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  • Carla Smith

Constructing the Newsfeed Refugee: looking closely at the Rohingya & Syrian Crisis representations

In this Briefing, our contributor Nabeel Khan explores the representation of Syrian and Rohingya refugees in Western and Middle Eastern media. He analyses the consequences of dehumanising refugees on popular perceptions and on the way these crises are being resolved in international politics. This piece is based on a piece of original research Nabeel has conducted.


The phenomena of global displacement cannot be understated. With the number of people displaced globally rapidly escalating to almost 70 million just within the last ten years, it is arguably the defining global crisis of our century. Social media has now probably become the most accessible way to reach the news, as its reach is uncontested with traditional news broadcasting. Measured by the number of monthly active users, Facebook remains the largest social network to date. Characteristically, Facebook allows news pages to use thumbnail images to attract readers to open a corresponding article on its news feed. These thumbnails may seem insignificant, but are often specifically employed to lure viewers in, as each thumbnail on a newsfeed is in stiff competition to capture the Facebook user’s attention. Moreover, although these images are often scrolled passed unconsciously, they nevertheless leave their traces in memory, and therefore influence our perception of the issues they address.

This unconventional blog post will explore and uncover trends in the visual reporting on refugees by news sources on social media. The research sample was selected from thumbnail images published by BBC World, the division of the world’s largest news agency that focuses on international affairs, and by Al Jazeera English, the Qatari news agency’s English language division. BBC and Al Jazeera were chosen not only based on their sheer page popularity but also because they have different sites of production, one in the United Kingdom and the other in Qatar. Two different sites of production are examined to gain insight into universal and cultural-specific representational tropes, and how international relations influences representation. The blog will highlight the insights from a longer academic study that I conducted on a sample of images from both news sources, covering two crises.

To be able to find out whether there is a difference in representation our sample consisted of two different groups of refugees: the refugees from the Syrian refugee crisis and the Rohingya in Myanmar. Most Syrian refugees fled their nation during President Assad’s violent crackdown of the 2011 revolution and throughout the Civil War. They often sought asylum in neighbouring Middle Eastern countries or tried to enter Europe through the Aegean sea or overland through the Balkans. The height of European arrivals of Syrian refugees occurred during the summer of 2015, but even today the refugee crisis is still very much ongoing. The Rohingya refugees fled in response to a surge of ethnically motivated violence in a Northern state of Rakhine in Myanmar, mostly fleeing to Bangladesh. Both crises are chosen here because they were the largest refugee crises by numbers and the fastest-growing crisis of the past decade, respectively.

A sample of images was tagged with keywords based on their specific visual elements, after which the frequencies of these elements were counted and analyzed. We ended up with a total of 113 randomly selected images. Our whole collection consisted of images gathered across two dimensions, namely the news source and refugee crises. Four subsamples were created, one for each population-news page combination. First, we’ll look at what came up in comparing the frequencies of certain codes, and then we’ll analyze across news sources and crises.

What Does the Frequency of Data Say About Refugees?

In the sample of pictures chosen, there wasn’t much difference in the categories of age, size of the group, and gender between the two news sources. The difference between the news pages was most visible for the Syrian crisis. While both BBC and Al Jazeera had numerous cases of ‘heartfelt stories’, and cases of refugees in ‘sports and recreation’, there was one key difference. For BBC, there were ‘success stories’, and combined with ‘individual’ refugees settled in their ‘host country’. Al Jazeera, on the other hand, often presented refugees playing music or creating art as a way of alleviating trauma within the camp, as represented by ‘war-torn infrastructure’ or ‘refugee camp’ from the background category.

For this reason, there may have been one more consistent difference throughout the sample. Overall, BBC images were coded more often in ‘suffering and peril’, with slightly more occurrences with ‘frowning’ and ‘crying’ than Al Jazeera. During the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015, BBC produced similar representations of peril and suffering to Al Jazeera, with a greater number of ‘female’ and ‘child’ in the gender and age category respectively, as well as the ‘refugee camp’ in the background. In the years 2017-2018, however, there was a greater increase in the ‘smiling’ in the emotions category, and a sharp increase in the ‘sports and recreation’, ‘success story’ and ‘employment’. This development was absent in Al Jazeera’s representation of the Syrian crisis over the years.

Furthermore, it is interesting that across the board, Al Jazeera has had numerous accounts of holding the politicians on trial with the images in the sample, most notably, faces of US politicians and UN officials such as John Kerry. Al Jazeera similarly represented Aung San Suu Kyi, the president of Myanmar, in the Rohingya category where the BBC neglected to do so. While the BBC did not have any representation of politicians, on rare occasions they incorporate statements and activist endeavours from celebrities. Finally, religious representation has been surprisingly similar between both sources, with both showing negligible signs of religion between groups other than frequent ‘headscarf’, with Al Jazeera having slightly more Muslim features such as ‘praying’, ‘cross’, ‘Quran’ and ‘headscarf’, than the BBC.

