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(2022-2023) A Crisis of Categorisation: The Evolving Portrayals and Perceptions of Displaced People Over the Course of the 2015 European Refugee Crisis

by | Nov 28, 2022 |

By Patrick Hagopian, Sian Keag, Chloe McDowell, Elena Morris-Gray

For our exhibit, we tried to think about those issues which most affect the ‘developed world’ today, deciding to focus our attention on the many refugee crises that are currently occurring, primarily as a result of worsening environmental conditions, increased disparity and inequality amongst people, and a rising number of violent national and international conflicts. In order to illustrate this through a visual medium, we have constructed a timeline demonstrating the evolution of the representation of displaced people over the course of the 2015 European Refugee Crisis. We illustrate how the media’s use of language and imagery can completely alter the reaction of the general public and the government, in favour of, or against displaced people. We look in particular at the case of the three-year-old Syrian boy, Alyan Kurdi, whose death was a central instigator in shifting the discourse around displaced people, revealing the power that a visual image can have on instilling a sympathetic reaction from both the public and politicians alike.

Throughout 2015, the labelling of a ‘displaced person’ shifted from that of ‘migrant’, to ‘refugee’, both in media headlines and in public policy debate. For instance, in August of 2015, The Guardian was still referring to the mass displacement as ‘Europe’s Migrant Crisis’ (2015), whereas by December (following the death of Alyan Kurdi in September), an article written by The Independent branded the milestone of 1 million people crossing over Europe’s borders a ‘Refugee Crisis’ (2015).This carried great significance, as the word ‘migrant’ has often been associated with an ‘undeserving’ person who has left their country by choice in searching of better socio-economic opportunities; whereas ‘refugee’ carries connotations of a ‘deserving’ person, who, according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, can be defined as: “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” (UNHCR, 1951). Through our exhibit, we therefore demonstrate the implications that come with categorising people in a particular way, highlighting the power and influence that the media has over both public opinion and policy debate, particularly in times of crises. 

Over the course of 2015, Europe began to experience on a mass scale, the effects of a number of turbulent conflicts occuring in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, whereby 1.3 million displaced peoples crossed over the borders of the continent in search of refuge and asylum, the most in a single year since World War II. The primary route for this migration was across the Mediterranean sea, between the borders of Libya and Italy, where thousands of crossers were lost and killed in what was initially coined a ‘mediterranean migrant crisis’ (Channel 4 News, 2015).

The use of the term ‘migrant’ in mainstream media to describe the influx of displaced people crossing into Europe was widespread during the early months of the 2015 crisis. Arguably undermining the experience of those uprooted from their homes, this term instead portrayed their decision to leave as one motivated only by the desire for improved socio-economic opportunity and stability (as if this in itself is a bad thing), as opposed to illustrating the horrific situations of forced displacement, that were often made necessary by threats of violent persecution and human rights violations faced as a consequence of the conflicts, which are often viewed in popular discourse as more ‘legitimate’ reasons for migrating. 

However, the death of Alyan Kurdi on September 2nd, 2015 fuelled huge international debate, both in the media and within the UN refugee agency itself, with the secretary-general of the UN António Guterres making the decision to issue a new set of key guidelines for dealing with the unprecedented number of displaced people arriving on European shores, that sought to bring together the currently fragmented nature of the response (Spindler, W 2015).

The first of these guidelines stated that “[T]his is a primarily refugee crisis, not only a migration phenomenon” (Clayton, J 2015). By arguing that the crisis is ‘not only a migration phenomenon’ this demonstrates how even the UN themselves were not exempt from these stereotypic distinctions that were being harmfully perpetuated and circulated throughout mainstream media headlines. This not only reflected a shift in international governmental approaches to the crisis, but also demonstrated the symbiotic relationship between mainstream media and public policy debate, as it was at this point that UK newspaper headlines previously labelling those crossing into Europe as ‘migrants’, instead began to adopt the term ‘refugees’  (Goodman S; Sirriyeh A; McMahon S 2017), in what can only be described as an ‘evolution’ in the way in which those entering Europe were categorised and, subsequently, treated according to such categorisations.

Anthropologically, we hope to show how the amount of compassion that is shown to displaced peoples both informs and is informed by the language used by the media, as they are able to alter the compassion that is shown, and thus influence this alteration for others. This alludes to the problem of compassion in humanitarianism, where there is a constant changing of the terminology used, in this case and even before, with the term illegal immigrant only coming into use in the past few decades (Andersson 2014). While this change in terminology might seem like an inherently good thing, we can also see its instability and problematization.

We can see that what at first may seem like compassion is actually pity, according to Hannah Arendt, which creates an inherent inequality in the process. This is acknowledged in the findings of Masquelier (2006). In her ethnography studying the victims of hurricane Katrina, she noticed that the word ‘refugee’ was a contentious term for these people; on one hand it was ‘stripping people of their dignity’ (Masquelier 2006: 735), while on the other it was emphasising the necessity of action in this situation. This holds true in the case of displaced peoples, where one must also examine the effects and reasonings of the term changes, and what category we choose to place people in. This exhibit also draws out the theme of the ‘spectacle of pain’, as theorised by Halttunen (1995), as the circulation of such graphic images of the death of Alyan Kurdi then prompted people to pity the plight of other European refugees, something that the media must be constantly and closely scrutinised for. 

In summary, we hope to demonstrate visually the way in which refugees are portrayed in the media, and how this portrayal both shapes, and is shaped by public opinion and government policy. By centering our focus on the death of a young Syrian refugee that occurred in the midst of the crisis, and the shift in categorisation that this caused, we are able to support our claim that the media often intentionally circulates these ‘spectacles of pain’ in order to incite pity, and subsequently, ‘compassion’, amongst people to whom the use of terms such as ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ greatly shaped their perceptions of the crisis.