Migration and asylum seeking have been among the most pressing and divisive issues in global politics over the last decade. Within the European Union, migration policies have become increasingly restrictive since 2015, when the European Agenda on Migration was launched. Ever since, the issue of migration has been hanging over EU border countries: on the Greek-Turkish border, between Spain and Morocco, on the Polish-Belarusian border and in the English Channel. In all these cases, small- or large-scale incidents of refugees and migrants making efforts to cross EU borders take place regularly.
Greece has been the epicentre of migration to Europe for over a decade now. Lying at the crossroads of three continents (Europe, Asia and Africa), Greece has been the major gateway into the European Union for refugees and migrants from Asia and Africa since the early 2000s. This phenomenon was especially evident in 2015, when more than 800,000 people crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands during one of the worst humanitarian challenges in recent history.
Five years later, in March 2020, a new crisis broke out at the Greek-Turkish border, as thousands of refugees and migrants moved towards the Evros borderline, hoping to cross into the European Union. This situation was reminiscent of the 2015 refugee crisis at its peak.
The media has played a significant role in how this complex issue is presented, as well as in how people perceive and respond to it. For many people around the globe, the media are the sole ‘window’ to the world of minorities. In Greece, overall, the media have been crucial to the construction of stereotypical notions about refugees and migrants. Despite a brief interval of sympathy and compassion, during the 2015 crisis, refugees and migrants have been at large portrayed in the Greek media as threats to Greece’s security and prosperity.
An up-to-date analysis
To reach conclusions about the recent news coverage of migration and asylum seeking in the Greek media, we conducted a study, between September and November 2021; this period begins with discussions among European leaders over the crisis in Afghanistan and the risk of a massive influx of people seeking protection in Europe and ends with the border crisis between Poland and Belarus.
A total of 1,040 news stories were collected from eight Greek media outlets. Specifically, from the online versions of six newspapers — Efsyn (left-wing), Ta Nea (centre-left), I Kathimerini (centre-right), Proto Thema (populist, tabloid), Eleftheros Typos (right), Makeleio (far-right, tabloid) — and the two news websites iefimerida (liberal-conservative) and zougla (populist). The main findings of this study are presented below.
Bias in favour of official sources
Media coverage was strongly shaped by the discourse of (Greek and European) political elites and the decisions taken by them. Official sources (Greek and European politicians, police and military officers, elites) were used in 80.7% of all news stories. In contrast, media coverage reflected much less the opinions of non-elite sources (in 18.3% of news stories) and, in particular, the voice of refugees and migrants themselves (in only 6.5% of news stories).
The use of sources in the news, however, and whose voices are heard, are fundamental to constructing a balanced and more nuanced viewpoint in a news story. By failing to give refugees and migrants a voice, the media marginalize those at the centre of the story and privilege politicians and public officials, as well as their narrative.
Focus on border security versus human security
As a consequence of official sources dominating media discourse, restrictive measures of border control and surveillance, namely shielding European borders with armed forces (for example, in Greece, Poland and Spain), extending fences, launching closed holding camps and even illegal pushback procedures, were often represented (in 70.9% of news stories) as solutions to migration and asylum seeking.
Conversely, solutions about human security, such as relocation and resettlement efforts, humanitarian visas to effectively close the backdoor to dangerous migration routes, and migration routes to Greece and Europe that are both safe and legal for people in need of international protection, appeared in only 15.6% of all news stories.
Only one-quarter of news stories spoke of inequalities and discrimination stemming from state structures and practices (for example, illegal pushbacks at sea). Although COVID-19 was of major concern in people’s daily lives during that period, there were almost no news stories at all revealing the challenges faced by refugees and migrants in regard to social distancing, sanitation and hygiene, despite scientific evidence that, “compared to the general population, the risk of COVID-19 infection among refugees and asylum seekers in reception facilities was 2.5 to 3 times higher”.
