The faces of faceless people

How reporting ‘refugees’ went wrong

 ‘Refugees’ have become a political football, a moral calling and a constant source of sensationalist news stories. But the identity of these people – university professors, electricians, mothers, sports enthusiasts – is often deliberately avoided. Hearing refugees speak for themselves transforms how we think of people who have fled their homelands. Journalists must set pre-formed narratives aside and tell these real stories, writes Glenda Cooper.


Abdulwahab Tahhan did an English literature degree, is a stand-up comedian in his spare time, has written for the Guardian and last year made an award-winning podcast. Like many British people, he loves to drink tea and complain about the weather – and loathes the idea of camping.

He is also a refugee from Syria. But that fact alone should not define him. 

I first met Abdul in 2019 when he took part in a podcast we were doing at City University of London as part of an event about refugees which aimed to give those who’d sought refuge in this country the chance to speak themselves, rather than being simply reported on.

It seemed a pressing issue to cover.  In the past decade, the debate around refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and migrants has become increasingly charged. Donald Trump credited his tough stance on refugees with helping him to win the US presidency; asylum seekers were also one of the most salient issues during the Brexit referendum, with migrants being portrayed as both economic and security threats.

Lack of voice maintains a difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and leaves them as two-dimensional figures or groups.

Key to this is the role the news media plays, and the identities (or lack of them) that they bestow on refugees. Many academic papers have detailed how refugees are portrayed in the media  – as dangerous criminals, security risks or taking up limited health, education or social care resources if they are here in the UK. If abroad, they are often portrayed as helpless victims of disaster or war. Rarely are they given their own identity – that they might also be also a university lecturer, a doctor or accountant, that they have families and a long history.

Part of the problem is the lack of voice. During a research project with colleagues at City, we looked at how often refugees’ voices are directly heard in UK online and print coverage a couple of years after the 2015 refugee crisis. Similar to previous studies which had looked at the crisis itself, we found that public sector workers and politicians were far more likely to be quoted than refugees themselves. In total, public officials were quoted in 79.7% of articles, while refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and migrants were used as a source in 21.6% of articles.

Why does this matter? Lack of voice means that it is far easier for us to ‘other’ refugees; to see them as causing problems rather than bringing opportunities. It maintains a difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and leaves them as two-dimensional figures or groups, known only by a label and a set of pre-formed, narrow narratives.

But when we get to see people beyond their immigration status, our perception changes. We looked at how refugees in the UK were portrayed as opposed to other parts of the world. When the UK media wrote about those who were currently in the UK, the topics were political: Brexit, social issues and culture. The coverage of those who are closer to home reflected concerns around integration into British culture. There was also a more sympathetic approach to refuges in the UK compared to those in foreign countries. Stories about violence towards refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and migrants were statistically higher than would be expected – when newspapers/websites write about individuals close to home they are more likely to give an empathetic view.

This aligns with the coverage of the 24 Syrian families who settled on the small Scottish island of Bute. Despite some suspicion to begin with, those who settled in Bute have integrated into local schools, and opened a Syrian barber shop, restaurant and patisseries - and there have been multiple stories and documentaries about these success stories.

In contrast, when the UK media wrote about refugees in Europe, the topics of terrorism and violence perpetrated by refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and migrants were statistically higher than would be expected – perhaps reflecting the succession of terror attacks in France in 2016 and 2017 and the controversy over rapes and sexual assaults allegedly perpetrated by asylum seekers in Cologne in New Year 2015/6.  Yet, while terrorist attacks have often been blamed on asylum seekers, only 5% of those responsible for attacks in Europe and North America between 2014 and 2017 were asylum seekers or refugees.

Conversely however, even coverage with the best of intentions can also have a detrimental effect. The documentary Another News Story looked at the refugee crisis of 2015 – but turned its focus on the journalists themselves.  It details the journalists’ desire to ensure the story makes the news headlines. But the kind of decisions they make – particularly whether there are more sympathetic ‘types’ of refugee to focus on, challenges not only the way the media themselves cover these stories, but highlights our own prejudices as viewers and readers too. While many pieces will concentrate on sympathetic shots of women and children, in fact most refugees and survivors of humanitarian disasters are men, as was the case in the 2004 tsunami.  

And some journalists have been loathe to talk about the realities of life as a refugee – by which I mean the importance of phones. There has been criticism over how ‘needy’ a refugee really is if they still have access to a smartphone – but research shows that when refugees arrived in Lesvos, what they wanted was not food or water but the chance to charge their mobiles in order to find their families, get access to jobs and money and use tracking systems to find a safe way.

It is worthwhile to think about how people’s identities evolve and change; that migration status is a person’s single, defining feature.

So how can we improve the way we report refugees? Can we get away from an opaque label that blurs individual identities into a homogenous group? Here, the Ethical Journalism Network’s five-point plan on migration reporting is key. It warns against over-simplification, acting independently from narratives that stem from politics or emotion and ensuring migrant voices are heard. Added to that the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent’s Code of Conduct for covering humanitarian disasters also states that disaster victims should be treated as “dignified human beings not hopeless objects”.

Finally, it is worthwhile to think about how people’s identities evolve and change; that migration status is a person’s single, defining feature. While the media plays an important part, as members of the public we also need to realise this. In Abdulwahab’s podcast Integrate That!, the most gripping parts were not about what happened to him and his guests when fleeing their home countries, but how they managed their lives in a new one – finding jobs, the challenge of making new friends and the darkly humorous experience of being told to ‘enjoy the moment’ by well-meaning people when you have just escaped a country with only the clothes you stood up in.

These are just some of the unique, human experiences and identities hidden behind the single term ‘refugee.’    

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