Annukka Vähäsöyrinki and Johanna Sumuvuori: Humanitarian Crisis or Europe’s Crisis?
  • uutinen_kuva
3 May 2016

© Caroline Gluck/Oxfam

The media plays a big part in defining which topics are spoken of and from which viewpoint. For example, understanding of the so called “refugee crisis” forms according to how it is covered in press and who gets to comment on it.

In Autumn 2015 the Finnish Institute in London and the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux launched a joint media survey project, which examines how the current refugee and asylum seeker situation is presented in the main print media in Finland, Belgium and the UK. The studied newspapers are Helsingin Sanomat and Aamulehti from Finland, Le Soir and De Morgen from Belgium and The Guardian and The Times and from the UK.

The refugee and asylum seeker situation is present across Europe in many different ways. The general climate of opinion is determined largely by media. Media may also choose whose opinions are hears. This has an affect also on political discussion.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) over 1 million people arrived to Europe in 2015 to seek refuge for humanitarian reasons, mainly caused by the Syrian war. The number is the highest for 20 years.

The terrorist attacks in Paris in Autumn 2015 and in Brussels in Spring 2016 have turned public opinion more negative towards refugees and asylum seekers. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, however, the general attitude has steadily harshened in Europe during the past years, already before the tragic attacks. There are many reasons for this, such as the financial crisis, significant growth in refugee and asylum seeker numbers and the rise of nationalist parties across Europe.

According to the Institutes’ joint media study, refugees and asylum seekers are primarily described as a problem, threat and crisis. They are portrayed as a force of nature; a wave, flood or avalanche, which flushes over Europe.

The crisis is depicted to be mainly the crisis of European political leaders and the crumbling European Union. It is also described as a crisis of European identity, values and world view. However, the refugee and asylum seeker’s points of views are not described as much, and the wider context or the humanitarian nature of the crisis is debated even less. According to the study, British media bring forward humanitarian angles the most, describing for example the dangerous journey over Mediterranean.

It is notable, that threatening and negative associations are based primarily on politician’s and authorities’ statements, whereas the journalists and interviewed specialists often present diverse analytical opinions and provide contextualizing background information on the topic. The study leads us to believe, that media is still taking responsibility for providing diverse and pluralistic information. At least in the countries examined in this study, where freedom of press still prevails.

Finland is home to the freest press in the world. In 1991 the Declaration of Windhoek was signed at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (Unesco) General Assembly. According to the declaration free and pluralist press is central for ensuring financial and democratic development of nations. In countries where freedom of press prevails, self-regulation is often used. For example in Finland the Union of Journalists has formed guidelines for journalists, which state that “A journalist is responsible first and foremost to his/her readers, listeners and viewers. They have the right to know what is going on in the society.”

The Declaration of Windhoek is celebrated annually at Unesco World Press Freedom Day, which will take place this year in Helsinki, Finland. The study will be published on 3 May at the event in Helsinki, and discussed later on at events in Brussels and London. Please find more information about the publication events on the Institutes websites closer to date.


Johanna Sumuvuori, Head of Programme (Society), The Finnish Institute in London
Annukka Vähäsöyrinki, Head of projects, Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux

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