engendered an intense surveillance matrix, waged war against militant Islam, and racialized targeted communities. This has also led to the West seeing Middle Eastern refugees as ‘possible terrorists’ and a potential threat to their national security, rather than human beings seeking safety. This view overall is dangerous, since it dehumanizes refugees or anyone from the Global South, and justifies these acts of racism as seen on social media and through politicians’ speeches.
The Need for Equal Treatment
Political scientist Ziad Majed commented for AFP news, "When you hear certain comments talking about 'people like us' it suggests that those who come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa are not". The recent policies prove that refugees, who are largely white and Christian, can seek refuge more easily than those escaping violence in the Middle East or North Africa. This double standard is largely deployed in the speeches of politicians, which are then reflected on news and social media. The Polish President Andrzej Duda said "We must be prepared to accept many refugees from Ukraine. People who will seek a safe haven with us fleeing the tragedy of war’’. However, in 2018 he also said that "Migration is dangerous to public security, to our welfare and to European Christian culture". Comments like this one add to the dehumanization of Middle Eastern refugees, making them seen as "security issues" rather than human beings.
The issue of unequal treatment was evident when people were getting on trains to leave Ukraine to go to Poland. There are various reports that Africans were denied boarding trains. African students living in Ukraine spoke to Times Magazine after they were forced to wait outside while white women and children were allowed to board before them. Men from Nepal, India and Somalia described how they were beaten with batons by Ukrainian guards who later allowed them to cross the border by foot. They explain how Ukrainian guards gave food to passengers after 17 hours, but they passed on giving anything to Black people. A Nigerian student, Micheal added “They won’t let Africans in. Blacks without European passports cannot cross the border. They’re pushing us back just because we’re Black! We’re all human, they should not discriminate against us because of the color of our skin.’’
What is the Impact of Dehumanization? Why does it happen?
Dehumanization is a strategy used to eliminate the identity of individuals which consequently lessens the value of a human being, denying their humanity. It causes human beings to be seen as insignificant, analyzing a complex narrative in a simplistic manner. This is a strategy often employed by Western media seen in the media when news about refugees are reported but their perspectives or identities are never included. This is the strategy employed by Western media by reducing the value of these people to numbers.
One of the reasons that dehumanization happens to non-white refugees is due to the inherent bias caused by misinformation and negative exposure about the Middle East, its citizens and their values and traditions. This enables the West to hold some countries to a different standard and exclude them, thinking their citizens are less worthy of help, or that they deserve the bad circumstances which they are in. Another form of dehumanization is caused by agency bias, the pity people hold makes them think that refugees are needy, incapable actors, which makes it easier to exert authority over them.
The dehumanizing commentary of the media causes the general public to see refugees devoid of agency, viewing them as merrily the cause of their circumstances, or othering them to a point where they do not matter. Moreover, individuals are deprived of their diverse identities and narratives, which reduces them to a number. However, refugees are human beings that have made sacrifices through their struggles to save their own and their family’s lives, they have unique identities; they cannot be put in one category. They all have different narratives and names that are not included in the Western media when their stories are being told from a one-sided, selective narrative.
Analysis of Refugees in the European Media
In a report produced by the Council of Europe, European media coverage during the beginning of the refugee crisis is analyzed. It was found that the negative consequences of refugee arrivals were strongly emphasized (66%). The fact that most news stories wrote about negative consequences of refugee arrival when there were few empirical relationships, shows the overall narrative constructed by the European press, which is one of anxiety about unwanted consequences, which calls for securitization rather than human rights.
The negative consequences articulated in the press rarely emphasized a moral rationale and it mostly included geopolitical, economic or cultural consequences. However, when there were positive consequences mentioned, they were framed as moral causes about empathy or solidarity. The emerging narrative strongly links negative consequences to "real" developments while little positive aspects were outlined in a moral frame. It can be observed that the European press move towards discourses of securitization where refugees are framed through the dangers they might bring with them.
As for the findings on the portrayal of refugees, despite the many things said about refugees in the European press, including highlighting their nationality, certain descriptions were not included. Only 16% referred to refugee’s names and 7% included their professions, portraying them as an unskilled and anonymous group that can only burden society. This limited characterization shaped the discourse of the refugee crisis for European audiences and stakeholders, where refugees were seen as ‘the other’. This narrative portrays refugees without individual characteristics and with little to do with European society, which inspiries little empathy since they are dehumanized and presented as a security threat.
Furthermore, it was found that refugees were rarely given a chance to express themselves on these issues. In all European countries, voices of representatives of national governments or other politicians were featured significantly more than the voices of asylum seekers. This shows how refugees cannot get to share their narratives in their own way and their misrepresentation in the media has worsened racism.
Pressing need to address racism
There is a need in many societies to have conversations and take actions against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances. The principle of equality and non- discrimination is proclaimed in the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". This article is included in all international human rights treaties that are accepted in Europe, including discrimination against indigenous peoples, migrants, as well as racial and religious discrimination. The norms of ‘democracy’ or the promotion of human rights are usually viewed as ‘Western’ norms, while norms of sovereignty and security are not seen as liberal norms. However, the predominant norms in Western media and policies/speeches of politicians, when they are about non-white refugees, are embedded in securitization, rather than human rights and empathy. This comes from a biased place where racism plays an active role. This selective empathy hurts every refugee.
There have been recommendations by international organizations throughout the years. The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (2014) calls media organizations and journalists to develop a more sustained understanding of migration before reporting on it, expand their knowledge and make an effort to include voices of migrants. Furthermore, the Council of Europe has monitoring initiatives on freedom of expression and protection of minorities, the Parliamentary Assembly has adopted recommendations about “the image of asylum seekers, migrants and refugees in the media” and “migrants, ethnic minorities and media”. Media Against Racism in Sport has developed training and practical tools for journalists in an attempt to support the promotion of non-discriminative approaches.
However, it is clear that there are many more steps that need to be taken in order to solve this issue. There should be initiatives and campaigns for more inclusiveness in the media. The voices of refugees and migrants should be included in news coverages that are about them. European institutions should sponsor and engage with training that enhances professional understanding behind refugee mobility and their journeys while promoting ethical reporting that counters hate speech. The media should be urged to go beyond geopolitical risks and move towards inclusivity, positive language and common aims. There should be monitoring on recognition of refugees as mass victims or perpetrators of terrorism in media coverage. Finally, media organizations and associations should further their knowledge in the patterns of unfair and stereotypical reporting of refugees and treat refugees as participants, rather than objects.
The media and politicians should talk about these tragedies, however, they should add the narrative of the people suffering and see the people as humans, not a ‘crisis’ or statistics. The media should not make comparisons of different conflicts and justify or devalue one conflict over another. This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East and North Africa.
The scope of the issue is bigger than the commentary or representations in media coverage. Internalized racism existing in society has many causes, and the first step to solve the issue is to address the issue, calling out bigotry and hate speech.
Disclaimer: the writers' opinions are their own and not associated with MENA Student Association.