Student journalists face the challenge of reporting on asylum

News Stories, 27 December 2005

© UNHCR/S.O'Brien
Irish journalism student Tara Finglas (left), winner of UNHCR Ireland's asylum reporting competition (2005), receives her award from UNHCR's Representative to Ireland, Pia Prytz Phiri.

DUBLIN, Ireland, December 27 (UNHCR) As a prize for winning an asylum reporting competition among journalism schools in Ireland, UNHCR's Representation in Dublin sent a student journalist to Romania to witness developments in refugee protection on the borders of the European Union.

In a joint initiative of the UNHCR offices in Ireland and Romania, the winner visited Bucharest to see developments in the Romanian asylum system and was invited to write an article for UNHCR's website.

The winner, Tara Finglas, a 22 year-old student from the Institute of Technology in Dublin, has just completed her graduate level course in journalism.

She was awarded first place in the competition for her article on the myths that surround asylum and refugees in Ireland. The competition was open to students in Ireland's media schools.

Through the competition, which ran over the summer, UNHCR hoped to promote good journalism on refugee issues among student journalists in Ireland. For Finglas, winning the competition added another dimension to her knowledge of refugees.

"Eastern Europe is going through a lot of change. It's undergoing reconstruction both socially and economically, so the chance to see for myself how Romania is dealing with asylum issues was interesting," said Finglas on her return from Romania.

Fresh from graduating, Finglas hopes to publish her article in a national newspaper, and to freelance for the time being. With an interest in human rights and development issues she had set her sights on a career as a foreign correspondent when she entered the competition.

"The chance to be on the ground with officials from the UNHCR gave me a terrific insight into how their work impacts on people," said Finglas. "We see the UN and UNHCR on television talking about their projects but going to Romania to visit asylum and refugee centres, and talking to both staff and asylum seekers personalized the asylum system," she added.

Finglas was particularly struck by her experience of meeting refugees in Romania.

"Sometimes people are afraid to approach refugees. But when I visited the reception centres in Bucharest I discovered how open refugees are speaking with you. Despite coping with personal trauma, I met refugees who were eager to tell me about themselves, and they were curious to know where I had come from. Most of all, I found that refugees want you to listen to their stories. They are not just another number or name, they are real people," Finglas said.

Questioning media practice in Ireland and elsewhere, Finglas believes there is a responsibility to report on the situation of refugees. "A lot of humanitarian stories are sometimes discarded from the newswire. There are nine million refugees worldwide and millions of others displaced in their own countries and many are simply forgotten by us," said Finglas. "Every night we see people starving or fleeing from their homes on news bulletins. Visiting Romania made these people and their stories ever more real and poignant to me."

Finglas said the issues surrounding refugees and asylum seekers are complex but writing the article gave her an insight into the situation.

"The Irish media has a love-hate relation with refugees and asylum seekers, with alarmist articles sometimes overshadowing positive stories," she said.

Finglas believes reporting by the Irish media on refugees needs to change with more emphasis placed on the refugees themselves.

"Some journalists concentrate on policies, whether government or NGO, rather than the actual people. I think the Irish public would like to hear direct personal accounts of what it is like to be a refugee, rather hear that refugees are people to be feared. A lot of refugees are people we know like the physicist Albert Einstein and today the singer Katie Melua," said Finglas.

UNHCR's Asylum Reporting Competition was originally conceived as a follow-on activity to a guide on good practice for reporting on asylum issues drafted by UNHCR's Representation in Ireland, the National Union of Journalists (Ireland), the National Consultative Committee on Racism & Interculturalism and the Irish Refugee Council in 2004.

UNHCR's Representative to Ireland, Pia Prytz Phiri, said the stories in the competition all showed a great empathy for refugees, which made her hopeful of seeing fair journalism on refugee issues in Ireland in the future.

"The idea was to try to engage students and young journalists, to give them an interest in refugees and the language they need to report on asylum. Asylum is a complex issue and it has been politicized in Europe and elsewhere," said Prytz Phiri.

"Frequently, refugees are confused with economic migrants, and refugees are depicted as simply being 'out for jobs', whereas the truth is far from this. Refugees are fleeing their homes out of fear for their lives to seek safety here, and nothing short of this," she added.

Prytz Phiri is concerned that journalists are failing to be accurate. "It's very important that journalists use accurate terminology to describe refugee situations, especially in their role as shapers of public opinion on asylum issues. Too frequently we've see bias, emotional or exaggerated or inaccurate language in reporting on refugees, which in turn has fuelled an irrational debate on refugees. Public hostility created by misunderstanding will not help us in the future."

The National Union of Journalists in Ireland which collaborated with UNHCR on producing a guide for journalists on refugee reporting, agrees it is important to invest in young Irish journalists and welcomed UNHCR's initiative.

"We have a deep concern about the coverage of very vulnerable groups, such as refugees, who being new to the country are in themselves a story, but their very difference can be sensationalised and treated in a way that increases the gap between them and society, rather than getting at the truth," said Ronan Brady, Cathaoirleach (Chairperson) of the Irish Executive Council of the National Union of Journalists.

Brady considers reporting on refugee and asylum issues important for student journalists.

"More than any other subject this issue has benefits for the student, offering opportunities for students to find out about different cultures, the international situation in countries refugees are leaving, and about different parts of the world," he said. "Reporting on asylum is not to be seen by the student as being generous or kind to refugees. It is a question of the student being accurate and fair. Both the new and the native communities need accurate journalism so that we can live more at ease together, with a better understanding of modern Ireland," Brady added.

By Steven O'Brien in Dublin, Ireland