Refugees in the media: Villains and victims

By June 21, 2017Migration

The current global political climate regarding refugees, while always dynamic and complex, has become particularly charged in the last two years as the Syrian civil war and other events in the Middle East and Africa have contributed to the ongoing European refugee and migrant crisis. Nations both within Europe and worldwide will continue to feel the effects for many years to come, likely worsened by both the environmental and political ramifications of climate change, and a rise in isolationist and xenophobic ideologies across the world. The media can and will play a significant role in how successfully these global migrations will play out, given their influence upon shaping public opinion. Consistent representations presented by newspapers and television come to be taken for granted and seen as ‘common sense’.

Previous research into media discourses surrounding refugees and asylum seekers has shown that these groups are regularly dehumanised through homogenising discourses, and portrayed as a threat to the host societies (e.g. Baker & McEnery, 2005; Gabrielatos & Baker, 2008; Khosravinik, 2009; Sulaiman-Hill, Thompson, Afsar, & Hodliffe, 2011). Refugee arrivals also are referred to in metaphors comparing refugees to movement of water (flooding, pouring, or streaming over borders; camps or centres overflowing) or pestilence (swarms of refugees), which contribute to an image of these groups not as individuals seeking asylum but as some kind of uncontrolled and unpredictable force of nature.

In New Zealand the general view is that our media report issues surrounding refugees and asylum seekers in a fairly benevolent manner compared with other countries, which may have something to do with New Zealand’s geographical distance from most refugee migration. However, this isn’t to say that underlying ideologies in local media discourses don’t recreate and reinforce taken-for-granted narratives that deny power and self-determination to refugees and asylum seekers.

I explored these discourses in New Zealand’s three most widely-read newspapers, The New Zealand Herald, The Dominion Post, and The Press (Greenbank, 2014). Articles were collected from the months leading up to general elections in 2005, 2008 and 2011. I chose these periods to best capture the recognised patterns of increased attention towards refugees, as this group, and immigration generally, are particularly politicised in the months surrounding national elections.

The themes and attitudes associated with a particular word can be revealed by observing the types of lexical items that it commonly appears with or near it – that word’s ‘aura of meaning’, also known as semantic prosody. Put simply, common collocates of a word can become part of its meaning.

I found that the concepts of refugee and asylum seeker are frequently linked to words associated with politics (e.g. political, policies, nations), foreign countries (e.g. Iraq, Nauru, Palestine, Assyrian) and violence (e.g. terrorism, terrorist, conflict) in these articles, particularly when compared to a general corpus of New Zealand newspaper articles. These kinds of associations together can result in an overall negative semantic prosody of refugees as problematic, non-local victims of violence.

Refugees were also afforded much less voice that non-refugee voices in these articles, in terms of number of words attributed through direct quote or paraphrase. Furthermore, the content of quotes and paraphrases often allowed refugees to express gratitude or helplessness, while the technicalities and practicalities of the situation were left to non-refugee ‘experts’ to describe. For example, in a 2014 article from The New Zealand Herald, an eleven-year-old spokesperson for the family is ascribed the following quote:

“Mum wants to say thank you to all those people and may God bless them”

Following from this, a Public Health Nurse is given the role of explaining what goods were donated to the family, and how they will be helpful:

“They have never had a drier before. They didn’t have a toaster. The curtains are very thin, so warm thermal curtains will be awesome. The trailer of firewood — that’s how they heat the house.”

Refugee ‘issues’ are presented here as matters for ‘experts’ to deal with, while refugee voices were largely confined to affective roles, expressing emotion, gratitude and despair. This kind of limited or selective reporting of voice can be a strategy of ‘othering’ certain groups. Othering of refugees can and does occur in other ways in the articles. This may be done through associations of refugee status with crime, as can be seen in the following two excerpts:

A 22-year-old Syrian man, Mohammad Shanar Ryad, a former commando and recent refugee, has been arrested over the murder.

Dahir Noor Shire, 37, who came to New Zealand as a Somali refugee in 1999, gave evidence in his own defence before a jury in Wellington District Court yesterday.

These two men, both accused of crimes, have both their ethnicity and former refugee status explicitly mentioned. Ethnic and refugee-related qualifiers, when repeatedly used in the context of articles about crime, expose an ideology which correlates criminal activity with refugees, and goes some way to actually attributing the crime to refugeehood.

Emphasising positive differences can also result in othering of a given group from a presumed ingroup, as this may fetishise the apparent differences, bestowing exotic or otherworldly attributes to that group. This can be seen in the excerpt below describing a funeral:

Women in headscarves wailed yesterday morning as Eman Jani Hurmiz was carried into the Ancient Church of the East in Strathmore.

This kind of phrasing throughout the article creates the feeling of an exotic spectacle of otherness, using distance to bestow mystery and reverence. Despite perhaps being benevolently enacted, this positive othering still imagines an outgroup whose observed differences from society exclude those groups from that society by implication, affecting their ability to fully participate as members of their community.

In sum, the media discourses that combine semantic prosody, othering, and disparity in voice attribution together make a compelling argument for denial of power to refugees in these representations. The taken-for-granted and out-of-sight discursive processes depict refugees as othered victims, associated with crime and danger, as well as exoticism and helplessness.

Of course, the intentions of the writers of these articles may be honourable. By definition, refugees have experienced adversity, and representing groups as traumatised victims can draw much needed attention to their plight. At the same time, even if benevolently enacted, employing these prevalent discourses of helplessness and othering can have negative real-world consequences for the ways in which the mainstream views refugees, suggesting they are incapable of helping themselves, and impeding full participation in society.

It’s important to recognise ordinary refugee perspectives that are not associated with trauma or suffering, and to consider refugee views and contributions in discourses that concern them. Given the way that all language use generally, and media discourse specifically, reproduce and transform society, re-framing of refugees and asylum seekers in this manner could contribute to addressing the inequalities currently maintained by the mainstream media. Instead of being framed using linguistic strategies that suggest victimhood, refugees and asylum seekers could perhaps better be framed as capable, resilient people who have overcome adversity, who have resisted and freed themselves from oppressive or dangerous situations.

Related content


Baker, P., & McEnery, T. (2005). A corpus-based approach to discourses of refugees and asylum seekers in UN and newspaper texts. Journal of Language and Politics, 4(2), 197–226.

Gabrielatos, C., & Baker, P. (2008). Fleeing, Sneaking, Flooding – A Corpus Analysis of Discursive Constructions of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK Press 1996-2005. Journal of English Linguistics, 36(1), 5–38.

Greenbank, E. (2014). Othering and Voice: How media framing denies refugees integration opportunities. Communication Journal of New Zealand, 14(1), 35–58.

Khosravinik, M. (2009). The representation of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in British newspapers during the Balkan conflict (1999) and the British general election (2005). Discourse & Society, 20(4), 477–498.

Sulaiman-Hill, C. M. R., Thompson, S. C., Afsar, R., & Hodliffe, T. L. (2011). Changing Images of Refugees: A Comparative Analysis of Australian and New Zealand Print Media 1998-2008. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 9(4), 345–366.

Author Emily Greenbank

Emily Greenbank is a PhD student in Linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her research explores refugee-background graduates’ negotiation of employability in discourse. She is interested in the practical application of research towards successful resettlement outcomes. Emily’s research interests include sociolinguistics, language and power, identity negotiation, refugees, employability, and media discourse.

More posts by Emily Greenbank