The media's role in resolving conflict between refugees and host communities in Agadez
In December 2019, refugees in Agadez, Niger protested about precarious living conditions such as lack of water, medical care and food and, most importantly, their legal status. The slow and lengthy processing of asylum for about 1,600 refugees (mostly from Sudan) began in 2017. The refugee camps occupy over five hectares of land outside Agadez, and are managed by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In 2020, the protest escalated to violence and a refugee camp caught fire, destroying almost 300 homes. Two differing narratives emerged in the media about the source of the violence.
Some media reported that refugees set their own camp on fire in protest against their living conditions while others covered the narrative that local authorities escalated the peaceful protest into a violent one, and arrested more than 300 refugees suspected to have caused the blaze. As I read the media coverage available online, it became evident that the media acted as a “mediator” in the host society-refugees conflict in Agadez. Through the media's framings and narratives, refugees were either portrayed as victims or villains, which may have influenced the host communities’ perceptions of the refugees. As Diedring and Dorber argue in the case of refugees in Europe, the use of humane, appropriate and accurate language is highly relevant when reporting on people on the move and the issues they face. In this regard, producing a balanced debate whereby questions on human suffering – of refugees specifically – can be addressed calmly and respectfully will go a long way in building peace between refugees and host societies. This observation underscores the purpose of this article, which is to draw attention to the important role the media plays in host communities-refugees conflict and its resolution through their narratives and framings of refugees' experiences.
The mediator role
A key dilemma in mediating a conflict is being neutral. As Rifkin et al. and Feer discuss, we can understand neutrality in terms of impartiality and equidistance. Impartiality involves the mediator’s abilities to facilitate an unbiased relationship between two parties while equidistance refers to his/her abilities to show empathy towards the parties. The paradox in thinking about mediation and neutrality, and the middle role the media plays, is the extent to which it can be objective and unbiased, and the degree to which it can show/express empathy when conflicts arise.
When the sit-ins started in 2019, media sources began reporting that Sudanese refugees were facing racism and discrimination which were stalling their application procedures.Other reports emphasised that the protest was due to the dire camp conditions while refugees waited for the UNHCR to process their cases. We can understand that the main goal of a non-violent protest is to draw popular attention and stimulate policy actions. However, it is worth noting that refugees have limited agency to define their protest. In this situation, the media can play a role in defining and describing the revolt. For instance, some news sources used images of refugees holding banners with inscriptions like “We are victims of war”; “Three years without knowing who we are”; and “Enough with patience, we lost confidence” in a peaceful sit-in. The use of images to show the faces behind "the refugees" helps to evoke a sense of empathy for them.
As Adler-Nissen, Andersen and Hansen observe, images invoke emotions from the public, and consequently produce a political action. However, they argue that while images can evoke pity, shame, outrage, and empathy for refugees, such as in the case of the image of the 3-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, they do not always lead to policy in favour of refugees. Indeed, they can justify more restrictive refugee policies. It is also worth noting that the same images can be used to portray refugees as a threat. For instance, some news sites described the protest in Agadez as being violent and noted that most of the refugees there were potential members of armed groups. Given the influence the media can have on refugee policy, can we say that by playing an intermediate role in the host society-refugees conflict in Agadez, they have shaped host communities’ perceptions of refugees?
Dual framings of refugees
The media's framing of a protest can influence public perceptions of refugees and subsequent policy responses. Reporting on refugees while omitting their agency often leads to framings that either portray them as a threat or as passive victims. This creates a narrative of ‘victims’ and ‘villains’ that already defines a state of who is right or wrong in a conflict context instead of creating a space for fruitful debates to build peace. When the refugee camps in Agadez caught fire, it was not clear who the perpetrators were from media reports. While there was a report that refugees set their own camps on fire, another noted that refugees denied this. Although the media’s role in shaping host communities' perceptions of refugees is still researchable, a recent study shows that perceptions of refugees in Agadez were negative compared to Gao (Mali): 82% of community members in Gao were in favour of refugees compared to 44% of community members in Agadez who had negative perceptions of refugees. The question here is: has the media's reporting of the protest in Agadez contributed to these perceptions? While framings of refugees as villains worsen their already vulnerable position, framings of them as victims take away their agency. As Crawley, McMahon and Jones maintain, it can also strengthen dominant narratives that are not helpful in the long term if we are thinking of creating a peaceful relationship between refugees and host communities. Indeed, advancing a peaceful coexistence implies moving beyond a dual framing of refugees as a ‘threat’ or as ‘victims’ to promoting a shared responsibility for building peace.
Promoting peace: A shared responsibility
Today, there are more than a thousand refugees seeking protection in Agadez. The UNHCR estimated that in March 2021 there were 1,256 refugees seeking international protection in the city, 15% of whom were women while 14% were children under 18. The UNHCR is working with the government of Niger to strengthen the Nigerien asylum system and implement activities to support and assist refugees in the region. Since Agadez will continue to be a hub for mixed migration and for refugee’s settlement and resettlement for years to come, adapting to this dynamic requires a shift from focusing only on the policy aspects of addressing refugee-host communities’ conflict to thinking of ways to build relationships at the bottom levels.
Building sustainable host society-refugees peace in Agadez lies in rethinking dominant framings in the media and bringing all stakeholders to the table. Predominant constructs of host communities-refugees’ relationships in Agadez are either geared towards the victimization of refugees or towards portraying them as a threat. Both perspectives do not foster longer term peaceful relationships. Attaining sustainable peace will require not only the participation of the host society authorities and international organizations, but also of civil society actors, refugees, and the media. Enabling a dialogue among the parties also reestablishes refugees ‘agency. By maintaining such an ‘ecosystem’ of actors, multiple perspectives can be brought to light and can enrich debates around issues arising from this coexistence. This relationship can prevent future conflicts.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.
(Main image: Getty Images)