What we don’t say about the refugee crisis?

Semhar Haile reflects on what’s missing from media coverage of the refugee crisis, and on how simplistic representations perpetuate old stereotypes about the global south.


The ‘refugee crisis’ is one of the most talked about topic at the moment. In fact, many people only learnt about the existence of certain countries such as Eritrea due to Western mass media’s attention to the ‘crisis’. The Wall Street Journal dedicated a whole article on Eritrean refugees currently residing in Ethiopian refugee camps. The article, titled African Dictatorship Fuels Migrant Crisis, tries to understand the underlying reason for the increasing displacement of many Eritreans, and it attempts to look at the crisis from various perspectives, by interviewing refugees and some Eritrean government members. The article concludes by identifying the ‘Authoritarian State’ as the fundamental reason for the displacement of refugees.

Balanza (1)The above conclusion is not new. Often the refugee crisis is blamed on ‘ineffective states’, or states with an ‘authoritarian’ nature, or simply on lack of democracy. In fact, one may say that it makes perfect sense to remove these ineffective or ‘failed’ states (as Somalia has been often described) in order to reduce the flow of refugees from the global south to the north. However, what many of these conclusions are missing is that accusing ‘ineffective’ states as the sole reason for displacement incredibly simplifies the various complex reasons that often lead to displacement.

These explanations ignore the legacy of colonialism, neo colonialism, global neoliberalism, and increasing inequalities between the global north and the south. These factors are some of the main underlying reasons for the formation of ‘weak states’ and conflicts in the regions with highest displacement rates. In fact, the many structural causes of displacement (which are often results of unequal economic and power relationships between the two parts of the globe) are often overlooked. Not to mention the environmental factors that often force people to migrate, due to climate change, land degradation, and the lack of jobs in urban cities.


Apart from the global inequality which is increasingly widening, domestic inequality is also increasing at fast rate. In the case of Eritrea, one of the main causes of domestic inequality, are the remittances sent back from the diaspora. As the economy weakens day by day, those who do not have the luck to survive through remittances are left behind.

This is not to say that States are not responsible for the increasing refugee flows. However, it is important to have a wider understanding of the global political economy, and its role in the increasing mass displacement.

Often, the narratives of refugees are used as a proof to point at the state as the sole reason for their displacement. In fact, according to the Refugee Convention, people are granted a refugee status provided that they

owe a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country (UNHCR, 1951 Refugee Convention)

Ali Farzat
Ali Farzat

Given the above definition, it becomes almost impossible to grant refugee status, if the person is displaced due to wider structural causes. The definition does not allow space for a wider understanding of the causes of displacement.  Refugees are therefore forced to reproduce the same narratives. The ability to gain refugee status thus depends on how well a person can reproduce ‘the right story’. That is, the ‘true refugee’ is the one who is able to narrate a story that fits into our presumed causes of displacement.

The repetition of these narratives also perpetuates orientalist stereotypes of the global north which continues to view the global south as underdeveloped, uncivilised, and ultimately inferior to modern western states.

This is not to say that refugees’ narratives are not to be believed. My intention is to show how simplistic assumptions of the displacement crisis (and its causes) can result in more problems than solutions.

Ali Farzat
Ali Farzat

About Semhar Haile
Semhar is a postgraduate student at SOAS, University of London. She is studying Globalisation and Multinational Corporations. She is originally from Eritrea, but currently living in London and working as a project assistant for the Becoming Adult project. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and travelling.

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