NEW YORK, by Joseph Zeballos-Roig and Simone Somekh—In the summer of 2015, New York Times reporter Anemona Hartocollis began a three-week journey across Europe following a Syrian refugee family from their arrival on the island of Kos, Greece to Sweden. With Times photographer Daniel Etter, she waited on the beach of Kos and saw a boat with about 20 young men on board. As they approached the shore, some shouted, “Allahu akhbar!”
Though initially cautious, Hartocollis quickly let down her guard and grew close to the refugees. Since then, she has stayed in touch with many of them through WhatsApp.
Hartocollis recalled her experience covering the refugee crisis at a conference organized by New York University’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies on November 2nd. The conference — “The Crisis of Mediterranean Migration” — took place at the Remarque Institute on Fifth Avenue. During the opening panel, the Center’s director Larry Wolff moderated talks by Anemona Hartocollis, UNHCR’s senior policy officer Mehreen Afzal and Danish video artist Nicolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.
The discussion centered around issues of media coverage and policymaking. While the speakers brought different points of view—from the perspectives of journalism, policy making, art and academia—they agreed that it’s very hard to envision solutions of the future, especially considering how hard it is to frame and understand the events of the last two years.
In 2015, over a million refugees made their way to Europe to escape conflict, persecution and poverty—much of the influx being driven by the war in Syria. Thousands have also drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while making the perilous journey. Afzal, from UNHCR, said the refugee crisis ballooned into a broader discussion about human rights.
“In a sense, it’s actually allowed the debate to grow into a much wider one which touches on principles of our collective consciousness and also what is our responsibility towards people,” Afzal said.
Many countries in Europe struggled to cope with the influx, particularly Greece and Italy, where most refugees first arrived on their way to Germany and other richer European nations. It drew varying responses from European governments. While Germany threw its doors open to refugees, Hungary erected a razor-wire border fence to keep them out and detained many who were on their way there.
Afzal said the crisis sparked divisions over the responsibility of states in responding, leading the United Nations to draft an agreement on refugees and migrants. Though it does not carry the force of law, it laid out key moral principles ahead of its consideration by the UN General Assembly next year. Critics, however, say the agreement is too vague to be an effective vehicle for refugee policy change. It also faces additional challenges with the rise of nationalist sentiment in Europe and the United States.
According to a report by the UN Refugee Agency, more than 65.7 million people were displaced at the end of 2016, the highest number since the end of World War II.
Migrants or refugees?
The crisis triggered discussions over the fundamental differences between “migrants” and “refugees.”
As Afzal explained, people move for diverse reasons. They may be running away from persecution and violations of human rights, or they may be running towards a better future for their children. Mixed migration, however, is detrimental, she said; many of the people arriving to Europe over the last two years, often fall under both categories, which made it even more puzzling.
Framing the issue as migration or refugee crisis is not just about plain terminology, it’s a major political conflict. During the Mediterranean crisis, many realized that definitions creating a hierarchy would be discriminatory.
“Definitions are confusing and hierarchical,” said Hartocollis. “There are different ways to look at it—a practical, legal, and moral way. I choose the practical way.” The New York Times journalist said that Mauricio Lima, one of the Pulitzer-winning photographers she worked with, one day told her: “Why do you call them migrants? Let’s call them all refugees.”
Humanizing the dehumanized
Towards the end of the discussion, Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, an artist from Denmark, showed excerpts from his most recent works, which he based on life of migrants in Europe, especially in refugee camps. In the short film Promised Land (2011), he showed the day-to-day life of migrants in Calais, France.
“I made the film to give the spectator the notion of what it really feels to be in the camps,” he said.
The artist has also worked on several photo series. In Memorial Series (2012), he paid tribute to refugees he had previously filmed and whose destiny remained unknown.
“I saw photojournalists take photos of migrants in degrading situations, often without their consent. The photos would make headlines,” he said. Bothered by this process of dehumanization that occurred daily in the media, he started thinking of how he could respect the anonymity of his subjects, and ultimately decided to create a series of photos on people covered by blankets.
Larsen said that his attempt, similarly to a reporter’s work, is to humanize refugees. Right-wing politicians in Europe use a rhetoric of “us versus them,” he said, so it’s important for him that refugees are not made into an “other.”
For her part, Hartocollis says her journalism gave her a deeper understanding of who refugees are. “They are not the enemy,” she said.
Featured photo: Aid workers from the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development help refugees make their way ashore to Greece in October 2015 (Ben White/CAFOD). The photos from the conference were taken by Joseph Zeballos-Roig for the New York Transatlantic.