The United Nations will convene its first ever Summit on Refugees and Migrants in New York on Monday, to be followed Tuesday by President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis. The hope is that these meetings will foster concerted action to address the highest levels of forced displacement since World War II. But in the Middle East — the center of the current refugee crisis — such lofty international efforts seem far removed from realities on the ground.
The MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region is a key point of transit for refugees from Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria. Neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have absorbed the vast majority of Syrian refugees.
How do Arab citizens view this crisis? And how do different actors leverage the refugee issue?
Quantitative and qualitative analysis of 1.6 million Arabic tweets (translated into English when quoted below) about Syrian refugees collected at New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) Lab between February 2015 and July 2016 offer three preliminary insights:
1. The Arab twittersphere sees the refugees as victims, not threats
In Europe and North America, online discourse on the refugee crisis has been characterized by a great deal of anti-refugee and Islamophobic rhetoric. But by far most MENA-based tweets about Syrian refugees portray them as victims in need of support.
Indeed, qualitative coding of the most retweeted tweets in our dataset using the Crowdflower data enrichment platform suggests that 59 percent of the most popular tweets characterized refugees as victims or deserving of sympathy, while only 3 percent portrayed refugees as threatening or undesirable. (Coders found that fewer than 1 percent identified refugees as traitors to their country or religion, 3 percent portrayed refugees in some other way and 33 percent used the term “refugees” but communicated no opinion about them.)
Quantitative analysis of the full dataset reveals a similar pattern. As the figure below demonstrates, Twitter interest spiked after the drowning of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee child. The photo of his body washed up on a Turkish beach went viral on online and via traditional media channels worldwide. As a result, some of the most popular hashtags in our dataset highlight the danger facing refugees heading to Europe, including #Drowning_of_a_Syrian_Child, #Mediterranean_Sea_of_Death, and #200_Syrian_Muslims_Drowned_in_the_Sea.
2. Arab countries are considered primarily responsible for the refugee crisis
The regime of President Bashar al-Assad and Arab governments were the actors most often held responsible for the refugee crisis, as found by qualitative coding of popular tweets and more systematic quantitative analysis of actor name frequency. This finding upsets a common expectation that the United States, Israel, Iran or other powerful foreign actors are particularly likely to be blamed.
Not only is the Assad regime blamed for Syrians suffering , the refugee crisis is often framed with anti-Shia and anti-Iranian rhetoric. Sectarian framing may be displacing anti-American or anti-Israeli rhetoric on social media.
For example, one popular image shows Assad walking with Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei past drowned Alan Kurdi, implying that they are responsible for his death.
Arab governments are also widely criticized for doing too little for the refugees. Alan Kurdi’s father blamed his son’s death on the Gulf states’ failure to take in more refugees, giving rise to the hashtags, originally in Arabic: #Receiving_Syrian_Refugees_is_a_Gulf_Duty and the Saudi hashtag #Receiving_Refugees_is_the_People’s_Demand. Saudi officials took to social media to defend their actions.
3. ISIS vilifies refugees online
Shortly after the image of Alan Kurdi spread, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) began a Twitter campaign of its own, using the hashtag #Refugees_To_Where, urging Muslims not to seek refuge in the West.
Tweets in our dataset suggest that ISIS had two key messages. First was that going to Europe wasn’t safe, attempting to scare people with images of refugees drowning, being beaten by European police, or suffering other indignities. Second was that refugees were religious traitors or apostates to encourage them to stay in the land of Islam (“Dar al-Islam”). One pro-ISIS tweet, for instance, translates to: “What a contrast between the tears in his eye which God calls on him to migrate to the #Islamic_State and choosing to kill himself rather than migrate to the land of infidels #Refugees_to_where.”
What does this mean for refugee policy?
Our data suggests that the Arab world feels a great deal of humanitarian concern for refugees, little fear of them, and significant agreement that regional governments can and should take significant responsibility.
But there are reasons for concern. First, although Syrian refugees are often portrayed as suffering humans in need of help, public attention spans are short. With the exception of the galvanizing image of Alan Kurdi, compassion has been fleeting. Refugee policy cannot depend on viral images and sentiment.
Second, although Syrian refugees were rarely characterized as threats in our dataset, that may change. For instance, Jordan recently closed its northeast border to Syrian refugees in response to a June 21 car bombing. Explaining the decision not to allow direct humanitarian access, a government spokesman said, “This is becoming a Daesh enclave on our borders and the security of Jordanian people supersedes any other concern.”
Further violence, economic hardship and sectarian conflict could all lead MENA countries toward the closed border policies seen in some parts of Europe and North America. Mitigating the worst humanitarian crisis of our time is going to take more than viral images and hashtag diplomacy.
Alexandra Siegel is a graduate student researcher in the New York University Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) Lab and a Ph.D. candidate in the Wilf Family Department of Politics at New York University. The full SMaPP Data Report on which this post is based is available here.
Chris Tenove is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics and Munk School for Global Affairs. His work on this project is part of a forthcoming series for OpenCanada.org titled “The War Is Just a Click Away.”