Representing refugees: Why the images we use matter

The recent event on Syrian refugees, organised by the Young Professionals Committee of the United Nations Association Westminster, aimed to reignite the debate around the Responsibility to Protect, as well as to ask to what extent applying this political commitment to the Syrian crisis could have helped prevent the escalation of the conflict and, consequently, the death of thousands of Syrian citizens.

That is, the event aimed to move the conversation away from its current focus on the implications of the refugee crisis to the European Union and to the United Kingdom, and toward the causes of the conflict that has originated such fluxes (according to the UNHCR, Europe received almost one million asylum applications from Syrian citizens between April 2011 and February 2016 while Amnesty International states that more than 4.5 million Syrians are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt).

This effort must by accompanied by a similar change to the ways in which the crisis is represented, i.e. both in terms of the vocabulary and of the images that are used to depict it.

Regarding the former, one can notice a positive trend: politicians, journalists and political analysts are increasingly aware of the language that they use to describe and analyse the refugee crisis. This is evident in pieces from very different British and international news channels (see The Guardian, The Telegraph, CNN and the International Business Times, for example), which foreground the differences between the terms “migrant” and “refugee”. UNHCR is clear in this regard: refugees “are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution” while “migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return.”

Using the term migrant to refer to a refugee is not only incorrect; it also puts the onus of the decision to move to a different country on the refugee. That is, when we use the term “migrant” to refer to a refugee, the decision to leave one country for another appears not as a survival strategy responding to external conditions (a war that has no end in sight) but as an individual decision. This has a profound impact on the ways in which refugees are seen and hosted by their new local communities, and subsequently in the positions taken by political leaders in the management of the crisis.

However, as welcome and as crucial as these discussions are, they are also limited to the analysis of the vocabulary that is used in the representation of Syrian refugees. That is, they fail to consider to what extent the images that we use might also be contributing to a profoundly limited understanding of the Syrian crisis as an ahistorical, depoliticised humanitarian emergency.

The role of images in our encounter with and understanding of international events is growing. This is evident not only in printed newspapers or in their digital versions (which give increasing importance to strong imagery) but also in the fact that political leaders, parties, think tanks and other organisations increasingly use image-based media such as Instagram, Snapchat and Periscope. In this context, the use of images to depict complex international events must be more thought-through and strategic.

I would like to propose three main principles guiding the selection of images to illustrate pieces about the Syrian and the refugee crises.

  • Away from the individual refugees; towards the Syrian conflict. When selecting photographs to illustrate their stories, journalists and writers should make an effort to change the focus away from the individuals leaving Syria and in the direction of that from which they are trying to escape: the Syrian civil war. Specifically, pieces on the refugee crisis should aim to include images depicting the Syrian civil war or the destruction of Syrian cities.
  • Neither migrants nor mere victims. Those whose lives are impacted by conflict or violence are often portrayed as victims: begging, crying and demanding pity from the viewer. Although the previous point stressed the need to represent refugees as having limited individual choices in a context of war, denying them any agency or subjectivity would be equally disrespectful. Whenever possible, pieces about the crisis should include also images representing Syrians as they are active or in moments of joy.
  • The power of personal stories. Personal stories are a particularly effective way of balancing the need to provide context (and to deindividualise the narrative about the refugee crisis – the first point) with that of telling the story of refugees in a manner that is respectful (the second point). Sharing the names, background, hopes and traveling accounts of Syrian refugees – all unique yet interconnected – not only develops a sense of empathy in the viewer or the reader. Doing so also strikes a complex balance: it directs the viewer’s attention to the broader picture (a war that must be urgently stopped) while reminding her of the urgency of assisting the millions of lives that have been impacted by this conflict.


By Mafalda Dâmaso