How to Talk about Refugees on Social Media
Talk of the refugee crisis has flooded our newspapers, radio, and television news over the last year and a half. That, of course, means that it has also found its way into our Twitter and Facebook feeds. When you encounter information about refugees on social media, it may not be immediately evident whether that information is fact based and from a credible source, or if it is the uninformed opinion of a friend, family member, colleague, or celebrity. The way social media blurs the lines between facts and opinions results in a lot of misinformation (and sometimes blatant lies) about refugees floating around in cyberspace. To make sure that we don't contribute to inaccurate information about one of our time's biggest issues, here are three things to keep in mind if you want to talk about refugees on social media.
Know Your Terms
In media and in every day conversations about the refugee crisis, a number of key terms are used interchangeably. The only problem is that those terms (i.e. refugee, migrant, asylum seeker, immigrant, etc.) are not interchangeable! By all means, please share your opinions about social and global issues on social media - the freedom of speech we enjoy in most Western countries is a beautiful thing! But first, know what the terms you are using mean. Here are definitions for a few of the big ones to get you started.
Refugee: Someone who is outside of their country and is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
Refugee Status: While anyone who meets the above criteria is a refugee, refugees cannot avail themselves of international protection and aid until they have been interviewed and given refugee status (usually the UNHCR facilitates these interviews).
Migrant: Anyone on the move, whether within their own country or crossing borders into other countries. Hint: All refugees are migrants, but not all migrants are refugees.
Asylum Seeker: Someone who believes themself to be a refugee, and is waiting to be given refugee status in the country they have fled to. An asylum seeker (unlike a general migrant) has begun a complex legal process to claim international protection as a refugee.
Check Your Facts
This should be obvious, but unfortunately, it's not. Before you share, retweet, or otherwise post something you've seen about refugees on social media, check your facts. Yes, I know doing a little bit of research is not quite as easy as just one click, but it is extremely important. If what you want to share involves statistics or numbers of any kind, I would recommend using UNHCR's Global Trends Report to fact check it. Their report includes major statistics and numbers on the first few pages presented in easy-to-read charts and graphs.
If you're sharing a news piece, perhaps do an internet search on the specific topic or issue it covers and try to find an article from another source that corroborates the information you want to share. If you're sharing an opinion piece, it may be more difficult to fact check, but try to figure out if the writer's opinion is based on facts or not. Hint: I tend to completely avoid sharing inflammatory articles about refugees on social media, because they are based on faulty or biased information almost 100% of the time.
If you take just a few extra minutes to check your facts before posting or commenting about refugees on social media, you may actually learn something you didn't know before. You may also avoid an embarrassing situation if what you share ends up not being true or entirely accurate.
Practice Dignity and Respect
This last point is perhaps the most important. Although I know my terms and I always check my facts, I am not always as intentional as I should be in practicing dignity and respect when I talk about refugees on social media. The refugee crisis is arguably the biggest humanitarian issue of this decade, and like any humanitarian issue, the way we talk about it can either recognize and affirm the dignity inherent in refugees' lives and experiences, or completely ignore it.
Approximately 20 million refugees around the world have been through harrowing experiences and have lost their homes, livelihoods, and even family members, and must now lean on humanitarian aid for their basic needs. If you stop to imagine yourself in their situation for even a moment, you will realize how devastated and humiliated they must feel at times. The simple reality of living off the charity of others can crush a person's dignity. If we recognize that, then our desire should be to somehow reaffirm that dignity, if only in a small way.
I am proposing that you can acknowledge the dignity inherent in every refugee through your intentional use of language. For example, post and share articles in which refugees are interviewed and allowed to speak for themselves about their situation, rather than always having someone else describe their plight. Share stories that humanize refugees, rather than painting them as an amorphous and uncontrollable group. In sharing your own opinions or comments try not to talk about refugees just as victims but also as over comers who have surmounted every obstacle in their journey to safety. Finally, refugees have names, so use them. Don't just call them "Syrian refugee" or "Eritrean asylum seeker," but use their names if they are included in the information you are sharing.
Go Talk about Refugees on Social Media!
There is so much misinformation and passive, victimizing language about refugees on social media. I hope these three points can help you talk about refugees in a way that will cut through the noise and reveal the beauty, strength, and resilience of every refugee. Social media is a powerful tool. Let's use it to share truth about the refugee crisis, and to affirm the dignity of those who are living it.