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Can migrants make themselves heard in the age of populism?

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Image: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance. Used with permission.

Rates of forced migration are the highest they have been in decades. In 2016, approximately 40 million people became internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 22.5 million became refugees, the highest figures on record. There were 28 million new displacements caused by conflict and disasters in 2018. These are staggering numbers.

As migration and displacement have increased, so has media coverage, not all positive. In 2017, a study from the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement (RCIS) found that the Canadian media engaged in the process of "othering" Syrian refugees who were resettled in Canada between 2015-2017.

"In all of the media sources we analyzed, Canadian citizens, politicians, and other public actors speak on behalf of refugees and exemplify a 'saviour complex' that marginalizes Syrian refugees while offering a narrative of humanitarian and generous Canadians," says the report.

The report, which analyzed 456 stories from major Canadian news organizations over nine months, says that while the media portrayed the "openness and generosity" of Canadians, they depicted refugees "along an inaccurate and misleading continuum between being needy and lacking agency, and as a possible threat."

Around the world, media reports have also led to increased anxiety and hostility among nationalist and populist politicians as well as other domestic and international actors. In some cases, national populist political forces are scapegoating migrants for their countries' problems, and policies promising to curb migration are widely popular in places such as the United States, Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Brazil.

In this changing context, the ability of migrants and refugees to make themselves heard in their host societies and contribute to the public discourse on migration is severely curtailed by linguistic, cultural, economic, and political factors, which in turn further impoverishes public debate. In most cases, migrants have next to no avenues to contribute to the public conversation on migration, despite being at the centre of it.

This presents several challenges for migrants' rights and communication rights advocates. How can we engage traditional media to give a stronger voice to refugees and migrants? How can we help enable refugees and migrants to challenge public perceptions? How can media and communication become vehicles to help migrants exercise their rights?

Now more than ever, migrants' rights and communication rights advocates should work together to advance a rights-based approach to migration. In practice, this means:

  • Promoting migrants' right to access to information,
  • Advocating migrants' right to freedom of expression,
  • Meeting migrants' broader communication needs, such as the need "to be listened to, to be able to tell their stories, and to participate in dialogue that provides them with physical, social and psychosocial support"
  • Partnering with migrant groups to help develop their capacity to engage in advocacy, build relationships with media houses, and produce a body of evidence to help them raise public awareness about the issues they face.

What do you think? How can we work together to protect the communication rights of migrants in an age of growing national populism?

Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His publications include The Democratization of Communication (ed.) (1995), Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (ed.) (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (ed.) (2008); and Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012).

WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people's dignity and community.

Image: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance. Used with permission.

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