Refugees and Asylum-Seekers Are Disproportionately Impacted by COVID-19. Can the Media Stop Politicizing Them?

Can the media stop politicizing migrants and refugees?

By: Tola Onanuga

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, asylum seekers were already one of the most vulnerable groups in society. The devastating impact of the virus has made everyday life that much more difficult. From refugee camps in Greece to the US-Mexico border, refugees and asylum seekers are living in overcrowded camps and accommodation where social distancing is impossible. Many charities they rely on have been forced to close, making it harder to get a hot meal or have access to basic supplies.  

“People seeking asylum are at risk of real hardship at this time, on both a practical and an emotional level,” said Lisa Doyle, the Director of Advocacy at the Refugee Council, a non-profit organisation in the United Kingdom.

On a practical level, many asylum-seekers in the United Kingdom are living in cramped accommodations, putting them at risk of contracting the pandemic. On an emotional level, the pandemic has made life that much harder for those struggling to make ends meet, surviving on meagre government benefits and often living in limbo due to delays in processing their cases.

“We’re also calling on the Home Office to increase the £37 weekly asylum support payment by £20, in line with the additional support offered to recipients of universal credit,” Doyle continued. While the Refugee Council has launched an emergency fund for those in need, it is not a long-term solution.

“The pandemic has made it even more difficult to survive on such a meagre weekly budget.”

The media has a responsibility to bring these issues to public attention. However, coverage from outlets around the world has varied widely, ranging from empathetic to discriminatory. In the UK, many tabloids, such as the Daily Mail, continue to focus on the supposed threat asylum seekers pose to the general public—a practice that further pushes asylum seekers to the margins, and ignores the fact that they’re more likely to suffer during such a pandemic. This kind of bad journalism has consequences: it whips the public into a frenzy that makes it even more difficult for refugees and asylum seekers to access healthcare, housing and employment.

“There has been significant racism related to Covid-19 – and this is a real risk for refugees and asylum seekers too – and journalists must ensure that they do not incite hate or cause harm and that the language and terminology they use does not reinforce stereotypes or stigma,” said Ethical Journalism Network Director and CEO Hannah Storm, acknowledging that while the pandemic has impacted the whole world, refugees and asylum-seekers face a particular set of challenges.

“Where politicians engage in this kind of behaviour we should also call them out and hold them accountable,” she continued. The EJN has also set out seven key points for journalists to consider while covering the pandemic.

Long before COVID-19, European governments were treating asylum-seekers as political pawns, employing xenophobic language to gain votes and power, while ducking from the responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of anyone within their countries’ borders. Rather than hold politicians accountable to their statements, many media outlets simply reprinted what they said, adding fuel to the fire for clicks, shares and views. Meanwhile, these unchallenged narratives lead to policies that make it even harder for asylum seekers to face healthcare or avoid destitution—two hardships that have only been compounded by the pandemic.

Some media outlets are known for their empathetic coverage of refugees and migrants, with a recent study from the European Journalism Observatory showing that in the European media landscape, most of these are concentrated in Western European nations. But while these articles and segments often quote people who are more sympathetic to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, they rarely hear from refugees and asylum seekers themselves. These articles do a better job at shedding light on the conditions that refugees and asylum-seekers are facing, such as this Parliament Magazine article about the conditions in refugee camps on the Greek islands. However, this coverage still doesn’t provide practical assistance or information to those in need.

Many publications are increasingly using explainer pieces or FAQ-style articles aimed at specific groups, such as elderly people or key workers. This could be extended to asylum seekers to help them more easily discover what support and resources are available to them during the pandemic.  To start with, the UNHCR has put together a FAQ resource page for asylum seekers and refugees, which publications could easily refer to in relevant articles.

Meanwhile in the United States, what you learn about migrants and refugees depends on the political leanings of the paper you read. The Center for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) has accused the government of using the pandemic to force out migrants, but it is only left-leaning publications, like the Nation, that are reporting on what this looks like for refugees and asylum seekers. Right-wing publications have ignored the asylum seeker crisis entirely.

In Australia, media is notoriously politicized when it comes to migrant issues, but some publications, such as the Conversation are producing well-researched coverage of the thousands of asylum seekers detained in the country, referring to them as the “forgotten people.” Social media is filing in to reach out to refugees and asylum seekers themselves, primarily through WhatsApp groups co-ordinated by NGOS have helped spread the word to the most vulnerable about where to turn if their usual support source is unavailable.

Around the world, asylum seekers deserve to have their stories told. Fair and accurate coverage could mean the difference between life and death. While COVID-19 hasn’t made anyone’s job any easier, it is important that journalists hear from migrants and refugees in any way that they can, to shed light on how they are inevitably disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic—and provide reliable, fact-checked information to them the way they would other communities.

“As journalists, we also need to recognise that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought restrictions to the way we report, meaning that we are often having to work remotely,” Storm continued.

“It’s really important that we find ways to ensure we are hearing the stories of people from communities that we might not necessarily be part of as journalists.”

For more information on our New Neighbours project looking at media representations of migrants and refugees, click here.