Canada Research Chair unpacks ethnocentric narrative relevant to Syrian refugee crisis

Prof discusses language change from “economic migrant” to “refugee” in light of European culture where newcomers are viewed as existential threats.

York is a progressive, research-intensive university that’s historically strong in sociology, equity, immigration and social justice. Professors here provide much-needed thought leadership on pressing global issues. A perfect example of this is Professor Christopher Kyriakides, Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Socially Engaged Research in Race and Racialization.

This sociologist recently wrote a ground-breaking article in Current Sociology about the Middle East’s leading news source Al Jazeera’s attempt to reframe the idea of refugees in the context of a European culture of mistrust. The article is a contribution to Kyriakides’ CRC five-country program on the reception of Syrian refugees. His scholarship could inform policy in many Western countries, including Canada.

In offering vital insights into the Syrian refugee crisis Kyriakides unpacks a complex, ethnocentric narrative that’s deeply rooted in Western imperialism. “Mainstream European thought on immigration and asylum views non-Western people as victims or pariah to be either saved or suspected,” Kyriakides explains. “The onus is squarely on refugees to justify their claim as non-threatening victim if they are to gain recognition in a culture that deeply mistrusts newcomers,” he adds.

This is Kyriakides’ area of specialization: His research program at York focuses on types of racialization in relation to the meaning of East/West, South/North, and the articulations of racism and nationalism in the reception of refugees in Europe, North America and the Middle East. His timely work examines the extent to which policy instruments and media portrayals (related to the global refugee crisis) negatively impacts racialized communities.

Kyriakides’ article, published in Current Sociology (2017), explains this complex situation and provides a detailed analysis of the media and political representation of the migrant–refugee issue as a social problem.

Kyriakides’ work, directly relating to the Syrian refugee crisis, could guide policy in many Western countries, including Canada

Kyriakides’ work, directly relating to the Syrian refugee crisis, could guide policy in many Western countries, including Canada

Media’s negative portrayal of racialized minorities spurred Al Jazeera’s reframing of refugees

Media representations of immigration and racialized minorities have been historically negative. This portrayal was intensified after 9/11. Today, 16 years after 9/11, the media’s off-putting and demonizing portrayals of “the Arab” and “the Muslim” are still used to illustrate migrants, refugees and minority ethnic citizens.

In response to this, in 2015 Al Jazeera made a high-profile editorial decision to replace the word “migrant,” which has negative connotations, with what it saw as the more factually correct label “refugee” in its coverage of what is often referred to as the “Mediterranean Migrant Crisis.” This was a clear and conscious effort to:

  • Reframe the representation of refugees in the media;
  • Strengthen the representation of refugees as vulnerable human beings without choice;
  • Distance these newcomers from the politically loaded and historically negative term “economic migrant;” and
  • Possibly affect European public policy, when both media and policy reflected a mistrust of refugees and reluctance to welcome these newcomers.

The Al Jazeera decision was well received internationally, but there was dissent both inside and outside of the Middle Eastern world, according to Kyriakides.

Al Jazeera replaced “migrant” with “refugee” in an attempt to reframe the representation of refugees in the media.

Al Jazeera replaced “migrant” with “refugee” in an attempt to reframe the representation of refugees in the media

Kyriakides argues that Al Jazeera failed to situate refugees in culture of mistrust

He believes this editorial move backfired; he argues that Al Jazeera’s intent to strengthen the view of refugees was sabotaged by the failure to adequately consider a European culture that does not trust newcomers.

“Strengthening the view of refugees as victims without choice, not economic migrants fails to break the policy-determined migrant-refugee duality that informs the European culture of mistrust towards migration,” he explains.

Kyriakides emphasizes that refugees face their biggest challenges in a European culture of mistrust. They are often seen as an existential threat to the host society  ̶  so much so that genuine refugees must prove that they are not economic or security risks.

Mistrust deeply rooted in Western imperialism, racialized history where West “saves” East

Kyriakides elaborates and explains that the refugee category is part of an ongoing ideological viewpoint that presents migration to Europe as a problem. In this view, highly skilled migrants of specific regions and cultures are more trusted than other, non-skilled ones from other regions and cultures. “Since 1998 the EU has operated a ‘black/negative’ high risk list of 135 countries and a ‘white/positive’ low risk list of 60 countries, where the populations of the former are subject to tighter visa restrictions,” he explains.

There’s a long and deeply rooted history here, upon which Kyriakides expands. The history of Western imperialism and ethnocentrism has presented a narrative in which Western humanitarianism effectively ‘saves’ Middle Eastern and North African peoples, who are objectified in this narrative and presented as perpetual victims.

The history of Western imperialism presents a narrative in which Western humanitarianism effectively ‘saves’ Middle Eastern and North African peoples

The history of Western imperialism presents a narrative in which Western humanitarianism effectively ‘saves’ Middle Eastern and North African peoples

“This is a racialized history that is reflected in the policy and media reception of non-Western refugees in the European metropolis,” Kyriakides explains.

He concludes that the problem with Al Jazeera’s editorial decision is that it was still embedded in this racialized history. This issue is not abstract; it becomes very real when refugees are tasked with justifying their claim as non-threatening victims in an effort to gain recognition in a culture that deeply mistrusts newcomers.

Kyriakides’ ongoing scholarship in this vital and timely area will help to explain or unpack and frame the narrative around newcomers and possibly shape policy. More directly, his work could help to inform policy around the Syrian refugees.With the rising number of refugees – Canada has welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015 – Kyriakides’ work is ever more relevant.

The article, “Words Don’t Come Easy: Al Jazeera‘s Migrant-Refugee Distinction and the European Culture of (Mis)trust,”was published in Current Sociology (2017), the Journal of International Sociological Association. To read more about Kyriakides’ work, visit his faculty profile.

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By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca