European leaders, aid groups must use smart comms to confront refugee crisis

The refugee crisis taking place in Europe is especially sensitive because of the large number of children affected.

Image via Irish Defence Forces / Wikimedia Commons; used under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license
Image via Irish Defence Forces / Wikimedia Commons; used under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

How European leaders talk about immigration and refugees will be key to the region successfully navigating its migration crisis, say communicators at humanitarian organizations and one PR agency leader who was once part of the UN’s Refugee Agency.

Despite the fact that summits have been held about the issue since April, the response to the unprecedented influx of refugees has been divisive, with some countries indicating all refugees are welcome, and others moving to close off their borders.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron recently reiterated that his country will take no more than 1,000 refugees, despite the fact the UN estimates 4 million Syrians have fled the violence in their homeland to seek refuge in other countries.

On the other end of the spectrum, German chancellor Angela Merkel has said that all Syrian refugees will be able to claim asylum in Germany. Her stance effectively waives the so-called Dublin procedures, which stipulate displaced people claim asylum in the first European Union state that they arrive in.

UNHCR, the UN’s Refugee Agency, has responded by saying all the countries in the European Union need to share the asylum burden. It has also denounced the decision by countries such as Hungary to erect barriers along its borders to prevent the entry of asylum seekers and refugees.

Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick and former chair for UNHCR in the US, acknowledges "this is an extremely difficult issue politically, legally, and even practically."

"How this gets communicated to the public will be a huge part of whether or not Europe successfully handles it," he says. "So far, the crisis has been terribly mishandled. The European community has not had a coherent response to what is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions." 

UNHCR has advocated that the word "refugees" be used instead of the more popular "migrants."

Leslie says the term "migrant" suggests people are leaving voluntarily for economic reasons, when in fact a large number of them have been forced out of their home countries because of war and violence. Under international law, countries have a legal obligation to keep their borders open to refugees and also protect them, he notes.

A few weeks ago, the English division of news agency Al Jazeera said it would stop referring to those seeking asylum as "migrants."

 "Words do matter, especially to how something like this is perceived by the public," Leslie tells PRWeek. "There is an important difference between refugees and migrants, but the words have been used interchangeably in this crisis." 

He says rhetoric about it being a migrant issue "fans the flames of racism and of xenophobia."

"Some leaders have appealed to people’s fears of refugees taking their jobs, rather than demonstrating why it is so important to have a good system for dealing with immigration and hopefully articulating the positives of it," he says. "The fear is understandable given unemployment is very, very high in much of Europe."

"That is why leaders have to do a better job of putting the benefits of immigration into context both in Europe and also around the world, because we’re also seeing xenophobia here in the US  as well," adds Leslie.

Focus on affected children
Sarah Crowe, chief of crisis communications at UNICEF, agrees that "this is effectively both a migrant and refugee crisis" and needs to be communicated that way. Yet she says what also makes this crisis a communications challenge are the large number of children involved, "which is somewhat new to the story of those fleeing."

In response, UNICEF has urged the EU to follow its 10-point plan to protect child migrants and refugees. It advocates, for instance, that children not be put in detention centers, and should not be separated from their family for migration purposes. UNICEF has also joined the International Organization for Migration and UN Refugee Agency on urging a fairer distribution of responsibility across the EU for protecting those in need.

"They should be seen first and foremost as children in need of support, not just migrant children or refugee children," Crowe says.

Now Migrant Report, a Malta-based nongovernmental organization, has published snapshots of child corpses under the headline, "The Pictures That Need to Be Seen."  The lifeless bodies of the children washed ashore after boats transporting them off the Libyan coast capsized. In making the decision to post the pictures, taken by aid workers, Migrant Report says, "It’s a grim reality that we feel needs to be publicized." 

This week, a disturbing image of the lifeless body of a Syrian boy whose body was picked up by a paramilitary officer on the shores of Greece went viral on social media.

Crowe says photographs with children have given face to and helped galvanize people to act in past conflicts. She cites a photo taken in 1976 that became the symbol of South Africa’s fight against apartheid. Some experts contend an image of a girl running naked down the street after a napalm attack in 1972 hastened the end of the Vietnam War a few years later.

But Crowe worries the proliferation and availability of such graphic photographs of the crisis may desensitize the public to what displaced people have endured.

"What is different in the 21st century is social media. Now everyone is using their camera or phone to make a point. We have to tread very carefully because it is so easy now," she says. "Yes, graphic images can be used effectively to shock and trigger action, but they can be horrific and truly too much to bear."

"Children have to be treated in a very respectful and dignified way that sees them first and foremost as human beings and not just bodies," says Crowe. "The photographs can almost become dehumanizing to these children."

Crowe adds alternative ways to depict the plight of Syrian refugee children can be very effective. She points as an example to an animated video from British graffiti artist Banksy, which looks at the civil war in Syria through the eyes of children.

Still, Colleen Ryan, VP of global communications for the International Rescue Committee, says photographs with children in them are important to tell the complete story of displaced families.

"As a humanitarian organization, we see it as part of our responsibility to make crisis real and relatable. This often means showing and telling individual stories about the violence they’re fleeing, their hopes and, above all, their resilience," says Ryan. "We want a photo to bring you in, and from there we want you to click through, or do your own research, to learn more about the crisis." 

But when dealing with children, "particularly in acute crises, our teams must get informed consent, especially with kids," adds Ryan.

"Obviously this is sometimes verbal in emergency situations, but it’s a clear standard for us. These are some of the most vulnerable people on earth – the worst thing that could happen is they feel more exposed or less safe," she says.  

Impact on US presidential campaign
What impact, if any, will the crisis in Europe have on the US presidential campaign? Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is campaigning on immigration reform, calling for a wall to be built along the US-Mexico border. He has also blamed high levels of in crime to the country’s undocumented immigrants.

Demetrios Papademetriou, president emeritus of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, says the crisis could be used to galvanize both supporters and detractors of Trump.

"There are people who worry that Europe will come to us and say, ‘We need your help,’ and that will translate into the US taking in a lot of Syrian refugees. They fear the crisis could spill over to the US," he notes.

Still, he thinks the "more the news shows what is happening in Europe, including Hungary, the more they play the messages from Merkel who has said, ‘We’re not the country that will violate our values – in essence not obey the law – and I personally will defend the rights of refugees.’"

"This is an extraordinary statement and helps the activists become more convinced that this is a humanitarian crisis, not a migrating one," says Papademetriou. 

Connie Mack, EVP at Levick and a former congressman from Florida, doubts the events in Europe will have any effect on the presidential campaign, but notes it could lead to a foreign policy debate.

"It may cause us to look at what the US is doing to help stop the atrocities that are happening in places like Syria, and forcing the migration," says Mack. "My guess is we’ll see the debate on the Republican side focused on President’s Barack Obama’s ‘red lines’ and America’s position in the world."

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