Casting Light Amidst Shadows: The Media's Role in Refugee Perception and

This article explores media's impact on public attitudes towards refugees, emphasizing sensationalism and misrepresentation, emphasizing the importance of accurate reporting for empathy and global solidarity.

Casting Light Amidst Shadows: The Media's Role in Refugee Perception and
Photo Source: Building with refugees welcome sign, by Marina Teneva, via Unsplash, 2019 March 3


Marina Sáenz

Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence

Each year, on June 20th, World Refugee Day shines a spotlight on the plight of millions of displaced people around the globe. While this day is dedicated to recognising the resilience and courage of refugees, it also serves as a stark reminder of the societal forces that shape public perception and policy towards these vulnerable populations. Central among these forces is the media, which holds significant sway over public opinion. Alarmingly, this influence is often wielded to foster suspicion and hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers. In the digital era that we live in, the media has become one of the most powerful modern weapons that humanity has created. It has the power to mobilise masses, shape ideologies, and often, it is the only means for the general public to access news-related information. Journalism and sensationalism have unified in a destructive symbiosis, catalysing a much more pernicious tool than anyone could have predicted.

Sensationalism is referred to as “content that is manufactured to elicit emotional responses from audiences.” Furthermore, sensationalism often creates moral panics, conceptualised as “a perception of a crisis when an issue is framed as out of control.” Through sensationalism and the deliberate misuse of language, the media frequently perpetuates negative stereotypes, casting refugees as threats rather than individuals fleeing unimaginable hardships. This choice of diction is not accidental; it is a calculated effort to evoke fear and uncertainty, monopolising society to align against those seeking sanctuary. By focusing on isolated incidents and exaggerating their implications, the media crafts a narrative that obscures the humanity and legitimate needs of refugees. As we commemorate World Refugee Day, it is imperative to scrutinise the role of the media in this context. We must challenge the narratives that dehumanise refugees and instead promote stories that highlight their dignity, resilience, and contributions to society.

A deeper analysis reveals that the media often uses the term "illegal migrant" rather than "refugee" or "asylum seeker," blurring the critical distinctions between these groups. It is crucial to note that a migrant is “a person who willingly moves from one country to another,” whereas a refugee is “a person who is outside of their country of origin for a well-founded fear of persecution,” and an asylum seeker is “a person seeking international protection and refugee status.” Through the use of inappropriate diction, the media has created a nexus between asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, and the connotation of illegality. By conflating these terms, the media has successfully used language as a tool to diminish the credibility of the real humanitarian crisis that is taking place. This strategy trivialises asylum seekers’ protection concerns and constructs them instead as national security threats.

Furthermore, the media often frames refugee crises as national or continental issues rather than urgent humanitarian emergencies requiring international support. For instance, the Syrian refugee crisis was swiftly rebranded by the media as the "European migrant crisis." To this day, there are over half a million scholarly articles on Google Scholar titled "European migrant crisis." This narrative shift, driven by the media, used sensationalism, moral panics, and fear-mongering to advance populist political agendas. Nationalist leaders in Europe politicised the refugee crisis, portraying it as a threat to national and economic security. These articles failed to accurately describe the real situation by referring to asylum seekers and refugees as “migrants.” Politicians exploited the topic of asylum seekers through the media, preying on the widespread fear of terrorism and economic instability, especially as Europe was recovering from the European Debt Crisis in 2015.

International law plays a crucial role in protecting refugees and asylum seekers, establishing a legal framework that almost every country in the world is bound by. The 1951 Refugee Convention, along with its 1967 Protocol, forms the cornerstone of this legal framework. These instruments define who is a refugee, outline the rights of displaced individuals, and delineate the legal obligations of states to protect them. Signatory countries, 149 to the Convention and 146 to the Protocol, are obligated to provide refugees with basic rights comparable to those of their citizens, such as access to courts, primary education, and work. Additionally, the principle of non-refoulement, a key tenet of the Convention, prohibits states from returning refugees to territories where their lives or freedom would be threatened. While international law has significantly advanced the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, the media's role in shaping societal views towards these populations cannot be understated. Unfortunately, media portrayals often impede refugees' ability to live with dignity. Despite the binding nature of international laws, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the implementation and adherence to these protections exhibit considerable variability across different nations. This inconsistency is frequently exacerbated by the media's misrepresentation of refugees, which distorts public perception and, in turn, influences national policies. The media's tendency to sensationalise and inaccurately label refugees and asylum seekers undermines the protections afforded by international law, fostering environments of fear and hostility rather than compassion and support.

As journalists and media professionals, we bear a profound responsibility to accurately portray and inform the public about the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. Our narratives have the power to shape perceptions, influence policies, and ultimately impact the lives of millions who seek safety and dignity. On World Refugee Day, let us recommit ourselves to ethical reporting practices that prioritise truth over sensationalism, empathy over fear, and understanding over prejudice. By elevating the voices and experiences of refugees, we can foster empathy and solidarity within our communities and across borders. Together, we must strive to do better, because every accurate story told is a step toward a more informed, compassionate world.




Sources and further reading: 


Breanna Ebisch (2019). “Why sensationalised news stories are damaging to society.” The Beacon.

United Nations. (20 June 2024). World Refugee Day 20 June. United Nations.