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  • on 12.02.2015
  • at 05:15 PM
  • by Kevin

The hierarchy of refugee stories 0

Three hundred refugees and migrants are now missing and feared dead after trying to cross the Mediterranean over the weekend from Libya to Italy on rubber dinghies. According to the latest news reports, the majority of the refugees were from sub-Saharan Africa.

Stories about Syrian refugees dominated the mainstream U.S. and Western English-language media over the past year. Reporters covered the lives of individual refugees struggling to adjust in camps and European cities, while also examining everything from the international aid response to the architecture of refugee camps.

In 2014, at least 40,000 Syrians crossed the Mediterranean to seek asylum in European countries via Italy. But approximately 35,000 Eritreans also made the voyage – a sharp increase from 10,000 in 2013. More Eritreans have also entered refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, the majority between the ages of 18–24, and a significant number of unaccompanied children under the age of 18. Young Eritreans are fleeing mandatory and indefinite military conscription and imprisonment and torture for political organizing; there are also reports of growing famine.

Yet in sharp contrast to the coverage of Syrian refugees, the Western English-language media has barely registered the escalating Eritrean refugee crisis. There have been few in-depth stories; absent profiles of Eritreans struggling to re-build their lives abroad; and rare editorials condemning the international community for not accepting more Eritrean asylum seekers or for failing to rescue Eritreans who are held hostage and brutally tortured in the Sinai.

There are several reasons for this discrepancy: the Syrian war has forced 3 million people to leave the country and created an unprecedented flow of people into neighboring countries; it rightfully deserves significant and ongoing coverage. But the other reasons are about history, politics and power – the Middle East has received increased Western media coverage in the post-9/11 era. As a result, there’s a media infrastructure; some of the main Syrian refugee camps are housed in countries where there were already bastions of foreign correspondents, and it’s relatively easy for Western journalists to travel from Istanbul and Amman to camps along the borders of Turkey and Jordan.

In contrast, most Eritrean refugees flee first to Ethiopia or Sudan, both countries where there are few journalists reporting for the Western press. Neither country is particularly welcoming to journalists, but Ethiopia’s draconian press laws mostly target local reporters, and accessing the refugee camps in the Northern Tigray region is not difficult – there are daily flights from Addis’s Bole Airport. Ethiopia now hosts more refugees than any other African country, yet most coverage of issues in the camps comes from the press offices of relief agencies. (As a side note, the fighting in Sudan and South Sudan has recently resulted in huge flows of people across borders as well as into Gambella, Ethiopia; but these refugees also get barely a mention.)

Continue reading at Africa is a country

By Caitlin L Chandler

Photo Credit: Giorgio Perottino/Reuters

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