This article is part of our online coverage of reporting on COVID-19. To see more resources, click here.
If there’s any silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it has reminded Tunisians of the heightened challenges facing refugees and asylum seekers in the country.
The majority of refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia come from sub-Saharan Africa, Syria and Libya. Many are on their way to Europe, fleeing armed conflict in their home countries. Their stories remain largely untold in the media.
Following the pandemic’s outbreak in Tunisia in early March, their suffering at last hit the headlines. Coverage varied from initial criticisms at the beginning of the crisis, to later praising the government and civil society initiatives.
Amid the chaos that marked the country during the first weeks of the pandemic’s outbreak, some news outlets criticized authorities’ late reaction to the urgent needs of many refugees and asylum-seekers — mostly students — who were without food and medication.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 53% of working migrants overall in Tunisia lost their jobs during the lockdown. During this time, more than 7,000 migrants received social aid.
Today, there are several general trends in migration reporting in Tunisian newspapers:
- Straightforward news coverage, including reports of thwarted migration attempts — so-called police “success stories” — and unfortunate news of incidents like sinking boats and lost lives.
- Surface-level reporting, often inadequate, which attempts to hold the Tunisian government and other Mediterranean countries responsible for the migration crisis.
- Analysis of the deep roots of migration and its background. This often includes critiques of Tunisia’s development policies, and European policies on irregular migration and integration.
- Investigative reporting, often insufficient, which covers primarily Tunisians who have gone missing as they travel to reach Europe.
What Tunisian media gets right
Journalists in Tunisia employ several new approaches to report on migration: for instance, story-telling, profiles and character-led stories. These are meant to shed light on the socio-economic factors of the phenomenon.
An international phenomenon
Tunisian media has acknowledged the issue of migration as an international phenomenon — one not specific to Tunisia. With varying levels of effectiveness, Tunisian news outlets address sensitive angles, such as international human trafficking networks and linkages between migration and terrorism.
Shortfalls in reporting
Journalists in Tunisia struggle to use appropriate terminology around migration. While many international outlets today utilize terms like “irregular” instead of “illegal,” for example, many Tunisian journalists adhere to more dated terminology and concepts.
It can be common, for example, to come across phrases like: “a group of refugees have reached the Zarzis port after their boat was saved by coast guards.” However, according to the international, UN-approved terminology, we should not refer to someone as a “refugee” unless they have officially received this designation. Training courses offered by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have helped improve this situation.
Tunisian media fails to comprehensively address the issues that compel people to seek refuge in another country. In many cases, journalists rely too much on police reports and witnesses, for example. This approach often presents an unfairly negative image of refugees and asylum-seekers who, in reality, may suffer from poverty, unemployment and injustice. Refugees and asylum seekers may also feel compelled to share their stories in anonymity to avoid recognition.
Tunisian journalists often glamorize the risks that young migrants take to reach Europe, instead of placing the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean, or being detained on arrival in Europe, in their proper context. They might describe refugees and asylum-seekers as “heroes,” who overcome obstacles to realize a better life for themselves. They do so without providing comprehensive analysis of potential dangers in Europe if they succeed in reaching the continent. Tunisian papers are filled with stories of people who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean more than once, for instance.
Migration and asylum laws
The Tunisian media does not adequately inform readers of national and international laws on migration and asylum, and illicit activities around them. Whether due to concerns for their own safety, or due to an unwillingness by their outlets to publish such information, journalists in the country make little effort to report on groups profiting from the migration business, for example.
Regardless of crises that might arise — for instance, COVID-19 today — news outlets in Tunisia should strive to make their coverage of issues around refugees and asylum-seekers more consistent and reliable.
Attention should be given to untold stories. Tunisian media should attempt to inform readers with concrete stories of the refugees and asylum-seekers in the country. Often today, this approach is left to international news outlets covering developments in Tunisia.
Reporting on migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers should occupy regular space in Tunisian news coverage. This will help avoid the sporadic reporting in response to individual incidents and events that so often reaches the news today.
*Note: Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh has announced that the country will reopen its borders on June 27.