Reporting the New Arrivals
By Kate Lyons, The Guardian
In the spring and summer of 2015, as thousands of people crossed into and across Europe, every newspaper in Britain devoted front page after front page to the so-called European migration crisis or refugee crisis.
For weeks, there were stories of people who were boarding leaky boats, walking and hitchhiking, being tear-gassed and trafficked, in a desperate attempt to reach western Europe. Then in March 2016, the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, boat arrivals slowed and the coverage all but stopped.
This was the political and journalistic situation when the Guardian, along with El Pais, Le Monde and Der Spiegel, funded by the Gates Foundation and supported by the European Journalism Centre, launched the New Arrivals, a project that aimed to tell the next chapter of the story of migration to Europe.
There were now more than a million people who had come to Europe seeking asylum in just a few years, what were their lives like? How had their new countries embraced or disappointed them? What about those left behind?
The brief was exciting but challenging. Those who work in newsrooms know how difficult it can be to get readers to be interested in refugee stories. They are a hard sell – too challenging, too worthy, too confronting for people to click on in large number. This, of course, was part of the point. We were being asked to find ways to tell these stories that would make people care.
Addressing this required considerable editorial resourcefulness. We told stories using films, podcasts, short punchy news stories, data-based journalism, long-form features, photo essays. We partnered with the other newspapers on joint projects and translated their excellent work into English for our readers.
It was one of the great privileges of the project that we could spend so long on one subject and were able to hear from asylum seekers themselves about the key issues facing them. This, and the time we had to focus on our subject, was particularly valuable in a subject area as fraught, complicated and human as immigration.
One of the key goals we had for the project was trying to present clear and factual information to readers in an area rife with misinformation and sharp political agendas. Every single article had to be written for the reader who was approaching the subject for the first time. We produced regular explainer articles and explainer videos busting some of the typical myths about asylum seeking, which we embedded in other stories and which did very well.
Another goal was to present cases empathetically, to try to get people to engage with the humanity of asylum seekers. As a rule, immigration stories do not bring out the best in the internet. Comments often have to be turned off, or at least pre-moderated on these stories, particularly in the British press, which a report prepared for UNHCR in December 2015 found was the most “polarised and aggressive” when it came to reporting on refugees.
But when we succeeded in crossing that empathy barrier, we knew it. The Guardian closely followed the story of an Afghan father and son who had become separated from the rest of their family – the man’s wife and other six children – on their journey to Europe. Whenever we wrote about them there was an outpouring of compassion. People would write in offering the family gifts, money, practical assistance; people living in Turkey and Iran, where the missing family members were believed to be, wrote to offer to help search for them.
Perhaps the most unexpected challenge of the project was the uncertainty. They say a newspaper never takes on a campaign it doesn’t know it will win. In this case, each paper was given the task of following a family or a group of migrants and had no idea how their story would unfold.
In the Guardian’s case, our story ended in an unexpected and tragic way. Two years after smuggling himself into Britain, the man we were following paid smugglers to get him and his son out again. The system had failed them and rather than wait and hope, the father gave up and decided he would have better luck going back to Afghanistan and searching for his missing wife and children himself.
It was not the end we expected, nor is it a typical experience of asylum seekers, but the longevity and focus of the project meant we were able to watch it unfold and in reporting it, offer another lens through which to see the refugee experience and the British asylum system.
Kate Lyons was the Guardian’s lead reporter for the New Arrivals series. She is now a reporter on the Guardian’s international desk based in Sydney. Reach her on Twitter @MsKateLyons.