Stories for justice: redefining the migrant ‘crisis’

by International Relations and Development student Maozya Murray

Whether fictional, biographical or mythical, stories wrap and encapsulate our entire lives. Constructing our waking identities and filling our dream space, stories build narratives, create meaning and justify decisions.

Storytelling is primal and archetypal, serving as a way to transmit important survival tips, valuable information and timeless wisdom from one community or individual to another. Today, stories are used to campaign for social change, create publicity, fundraising appeals, gripping news stories and so much more. In the framework of the refugee ‘crisis’, a positive representation of migration fosters empathy for displaced lives and connects us to our common humanity. As a powerful tool for changing mindsets, today, storytelling plays a central role in redefining the narrative surrounding the migrant ‘crisis’.

Research shows that when we bond with a character, in a story, our brain releases oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for empathy, and narrative transportation. Empathy gives rise to understanding, in turn, changing our attitudes and shaping our behaviour. In regard to social justice, our connection to the participants factors largely in whether we choose to campaign, volunteer, or donate to a cause.

A study led by the cognitive scientist Veronique Boulenger revealed that the brain engages with emotive stories the same as it would with experience. In this way, effective storytelling replicates reality and enables us to become actors in the tale.

Refugee Solidarity Rally, Oneida Square Roundabout, NY. Image by Lilly Yangcen, WordPress

In the historical context, the anti-immigration sentiment in the UK is a relatively new story. In 1997, just 3% of the population cited immigration as an issue, and yet less than 20 years later, the figures raised to 48%. While immigration to the UK remained comparatively low, the years between 1997 and 2016 represented a shift in the way immigration was depicted.

The demonization of migrants in the media, film and political debate, drastically shifted public opinion by reshaping the narrative into one of fear and anxiety. Changing the story, gave legitimacy to the anti-immigration hostile environment, the Windrush Scandal and subsequent racial discrimination.  

The increasingly hostile narrative that surrounds refugees and asylum seekers is not reflective of the effects of immigration on the UK, but of the power of storytelling in shifting public opinion and consequently policy. In truth, most of the racist myths and rhetoric can be debunked by simple fact checks.

By redefining the story, we can return to a narrative of humanity and awareness for the millions displaced every year by war, persecution or violence.

‘The global solidarity crisis’ – a factual insight. Image by Amnesty International via Amnesty

In recent years, the fuelling of far-right nationalistic ideologies has seen media outlets metaphorically delegitimize and dehumanize migrants through ‘ideologically represented story lines’. Natural disaster, parasite, crime, and terrorism metaphors, are employed to suppress empathy and compassion for migrating people, and evoke fear for security and livelihood.

A study that analysed 57 media articles over a period of 2 years (2015-2016) revealed that negative metaphors make up 67% of the collected data. These imaginary story lines establish a xenophobic narrative that deepens the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and justifies harsh immigration policy. They may just seem like words, but certain metaphors are ‘deeply entrenched in our collective unconscious’ and create myths and stereotypes that have far-reaching consequences for migrant lives. In this way, negative storytelling is used as a tool to further the agenda of anti-immigration politics.

Like Starlings, migration is a fundamental part of our nature. Greg Kear via fineartamerica

As a pillar of anti-migration sentiment, stories play a vital role in shifting the narrative. By knowing someone’s story, we build relationships with strangers, allowing us to stretch our moral sensibility – thus motivating us to act in the name of social justice. Giving a platform to refugee tales can be an effective way to do this, by engaging people’s natural and customary care for each other. Through the amplification of refugee voices in film, theatre, public events, spoken word, or media outlets, we can break the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Storytelling connects humanity and elicits empathy and solidarity.

As our primary method of communication for over 40,000 years, it is an engaging and powerful tool in the fight for social justice. Transcending border, nationality and religion, stories unite us in the understanding that our similarities are more fundamental than our differences – that ‘differences’ are constructed and propagated to keep us afraid and apart.

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