Monetising grief: Humanitarian television in refugee settlements

October 08, 2017
Uncertain future. A displaced Iraqi woman stands with her child at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in the Sharia area, 15km from the city of Dohuk. (AFP)

Tales of wartime survival and exile have typically been communicated by displaced individuals who lived to tell their tale. We have read their memoirs, listened to their stories and watched their journey to safety broadcast live.
With the emergence of satel­lite television and new media, refugees, it seems, are no longer guardians of their story or mes­sage. The scenes of horror many fled have inspired a broad range of responses and television corpo­rations recognise these prickly subjects are too large to ignore.
Because it is not possible to deny the commercial value of televi­sion news shows addressing the refugee crisis, we can question their morality. Do they educate, challenge, defy misconceptions about refugees or normalise the permanent state of homelessness for these populations?
These are the questions that coursed through my mind upon watching the second series of the BBC “Insider,” which takes viewers on a journey to Iraq’s largest refu­gee camp in Dohuk, Domiz, as told by presenter Reggie Yates.
The chosen format is a curious one. The host enters the camp and undergoes the same vetting procedures as refugees. With noth­ing but a rucksack and the clothes on his back, Yates arrives into the UN-run encampment as though he was displaced by conflict. He then trudges through a barren terrain in a staged replay of a small part of the painful journey walked by every refugee.
The documentary cannot be critiqued for what it says but for what it does not say. Abundantly clear throughout the 50-minute feature is that no in-depth analysis of how the refugees came to be in Domiz was intended. By stripping away the context, the perilous journey refugees embarked upon to reach the camp is discounted.
Beyond the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, the audience was told little about the people’s uprising and the bloody crackdown unleashed by Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad. Viewers were also told virtually nothing about Iraq’s 3 million internally displaced people.
Another dangerous as­sumption that moves steadily throughout is that little is change­able. The positive image of the camp and the UN handiwork teaches audiences that life churns on in these quasi-cities and the economy, as Yates describes, is “thriving.”
As we know, however, this is no land of milk and honey.
Less apparent to viewers are the absence of diverse voices and the mono-ethnic make-up of camp residents. There is a brief history of the camp and the numbers it was built to accommodate but not much about whom the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq accepts to host. The over­whelming majority of refugees who are featured speak Kurdish. With surgical attention to detail, viewers can also catch glimpses of KRG President Masoud Barzani’s portrait sneaking on screen.
As informative as it appears, the documentary monetises grief, even if to deliver messages that garner much-needed attention while skimming over important facts. The BBC is not alone. Other broadcasters have rushed to enlist celebrities to shine the stage light on refugees while denying them the microphone.
The privileged status celebri­ties have is what provides the access to a space no person has settled into wittingly. If this ap­proach encourages positive images and participation in humanitarian efforts, no harm can be done but, lest we forget, the primary pur­pose of these shows is to entertain. Education comes second to that.
The existence of the camps is a phenomenon necessary to explore but humanitarian reality television may not be the answer.
The lasting damage is when programmers design shows that abandon the promise of change, when the populations themselves refuse to let up.