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The “dos and don’ts” of refugee reporting

Our recent review of the Refugee Voices tour triggered an unexpectedly hostile reaction from its organiser. Should journalists censor themselves? And is there such a thing as do-gooder fundamentalism? Read the full letter and our response here.

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Photo by Bert Herden

Our recent article featured Refugee Voices: Solidarity Tours in Berlin, which gives refugees the chance to show the city from their perspective. Despite recommending the tour, our review was not received well by founder and organiser Lorna Cannon, who responded with a lengthy, hostile, occasionally paranoid letter to the editor. In the spirit of full disclosure, we publish her response in extenso, followed by our response. At the heart of this: Should journalists censor themselves when covering refugees?

I was sitting on a terrace in Paris when I received an article about a new project that myself and a couple of friends have recently started called “Refugee Voices: Solidarity Tours in Berlin”. Selfishly I was quite excited; I read The Guardian online every day and I couldn’t quite believe that I was now in it. The article was well written but extremely brief and I felt that it didn’t exactly convey the point of the tours or the stories of my friends who have bravely opened up their personal lives to strangers. I was particularly perturbed that the most important part of Moha’s story seemed to be how much he had paid in order to safely reach Europe with absolutely no details about why he had to flee or why it cost so much.

As ever, I read the comments section wondering what people thought of our new initiative. As I sat on the terrace in Paris hot tears rolled down my cheeks and I realised that reading the comments was a mistake. It was not the first time I had read hateful comments about refugees but it was the first time I’d had such a strong reaction.

The next day, feeling slightly bruised from what I had read the night before I received a notification that Exberliner had published an article about Refugee Voices. I began to feel nervous as I opened the page, and my nerves were not unfounded. The first thing that struck me was that the journalist from Exberliner who had attended the tour was not the one who had written the article. This was already a bad start. As I scrolled down I became even more shocked. For starters, the article did exactly what Refugee Voices strives to stop; it divided refugees between the ones who are seen as more worthy than others, at one point referring to Mohamed, a refugee from Sudan, as an “‘inferior’ economic refugee”. Clearly the writer had not even bothered to google Sudan; if she had, she would have understood that the war there has been going on since 1956. Had she actually been on the tour she could have asked Mohamed all about it.

The issue of the money Moha spent to reach Europe was raised once again. Why is it that so many people want refugees to be starving, poverty-stricken or missing limbs before they’re worthy of our sympathy? On the one hand, people are complaining that refugees with no money are coming over to sponge off the system, on the other hand they’re complaining that if they have money they shouldn’t be here at all. Let’s clear this up once and for all: Moha fled for political reasons, if he had stayed he could have been killed. His grandma sold her houses so that he could escape and find a better life. In this situation I know my family would give all they could so that I would have as safe a journey as possible and that I would have the chance at a better life – wouldn’t yours?

The article goes from one side to the other in a very confusing way. At one point the journalist claims that Syrian refugees are “blessed” because they are automatically granted asylum. This leads me to believe that she has never actually spoken to a Syrian refugee. I’m sure the ones drowning whilst trying to reach Europe don’t feel blessed. I think the ones who are trapped on the wrong side of Hungary’s razor-wire don’t feel blessed and I know the ones queuing for days in the cold outside of the LaGeSo wouldn’t consider themselves blessed.

The writer then goes on to refer to the Syrian refugee crisis as “loud”, which is just bizarre, but given the fact that the journalist from Exberliner who actually came on the tour told me that there were rich Syrians from Assad-protected areas coming to Berlin to take advantage of the situation, I suppose I should have expected some fairly misinformed and ludicrous comments.

And then there’s the issue of the ‘passerby’ on the tour. A man who was very hostile and left almost no room for either of the guides to respond. I would like to make clear that this wasn’t some random guy; it was a friend of the journalist from Exberliner. After reading this article, I wouldn’t be surprised if she asked him to be controversial in order to further sensationalise the story. Moha and Mohamed handled it very well although the article would lead you to believe that there was a “commotion”.

So why am I bothering to write all of this? For too long I have read articles that only tell half the story or seek to provoke more controversy surrounding the refugee situation. In fact this is part of the reason we developed Refugee Voices in the first place, so that people can understand what is really going on. This time I won’t just let it go because this time it’s personal. Journalists – at least those who care about telling the truth – have a responsibility to do their research and to give as much information as possible in their reports. In Europe we live in a society where people are condemned and persecuted because of their nationality and religion. Where bombing ISIS and supporting Assad is seen as heroic and just. Where on the very same night that people were viciously murdered in Paris, people mercilessly attacked a refugee camp in Calais full of people who in fact had fled from the same terror organisation that had committed the atrocities in France. The refugee rhetoric in the media is largely responsible for these attitudes and actions and it is time that journalists are held accountable for what they write. By writing misleading articles or leaving out parts of the story, journalists are causing or at least leaving room for hatred and fear to spread and it is a dangerous to lead the public down such a path.

After accusing Moha and Mohamed of being “one-sided and predictable”, Exberliner went on to recommend the tour to their readers. This left me feeling both outraged and confused. After my friends have been written about – both by a journalist and in the comments section – in such a patronising and offensive way we at Refugee Voices have at least learned one thing: all publicity is not good publicity.


We are not PR people or activists, and hence not propagandists. We are reporters and we strongly believe that showing reality in all its multilayered complexity, including strange, challenging or awkward moments, is the best, most courageous stance we can take. Your eagerness to jump the gun made you miss a few quotation marks! Obviously, calling refugees the ‘inferior’ economic sort referred to the way the system classifies them, not the author’s opinion. Similarly, the fact that Syrians have become what many describe as ‘first class refugees’ is not something we invented or subscribe to. Frau Merkel was clear in her choices: she opted for the mass legalisation of Syrians at the expense of refugees from other countries. Is this something we should censor? It’s not us creating a divide between refugees, but the asylum process, a situation that anyone working in close contact with refugees is aware of and can attest to. We believe that the desire to iron away any creases ultimately does a disservice to the cause of refugees, which Exberliner and this writer have done a lot to support – and we started long ago, before the topic became so hyped.