Dehumanisation is a thrown-around word that deserves all of our respect. To be dehumanised is something no individual should ever go through or feel. Yet, it may reflect a process that has become more and more common in the digital era and maybe even in contemporary society within the imaginary divisions of our brains. To dehumanise someone, is to deprive them of humanity. Of human qualities, human rights, and their inherent single right to be alive. The right to live. As such, there are several ways in which several humans are set aside and rejected in comparison to others. There are possibly reasons, which are hardly legitimate. But above all, there is influence. The topic in debate is the media and its influence on the dehumanisation and lives of refugees. As a consequence, there is violence deeply rooted in racism and prejudice.
In 2022, Europe has seen millions of Ukrainian refugees crossing the borders of many European countries and being warmly welcomed to temporary or semi-permanent homes with host families and spaces converted to help those who are in need. However, on further analysis, we cannot say the sympathy shown for the refugees fleeing Ukraine is the same for non-European refugees. This behaviour is unquestionably reprehensible. Socially, politically, but also in the media and further. In 2015, for example, with the Syrian Refugee crisis, the reaction could not be more different, with fences built at five borders, border control being enforced, and changes to legislation that restricted several of the rights of asylum seekers. [1]
But we live in the age of globalisation, and some of us have easy access to the media. What role does it play in dehumanising people and in discriminating against refugees? How does this reflect in public opinion? And finally, how can it be reversed?
Nelle Renberg (@nellerenberg) is a Danish photographer and videographer who, in her photography, focuses on identity, social norms and is keen on telling stories, often of "people outside the conventional and fast moving society". She adds, however, that photography is a way of keeping her eyes open to the world and not forgetting the human essence that composes the layers under which the world and society are structured. Nelle prefers to work with analogic photography, is a passionate citizen of the world, and has worked with television, video and photography in several countries such as China, Brazil, Serbia, the United States, Lebanon, Greenland, Uganda, amongst many others.
In her 2016 project From a Distance, Nelle travelled to Calais, France, to work on a documentary film. Eventually, she started questioning her purpose for being there and her place in the refugee camp. What she first noticed was the presence of the media. Like her, there were other photographers, each documenting daily life in the camp. So initially, she volunteered. When she returned to Berlin, after ten days in Calais, Nelle was asked to join an exhibition with Amnesty International Berlin about racism, to which she agreed, though recognising she still hadn't found her angle in the project.
"How can I show racism in photography? And then it hit me [...] taking my role as a photographer, as the topic. There were so many photographers there, and all of them were white; all of them were from some media entity trying to rip out some story. Some of them were there for a long time, but others for a short time. So I started taking pictures of other people taking pictures too".
nelle renberg
© nelle renberg
And so the project began. She heard people's stories and respected the refugees' preference and need to remain anonymous. After all, the role of a photographer is important to the point that some people's identities may be at risk if they are disclosed to the wrong people. It is also essential for the media to reflect on their stories, how they are being told, written, and spoken about, and whether what they are doing is good or damaging.
One could argue that between the first public reaction to the Syrian Refugee Crisis in 2015 and the response to the displacement of Ukrainian people in 2022, there have been years of social change, therefore, that could explain the difference in the way refugees were welcomed to many countries in Europe (and the world). However, there are still refugees coming from many countries - including Syria, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and so on- living under dehumanising conditions in refugee camps. Calais is known for having the police regularly confiscate tents, sleeping bags and personal items of people just trying to obtain a visa to travel further. It is known for the barbed wires and the news of hundreds of deaths of those who desperately try to cross the waters between Britain and continental Europe. And now, it is also known for having Ukrainian refugees arriving there and British and French immigration officials welcoming them to hostels, buses, or trains that will take them elsewhere, leaving many other people behind. [2]
The effort, kindness and humanity should not be just extended to a particular group of people when it has been proved it can be extended further if there is a will and the means to do so. Now, the media can and has a vital role here too. Nowadays, there are documentaries and articles on the topic everywhere on TV, in newspapers, on social media and further. But as there are more documentaries, there is perhaps also a growing apathy. The media needs to be careful on how to portray stories that avoid sensationalism, which involves understanding the danger of retelling stories that are not understood in the first person. Social media is fast-moving. The shorter the headline, the easiest it is gone, completely forgotten. As Nelle puts it:
"If you can't say it in one sentence, it's like it's not there."
nelle renberg
© nelle renberg
From now on, it might be important not to forget Ukraine's Refugee Crisis. It shows us that where there are open hearts, there are open borders, free train tickets, host families, and successful asylum procedures. The solidarity shown to the Ukrainian refugees was beautiful, why can't we reproduce it with everyone else? It is important to remember that everything reprehensible can be fixed, adjusted, or changed. The dehumanisation of refugees can be as well as a matter of knowledge, a matter of power. An implied hierarchical sense of superiority, double standards and hypocrisy can be changed with something as easy as openness to recognise humans and their individual rights to life.
In a world where our future seems to be unstable, with the impacts of not only wars, political instability, but especially climate change, there is a very high possibility that there will be more displacement and movement of people around the globe, especially with the numbers of climate refugees increasing exponentially every year. So providing that this instability seems already quite dark and painful in the eyes of most of us, perhaps it is time to rethink human kindness and the act of giving without expecting something back. We will all need help at some point in our lives; we are humans. But we can be more than just humans, we can be compassionate. If we all opened our brains, our hearts, perhaps there would not be closed borders.
[1] ICMDP (International Centre for Migration Policy Development) (2015) 2015 in review: policy responses to the refugee crisis. 21 December.

nelle renberg
© nelle renberg