World of Asylum Seekers and its Image in Media Coverage: Boundaries and Discourses


The paper I am presenting today is part of my Ph.D. research devoted to asylum seekers in Bulgaria.  My thesis is in the field of social anthropology but I use the multidisciplinary methodology and theory concepts.  The focus of presentation today is asylum seekers and their image in media coverage in Bulgaria. The main research question is: “How powerful institutions such as media“construct” the image of refugee/asylum seeker.” One of the main points of the study is that crossing border, includes not only physical movement, but also a complex system of series interrupted border crossings, through networks of permeable points, and the status “asylum seeker” is a mental and cultural border. Some of the networks that limit and shape the behavior of the asylum seekers are security experts, such as border police, anti-terrorist units, and migration services. Besides these, in the context of the European Union and its mechanisms for migration management, the institutions that have the ability to create attitudes and building images, such as the media, has an important role.

This is a broad problem, but due to time limitation, I will focus on some small but according to me, very important part of it.

First of all – how media builds an image of asylum seekers in Bulgaria and second – how this image reflects society, showing a case study from Bulgaria. Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants are often perceived as a possible threat for societies to which they are heading in search of humanitarian protection – viewpoint in which asylum seekers are perceived as an abnormality in the context of sedentary and stable society. In this discourse, refugees are “diversion” and “problem” that requires “correction” and “treatment” because otherwise,  they threaten to destroy the societies in which they arrive. In recent years – since 2011, the problem of refugees is seen mainly in the discourse of national and European security. Media fluctuate between terminology that includes phrases such as “European refugee crisis” and “migrant crisis”, “refugees”, “migrants”, “illegal migrants”, “invaders” etc. This perception often leads to underestimation of social and cultural aspects of migration phenomenon.

The internet is the main field of research. I analyzed broadcasts and news reports available on the digital archives of two main private national televisions in Bulgaria bTV and Nova.  From a research point of view, is interesting how those two TV channels own by powerful media corporations, reflect issues related to asylum seekers and refugees. Since the problem of refugees and asylum seekers in Bulgaria gained publicity about the military conflict in Syria, which began in 2011, the materials are discussed and analyzed in the article in the period 2012-2014. The years 2012-2013 were selected in order to understand what are the original attitudes and discourses that media expressed. In 2014, 12 children from the camp for temporary accommodation in Kovachevtsi (i.e. Children of families seeking asylum in Bulgaria) were enrolled in the first class in school in Kalishte – a village near Kovachevtsi. The situation provoked tension among local people which expressed their strong position: they wouldn’t like“these children to learn with “their” children”. The case of the village of Rozovo is similar to the line of co-residence and relation between “others” and “us”. But the difference, in this case, is the statute of Syrians people, who was recognized as refugees from the state’s authorities. Analysis of the way that institutions and people of Kalishte and Rozowo speak, aims to seek the influence of the media messages.

The study methodology involves interdisciplinary approaches use critical discourse analysis which is commonly put in practice in linguistic studies but also increasingly in the social sphere. By choosing the critical discourse analysis I aim to advance the analysis of social, political and intertextual context that goes beyond media reports and allows us to understand how to form a general picture of refugees. An important method is also content analysis of the content of media materials in order to find trends in coverage of refugee issues. Through content and discourse analysis of the content of media publications, my aim is to understand how ideologies weave into the language.

Mainstream media in Bulgaria often focus their news on the grounds of “illegality” and illegally crossing borders. Content analysis on materials from the archives of both private national television – Btv and Nova Tv, shows that in the period 2013-2016, the term “illegal migrants”, is very often used: namely 655 time, 309 of them is found in the Nova`s tv archives and 346 of the BTV. This term does not exist in the official documents of the institutions. The way of crossing the territorial borders is defined as “illegal” as it is done without presenting personal documents of the border police or outside checkpoints. “Illegal immigrant “, however, carries the idea that man himself is outside the law – illegal, criminal and threatening. Similar interpretations can be seen with the expressions and words through which they are described – “asylum seeker”, “refugee,” “migrant” and “foreigner”, which are often used as interchangeable synonymous. Their image is constructed mainly in the discourse of securitization. Often society wonders why, if these people really run away from problems and conflicts do not wish to provide their documents and refuse to be registered in Bulgaria as asylum seekers? The lack of personal documents that certify their identity is considered abnormal in European societies where the identity card or passport is a guarantee for who you really are. The lack of paper is equal to illegality and criminality; it is interpreted as a desire to hide someone’s identity.

You can find the whole article here.

Written by:  Svoboda M. Stoeva (Phd student in Social Antrhropology Plovdiv University “PaisiiHilendarski”)

*The feature image it is not defined by the author himself.

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