Al Jazeera seemed to prefer to present the refugee crisis as an ongoing humanitarian crisis, portraying subjects within desolate “camps” and “war-torn infrastructure”. They also seemed to represent the refugees with greater agency, having individual characteristics that made them relatable, like a refugee playing the guitar. The BBC more often portrayed the Syrian refugees in European host countries, with images indicating that Europe was 'managing’ them, often seen in images at border patrols, or with another European security guard. BBC’s images also seemed to support the visual trope of the "road trip” to tap into Western imaginations and tropes of the traveller. Both news

sources also seemed to want to evoke empathy, depicting refugees in vulnerable situations, but the BBC thumbnails often included a European "saviour" element to the mix.

Comparative Representation Between News Sources: BBC and Al Jazeera

The images chosen were representative of the most common themes that came up in samples from each news source for Syria. In a sample image, the presence of a Caucasian as the focus of the image is common for BBC. The presence of the West from an Al Jazeera sample image of a few refugees sitting in a tent is restricted to the UNHCR logo, showing the West playing a distant role in the lives of the refugees, which are also the main subjects of the image. Al Jazeera emphasizes the presence of Western forces within refugee camps. In a sample image from Al Jazeera, the body language of the refugees appears to be more submissive, walking behind the officer and putting their hands in their pockets dragging along their baggage. Additionally, a sample image has Al Jazeera portraying a more stoic image of the refugees that play an instrument in defiance of their physical circumstances. Finally, the BBC samples show refugees already present in Western society, adapting into their Western host countries, while the refugees in Al Jazeera’s sample are still in a deserted environment, therefore excluded. Al Jazeera depicts the refugee crisis as an ongoing problem in the Middle East, and not simply as one bound within the limits of Europe. On the other hand, the BBC represents the crisis as one which seems to be resolved with the focus on integration within host countries. This may be attributed to the perceptions of the majority Western demographics that view the refugee crisis as a European problem to be solved through their migration policy, rather than a humanitarian issue. Moreover, the significance of the Western officer being in the forefront in the BBC image emphasizes their dominant position as a world hegemony that assures that this ‘problem’ of refugees can be controlled. They appear to be more of a collective with BBC due to the innumerable group size, which add to this connotation of fear and dehumanization.

From an international relations perspective, it can be argued that there is a security threat embedded within the representation of Syrian refugees, which is often why there are codes that come up depicting refugees entering a border. The absence of this representation in Al Jazeera might be because the Qatari government does not view the migrant crisis through this security lens, and it is possibly in Qatar's interest to depict the refugees as victims of war crimes as it delegitimizes the authoritarian rule in Syria, allied with Russia, whereas Qatar is largely allied with the United States.

Comparing The Representation of Each Refugee Crisis: Rohingya & Syria

Now that we compared the different news sources, in this last part we’ll compare the representation of the two refugee crises in the same news source (Al Jazeera). Please refer to the full article for the sample images. What stands out is the use of symbols and composition familiar to the Western audience. There was a sample image of a Rohingya woman holding her baby that resonated with historically Christian iconography. The sign of the naked child, mother figure covered in cloth, and the triangular composition illustrated the Christian story of Maria mourning the suffering of Jesus Christ. In the Syrian refugee crisis, the archetype of ‘road trip’ was used, and here in the Rohingya representation, the traditional image of Madonna and child is echoed. The use of these archetypes might activate maps of meaning already present in the Western audience’s collective memory. The Christian Madonna archetype is therefore one of the myths upheld by the representation of refugees. Although imagery of mother and child is present in every crisis, our sample of Rohingya refugees included significantly more images of the traditional Madonna image. It seems that the connotations of suffering women and children are more often signified in the representation of the Rohingya crisis than the Syrian refugee crisis. In the case of the Rohingya, their plight often involved sexual abuse as a tactic of military oppression by the Myanmar military troops, so this incentivizes media stations to use popular visual means to express humanitarian suffering. In contrast, the Syrian refugee representation was predominantly men, perhaps due to the more conservative nature of an Arabic audience that could impact female gender representation.


This Briefing broadly investigated the representation of two different refugee crises on Facebook thumbnail images. Despite its redundancy among younger demographics, Facebook still increasingly serves as a news source across the world, and thus the image of refugees that is produced through this medium can have far-reaching consequences. The people on the other side of these pixels continues to be a real and ongoing problem. But decoding our subconscious representations of these men and women could lead to a better understanding of how we view them: institutional change often starts with a change in the way of viewing the world.

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