As the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has captured the attention of the world, Professor Myria Georgiou, Research Director at LSE’s Department of Media and Communication, shows how the responses of the public, politicians and the press follow a similar pattern to those during the refugee crisis in Europe in 2015-16, and argues that a better outcome demands a move away from political rhetoric to more sustainable actions.
Images of thousands of Afghans, desperate but also determined to escape the Taliban grip over their country, have dominated western media screens for days. Western publics have responded to media’s headlines and powerful imagery with a benevolence reminiscent of the early days of the 2015-16 refugee arrivals to Europe, while western states have swiftly promised protection and refuge to those who need them. However, a politics of welcome and the media’s role in it are more complex than might initially seem.
In the UK, one of the countries most directly involved in Afghanistan for the last two decades, the public reaction to the refugees’ plight has been astonishing: hundreds are offering hospitality to newcomers and many more are donating in support of those expected to arrive with very little in their possession. In response to the public’s demands for welcome and refuge, the British government’s response was instant. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, promptly promised to house a town’s worth of refugees, while the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, rushed to Heathrow airport alongside the many news media camera crews to receive some of those airlifted out of Kabul. Such promises of welcome are not new, with Europe’s benevolent reception of more than a million refugees in 2015 remaining fresh in our memory. The present moment, like that of 2015, sharply reminds us of the ongoing relevance of the UN Refugee Convention – the commitment to refuge and protection for the millions who continue to be uprooted as a result of the unstable world order of our times.
It is also at moments like these that we are starkly reminded of the tenuousness of such promises and the West’s fragile sense of responsibility and commitment to refugee protection.
However, it is also at moments like these that we are starkly reminded of the tenuousness of such promises and the west’s fragile sense of responsibility and commitment to refugee protection. The town of refugees that Boris Johnson has promised to house seems to be a very small one, with its prospective inhabitants in need of a winning lottery ticket to secure protection. The British government has committed to receiving only 5,000 Afghan refugees in the next year and no more than 20,000 over five years. With millions estimated to be uprooted, the British government’s decision represents a symbolic gesture, disproportionately ungenerous especially for a country that established its own military and economic interests in Afghanistan for over two decades. This gesture means even less considering that the UK has sent 15,000 Afghans back during the last decade after rejection of their asylum claims.
Trying to square the circle by converging anti-migrant policies and international politics, the British government rehearses in the present crisis its determination to contain refugee rights within its limited resettlement schemes. Patel and Johnson are adamant that the UK should receive Afghani refugees only if they arrive through “lawful” routes and not irregularly. In fact, the government’s new Nationality and Borders Bill plans to criminalize all asylum seekers that enter the country through irregular routes and only recognize as “legitimate” those arriving with the state’s approval as a precondition. Yet, the reality of this approach to asylum is no less that the deep erosion of the right to refuge and the Refugee Convention’s fundamental principles of non-discrimination, non-penalization, and non-refoulement. With thousands in need of protection, unsafe and irregular routes present an inevitable choice for most. As the British Somali poet Warsan Shire powerfully wrote: “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land”. How does this lethal paradox of ungenerous protection and heightened demands of refuge become normalized?
The discursive tropes of dividing those seeking access to western shores between worthy/unworthy or legal/illegal are well rehearsed and established.
The discursive tropes of dividing those seeking access to western shores between worthy/unworthy or legal/illegal are well rehearsed and established. Most visibly, they played out in media narrations of events in 2015. Now, they unfold to frame a new crisis. As we recorded in our study of the European media representation of migration during the 2015 “crisis”, newcomers have been repeatedly discursively divided between victims in need of care, and threats in need of control and containment. With close-up images of helpless Afghan women and children on the one hand and masses of faceless men on the other re-emerging on our screens, familiar tropes of the victim/perpetrator are mobilized yet again. The problem of course is not just representational. As the media draw the representational parameters of those worthy of welcome against those who are not, the selective and limited response of the west to a new refugee crisis appears proportionate. Such a politics of (conditional) welcome also recognises the humanity of those seeking refuge only exceptionally and both normalizes the ungenerous response of the west to refugees’ plight, and does little to speak to western powers’ responsibility of the world’s fragile order.
This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.