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The Refugee Label | SFU School of Communication

Refugees make the news a lot. Today there are
a lot of conversation about refugee crisis and people are asking what it’s like to be
a refugee and what we can do to help. What’s interesting to me is the way these stories
are patterned and how they create a single story about what being a refugee
means. Refugee is a legal label and it’s a recent label. Migration on the
other hand has existed for as long as human beings have existed. So in humanitarian storytelling,
there is a bit of a pendulum swing between refugees as victims which requires your help
as the viewer, such as charity, humanitarian work and on the other hand, refugees as resilient
and almost kind of superhuman, the amazing things that they’ve done and in both of those
portrayals there aren’t a lot of space for people with that legal label to just be human.
In media, we tell the same sorts of stories because it is what will gain an audience and
it is also easier for our audience to understand. Tropes are repeated characters or repeated
plot lines and these are kind of shorthand. So I see that plot line and I understand it
and I know it because I’ve seen a similar character in a TV show and while this may
be a good way of storytelling for an audience or to get an audience, it may not actually
be the most ethical way of representing a person’s personal journey. Particularly if
policies are built on the kinds of conclusions that are made out of these kinds of patterns
in storytelling. I think the amount of tension we give to the word refugee is part of the
problem because when we start to see people in terms of their legal label it is hard to
see beyond that. I do this exercise in my class where I say, “This is my friend, who is a
refugee and what does that tell you about the person?” The label is a barrier to moving
beyond and connecting as human beings.

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