Very few news stories (only 3 out of 1,040) reported on the obstacles faced by migrants and refugees regarding the vaccination process against COVID-19 and the extremely low percentage of vaccinated people among them. Again, very few news stories (only 3 out of 1,040) reported on the obstacles faced by thousands of child refugees and migrants, who were excluded from education due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
Enemies at the gates of Europe and/or dehumanized subjects without human traits
Four in ten news stories (39.4%) portrayed refugees and migrants as a threat to national and European security, painting them as invaders and enemies at the gates of Greece and Europe, executing a hybrid attack against EU Member States. Similarly, around three-quarters of news stories (76.7%) dehumanized refugees and migrants, by representing them as subjects without human traits, as well as being: (a) resources to be exploited; (b) powerful weapons, pawns and tools in the hands of Belarus and Turkey, (c) a mass of people without voice, names and emotions; and (d) unethical cheaters, who rather than being real refugees were illegal migrants using all means to cheat the system and break into the EU.
These threat and dehumanization frames were further enhanced by a warfare and natural disaster vocabulary, applied in four out of ten (40.6%) news stories, using words and phrases such as "war", "invasion", "battle", "attack" or "waves". Similarly, the media predominantly used the term "migrants", a word which implies people not at high risk. At the same time, the term "refugees", referring to people in need of protection, was used in almost half of the news stories.
Over-representation of male refugees and migrants
When refugees and migrants were the subject of media coverage, men were often disproportionately represented, compared to the actual percentage of male persons who arrived in the country in 2021. This was particularly true in visual framing. Over the entire study period, about 65.6% of news images of refugees and migrants showed adult men, while 15.6% depicted women and 18.8% depicted children.
Under- and misrepresentation of some nationalities
At the same time, some nationalities were not portrayed accurately and were largely underrepresented in media coverage. This is especially the case for individuals who originated from Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, countries with long-running, ongoing conflicts. Most importantly, as news stories failed to identify fragile countries of origin, they also failed to contribute to social dialogue by providing context and understanding of the situation and by debunking the idea that new arrivals come from safe countries.
Stereotypical visual framing
Seven out of ten pictures that included refugees and migrants portrayed them as a mass of people without specific characteristics, while only about one out of ten focused on the individual, with a face and a name. Nine out of ten pictures (92.5%) portrayed them in ‘states of exception’ (boat people, behind wire fences, in camps and at the borders), which may have negative effects on the public’s opinions, perceptions and attitudes towards them.
Blind spots in media coverage of migration
Differences emerged between the media studied, which can essentially be attributed to their political orientation and editorial lines. In particular, the portrayal of refugees and migrants in the reporting of the left-wing Efsyn was significantly less negative overall than in the rest of the media outlets, especially the far-right tabloid Makeleio, representing a ‘hate reporting’ approach.
At the same time, though, the present study disclosed important similarities in news coverage across media outlets, revealing a set of patterns in journalistic practices. Most significantly, as already noted, there is a bias in favour of political elites as sources and an absence of refugee and migrant voices across all media outlets. Similarly, media content rarely gives voice to sources that would discuss possible human rights solutions. References to the vulnerability of people entering Greece are very infrequent. News stories about integration of refugees and migrants or cases of people who are well integrated into Greek society are rare. Potential economic, social and cultural benefits stemming from migration are scarce in media discourse. Very few news stories, across all media outlets, have focused on the impact of COVID-19 on refugees and migrants, although this group of people has been among the most affected by the pandemic.
This means that regardless of the political orientation of the media outlet, there are some blind spots in the media coverage, and some aspects that are almost never touched upon, resulting in an often poor and simplistic approach regarding the representation of migration in the Greek media. Although overtly racist discourses may be absent in most news reporting (with the exception of Makeleio), this in no way means it has disappeared, but rather that it has transformed into a new kind of discrimination that is hidden under the cover of undisputed journalistic patterns.
In the coming years, the world will continue to be on the move. Climate change, inequalities, poverty, wars and conflicts will continue and likely increase. Migration will continue to be a challenge for Greece, Europe and the developed world, and the media will continue to play an important role in preparing the ground for social dialogue around migration. For this to happen, media professionals need to address their lack of training and understanding of diversity-related issues, broaden journalistic practices to include non-elite sources, and sharpen their tools to improve media coverage with regard to the migration experience, by portraying a broader and richer view of what is already known about migration.