These past three decades, the internet has emerged as a significant factor in the coverage of refugees. In many ways, this has been a good thing. Social media has become a fundamental tool of charities and activists to raise awareness for refugee issues and funnel public outrage into policy changes. And the international nature of the internet has allowed activists to build coalitions across borders. But our increasingly online world has also created and exacerbated many problems. Frequent coverage of refugee crises, if done improperly or maliciously, can empower racism and xenophobia, become vehicles for publicity stunts, and sway governments into adopting harmful policies towards asylum seekers.
A prime example of the ways in which the internet can both help and harm refugees is the U.K. government’s recently implemented Rwanda asylum scheme. Since 2018, there has been a dramatic increase in dangerous crossings of the English Channel by asylum seekers from the refugee encampment in Calais to the United Kingdom, the numbers rising to just under 30,000 in 2021. Most of these crossings are arranged by smugglers and many drowned in the process. In response to these developments, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a five-year plan to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda. Several newspapers immediately denounced the policy as “cruel and disturbing”, and activist groups moved to challenge the scheme in court, requesting a last-minute injunction to halt the inaugural flight for 14 June.
Positive Impacts of the Internet and Social Media
The court challenge has been both a legal battle and a publicity battle. Two charities involved, Care4Calais and Detention Action, framed social media activism as a necessary part of their campaign, rigorously using Twitter to promote petitions and ask for donations. On their website, Care4Calais vows “make a huge amount of noise” so that the Government “knows the truth about public opinion.” Under the hashtag #StopRwanda, Care4Calais has spread awareness on social media, while Detention Action has raised nearly £60,000 online.
The effects of online campaigns became evident almost immediately. Only two weeks after the scheme was announced, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PSC) were able to force the Home Secretary into “a humiliating climbdown” from her pushbacks policy (forcing refugees back over the border). In a discourse dominated by social media, optics are fundamental. Broadcasting small policy U-turns like this can expose weakness in the government to ignite further opposition and force even greater concessions and retreats.
Contemporary celebrity culture, buoyed by social media, has been particularly helpful in opposing the policy. Over 90 public figures have written to airlines involved in the scheme, including rapper Akala, football commentator Gary Lineker, Bridgerton actress Adjoa Andoh, and artist Tracey Emin. This diverse array of celebrities – ranging from sports to arts – offers the campaign the potential to reach for support beyond just the politically active. And it showcases the ability of social media to transcend different forms of entertainment, using different rhetorical strategies, to access a plethora of demographics. Even murmurs of discontent from prominent celebrities can be magnified by increased media scrutiny online. The Guardian seized on a report from an anonymous source claiming that now King Charles privately described the scheme as “appalling”. While the claim has not been verified, media speculation about the Head of State’s personal attitudes towards the policy have the potential to further delegitimise the scheme.
Changes in public approval for the scheme demonstrate the success of these online campaigns. While the support for the plan has remained constant – ranging between 40% and 50% – opposition has gradually increased with scrutiny. When the policy was first announced, only 26% of the public opposed it. That number rose to 28% after ten days and doubled to 40% in June, in the lead up to the inaugural flight. By October, after the first flight had been cancelled and the policy had been thoroughly scrutinised, 52% said that they didn’t believe the policy would work – a majority of Britons. This gradual increase in public outrage, rather than a single swift change in opinion, evidences the effect of this relentless and continuous online campaign.
Aided by public outrage, social media has been able to name and shame airlines involved in the scheme. Members of the public have sent over 15,000 letters of protest to airlines involved, and after barrages of negative comments on social media, several airlines have deleted posts from Instagram and LinkedIn. In response to a campaign by Freedom from Torture, AirTanker and Titan Airways have refused to participate, despite carrying out deportations in the past, likely due to so much public pressure.
This pressure has stalled the scheme. After a last-minute interim measure issued by the European Court of Human Rights ordered that a passenger facing “a real risk of irreversible harm” be taken off the inaugural flight, the remaining passengers appealed to the court as well, resulting in the cancellation of the entire flight. While the policy itself wasn’t scrapped, the ruling bought time, during which mounting public pressure coerced the involved airline, Spain-based Privilege Style, out of the contract. The decision came after a targeted social media campaign by Freedom from Torture under the hashtag #StopTheFlights. The campaign included protests in Madrid outside of a football match (football clubs being key VIP customers of the airline), as well as an email campaign, a disruption of the Global Aviation Conference by torture survivors, and the presentation of a “worst airline ever” award to the company outside their headquarters in front of the Spanish media. The fact that a U.K. based campaign managed to reach a Spanish audience is a testament to social media’s ability to reach across borders and language barriers to foster support for refugees internationally.
Privilege Style’s statement in response to the campaign demonstrates the effect of public opinion their decision. They keenly stressed that they had “never flown to Rwanda” before the arrangement, indicating their desire to distance themselves from the scheme in the eyes of the public. Dubbed the “airline of last resort”, it is unclear how the U.K. government will proceed without them. As Clare Moseley of Care4Calais explains, online campaigns have made it “increasingly toxic” for organisations to associate with the scheme.
Negative Impacts of the Internet and Social Media
That said, this useful online media apparatus has also been the source of immense harm to refugees. While public outrage may have stalled the Rwanda scheme, it also played a role in its conception. In 2020, a YouGov poll found that 73% of the British public felt that illegal entry to the U.K. via the English Channel was a serious issue, including 97% of Conservative voters and 49% of Labour voters. And prior to the announcement of the scheme in April, an “overwhelming majority” of the public felt that the government was not doing enough to address the crisis. While public pressure may have turned sharply in the opposite direction since then thanks to online campaigns, the government had a powerful mandate from the public to initiate the policy in the first place – a mandate that was fermented from media portrayals of the crisis.
Bad publicity is arguably the desired effect of the scheme too. When he first announced the policy, the Prime Minister hoped that the scheme would “over time prove a very considerable deterrent”. Therefore, the media focus on the cruel and inhumane nature of the policy is, in a certain stance, aiding the government in its objective to scare potential asylum seekers. News of the Rwanda scheme is being spread at the migrant encampment in Calais, and the Prime Minister was keen to boast that the policy “could see tens of thousands sent to the African country”. It seems this tactic of intimidation is working. An Iraqi Kurd on the would-be inaugural flight said, “If I had known about this whole plan I would have never decided to come to the UK”. Thus, even sympathetic portrayals of asylum seekers can have the averse effect and justify the government’s policy.
Coverage of the scheme has also spawned a wave of bigotry directed towards people of colour, condensed into the phrase, “we should send you to Rwanda”. At a time when many social media companies are already struggling to tackle online abuse, unserious coverage of the issue can cheapen the very real suffering of refugees, reducing them to a euphemistic phrase.
The negative consequences of increased media coverage not only threaten the safety and survival of refugees, but deprive them of their self-direction and autonomy. With such a vast online network, refugees have limited power over their own stories, and are often reduced to props. In the case of the Rwanda scheme, asylum seekers have become a signal to the public that the government is taking serious action, examples to deter other migrants from crossing the channel, and euphemisms for bigots.
Social media and the internet are relatively new tools. They can both build you and break you. It is therefore vital that we are careful in how we use them. In the case of refugee issues, they can be incredibly useful, facilitating online campaigns that reach a variety of demographics in many different countries – but they also have the capacity to do harm.
As social media and the internet continue to expand and develop, finding a balance when covering refugee issues will be essential.