Reporting on refugees who have survived trauma

When people ask what my name is and where I’m from, the answer is complex. 

My name, Ronahi, is Kurdish. But when my Dad registered my birth, the Syrian authorities twisted it to Lonai – Kurds in Syria weren’t allowed to register babies with Kurdish names. 

I don’t have my own country: the traditional Kurdish homelands are scattered across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. 

In 2009, after fleeing Syria, I arrived in the United Kingdom. I didn’t speak English, had three children, and worked hard to integrate myself. Once I learned the language, I decided to apply to the University of South Wales to study journalism: now that I could express myself, I wanted to educate Western people about the plight of the Kurds and other groups experiencing prejudice.

I graduated in 2016, and was awarded the university’s journalism prize. The following year, I was honoured at the Welsh Media Awards for a feature that explored what it was like to live in a city under siege by ISIS. As a student, and now as a freelance journalist, I have covered many stories about refugees and asylum seekers.

So drawn from my work – and my experience as a refugee – here are eight things journalists should keep in mind when reporting on migration:

Understand the difference between migrants and refugees

Avoid conflating the terms “migrant” and “refugee”. A migrant is someone who moved to another country to work, study or join family members. A refugee is someone seeking asylum who has been forced to flee their country because of war, persecution and violence. 

Do not frame refugees and migrants differently depending on where they are from

Sometimes the media depicts refugees from Middle Eastern and North African countries differently to refugees from other areas who might appear more culturally familiar to the West. Think deeply about this as you report, and constantly ask if the framing and lens through which you tell a story is shaped by bias. 

Include the voices of migrants and refugees in your reporting

When covering migration, reflect the voices and views of refugees and migrants in your work. It’s often not enough to quote experts, officials and policy makers: you’ll produce better work if you seek to diversify your sources and include refugee experiences.

Understand the cultural context

Before you interview someone, try to understand their background as best as possible, and consider ways to approach and handle cultural issues during the interview. For example, in Syria there are two primary ethnic groups: Arabs and Kurds. Many Western journalists overlook this distinction, and therefore cultural differences between the two groups. 

Find the right interpreters

If you need to use an interpreter, spend time finding the right one. Ensure, for example, that they share the same dialect, not just the same language, as your interviewee. (Kurdish has many dialects and some are very difficult to understand). Additionally, make sure that your interpreter adopts a trauma-informed approach, and discuss what that looks like before an interview. 

Work to gain informed consent

When covering migration, journalists should be aware that their sources have often experienced trauma. It’s important, therefore, to gain their trust and informed consent at the start of any interview. Make sure that you clearly introduce yourself, explain who you are working for and how and when any piece might run, and outline the subjects you’d like to talk about. 

Set clear boundaries

Setting boundaries is essential, not only for the integrity of the interview but the well-being of both the journalist and the interviewee. Feeling empathy and wanting to help survivors of trauma is natural and normal. And while it’s important for an interviewer to demonstrate warmth and empathy, showing too much distress can make survivors feel blame, shame or be distracted from the interview.

Don’t assume your source is safe

Don’t assume that refugees who have fled their country are now safe. Some people will have family back home, and media appearances might damage their chance of returning. Check carefully whether interviewee’s want to conceal their identity, and that they are happy with the level of detail included in the piece.