Al Jazeera Journalism Review

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Migrants on board the NGO Proactiva Open Arms Uno rescue boat in the central Mediterranean Sea, close to Lampedusa island, Italy, August 19, 2022 [Juan Medina/Reuters]

Why does Arab media fail so badly at covering refugee issues?

Arabic media discourse on refugees and migrants frequently aligns too closely with the Western narrative, often spreading fear of migrants while emphasising the burdens of asylum


The discussion about asylum and migration resurfaces with every new tragedy that claims the lives of dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of people during perilous journeys to cross borders by land or sea.

The media often struggles to “label” the victims of these countless incidents - are they refugees or migrants? Is this a case of illegal or irregular migration?

In my opinion, the debate needs to be reframed, delving deeper into the subject and placing individual movements within a broader context to understand the contradictions which surface within this issue.

The media should focus on providing better information to help comprehend the dimensions of this issue beyond treating each asylum crisis as an isolated event unrelated to other crises.

The importance of terminology concerning global human movement and migration cannot be understated. Through it, one can observe much that remains undiscussed.

When individuals move from affluent Northern countries to live in other countries, they are referred to as "expats" even if they spend the rest of their lives in the destination country.

This term is associated with comfortable, safe and prosperous living conditions, and they often enjoy privileges exceeding those of the native population, especially in terms of employment opportunities and salaries.

Simply mastering the language of the host country can make these expats famous on social media, celebrated for their ability to speak a new language.

On the other hand, when individuals from impoverished Southern countries move to affluent Northern countries, they become "immigrants".

This type of migration is fraught with risk, and people frequently lose their lives during the journey. Those who survive face a bureaucratic ordeal, being reduced to mere paperwork rather than being treated as individuals with human feelings.

Their experience is reduced to the struggle to obtain official documents and limited to their circumstances, opportunities, or social status, often restricted in ways the native population is not.

Only a few fortunate ones manage to transcend these limitations, but such cases are rare.

These stories then become headline news and inspirational videos on social media under the title "success stories".

For the people living in these countries, such stories are part of their daily routine and hardly represent a guaranteed path to success or achievement.

Despite the strong connection between asylum and migration issues and the Arab region, whether as a major pathway for migrants or as countries with their citizens seeking migration for various reasons, the nature of media discourse on this matter mirrors that of the West.

The media extensively propagates these contradictions without accountability or reflection. It begs the question of what makes the coverage so drastically different between these two groups, and how did we get to this point? Should the media persist in perpetuating these divisions dictated by the current global system?

Even though asylum and migration issues are closely tied to the Arab region, whether as a major pathway for migrants or as countries with their citizens seeking migration due to wars, persecution or economic reasons, the media discourse on this matter aligns with the Western narrative.

Arab media is absent from the discussion, neither exercising oversight over the roles played by agencies from within the Arab world, nor criticising the exclusion of Arab countries from global dialogues on asylum and migration


It either promotes hate speech or spreads fear of migrants based on race, religion or ethnicity, alongside emphasising the burdens of asylum. The danger of this discourse lies not only in endangering refugees and migrants but also in perpetually failing to find real solutions since it never addresses the root of the problem.

Recently, Europe reached a new agreement concerning asylum and migration to European Union countries. These countries, closely associated with causing the reasons for migration due to their colonial pasts, avoid serious discussions about asylum with countries in the South, including Arab nations.

They prefer to impose security solutions and turn Arab states, using their military apparatus, into "migration police", a role Europe does not want to undertake for fear of losing its “humanitarian” image.

Thus, Arab security forces relentlessly pursue migrants on borders and even in the middle of the sea, exposing them to various dangers in exchange for financial rewards from European countries. 

This is part of agreements aimed at sustaining compliant dictatorships on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. These dictatorships prioritise their own self-interest over the humanitarian concerns of their own citizens, let alone those of migrants.

The lives lost at sea become nothing but "surplus humans", as described by the Polish thinker Zygmunt Bauman, whom the modern world disposes of in various ways to ensure comfort for Northern citizens.

Arab media is absent from this discussion, neither exercising serious oversight over the appalling roles played by groups and agencies from within the Arab world, nor criticising the exclusion of Arab countries from global dialogues on asylum and migration.

Instead, the media treats this issue as if it only concerns Europe and focuses on humorous aspects rather than addressing the impact on Arab societies as a whole.

More recently, the Lebanese media immersed itself in the so-called "Chocolamu" crisis, purportedly combating racism and defending refugee rights.

In this incident a journalist, Nidal Al Ahmadieh, appeared on TV talking about how “uncivilised” refugees were as “they don’t even know what Chocolamu (a fashionable chocolate milkshake in some Lebanese restaurants) is”.

Her statement unleashed a social media campaign against her for her racist remarks.

Unfortunately, this sort of media attention does not serve any meaningful purpose and only places the issue of asylum and migration within a cultural and regional context, turning it into a subject of mockery.

Meanwhile, the media disregards the loss of 500 lives at sea as insignificant due to the limited airtime available.

As a result, Arab media fails to engage in meaningful discussions about asylum and migration.

It does not exercise serious oversight over the sinister roles played by various actors within the Arab world or criticise the exclusion of Arab countries from global dialogues on this issue.

Instead, it reproduces a discourse that marginalises and diminishes the importance of human lives lost at sea, treating them as "surplus humans" not worth significant airtime or attention.

Ahmad Abu Hamad is a Journalist at Al Jazeera Media Institute

Translated from the original Arabic by Yousef Awadh


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance


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