Drago Župarić-Iljić

Drago Župarić-Iljić is a sociologist, working as a research associate at the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies in Zagreb. He also teaches at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Zagreb. He defended his thesis on the topic of environmental change as a driver of migration. His research interests include migration and asylum studies, as well as ethnic studies with a focus on issues of post-migration phenomena of cultural diversity, and integration of migrants and minorities, with a special concern for Central and Southeast Europe. He has published several articles, reports and edited a volume on asylum protection in the Balkans. The interview with Drago Župarić-Iljić was conducted by Martina Prokl Predragović. She works as a communications officer at Jesuit Refugee Service in Croatia and also created the Fact sheet on Media and Migration in Croatia for the New Neighbours project.

For some years now, there has been much talk in Europe about a refugee crisis. Would you agree that there was a crisis? Is Europe still facing a migration crisis?

A “crisis” was first and foremost a crisis of European values of humanity and solidarity and, secondly, a humanitarian crisis fostered by non-adequate answers of the EUrope to increased arrivals of people in need of protection and/or better life. The refugee situation is one of the permanent challenges for international human rights, humanitarian and protection regimes, but the real problems are somewhere else, in 85% of “developing countries” who are hosting the most of displaced population. Therefore, EUrope is facing an internal crisis of its identity and mission in regards to freedom of movement and restricted movement and push-backs of those struggling to get here.

Thinking beyond the crisis, what should be the priority in the EU’s and/or Croatian migration governance?

It is a vast term – “migration governance”. EU should work on more effective protection regimes and coherent mechanisms of solidarity in redistributing populations in need. Instead of closed borders and militarized and criminalized migration issues, it should start to tackle these as a potential and a chance for economic, social and demographic revitalization of the continent. Troubling security issues should be solved within the continent and not far away externalizing systems of border controls and asylum deep in the Sahara Desert or deporting people back to war-torn areas. The Croatian role should and could be more humane than it is at the moment, playing a role of a watchdog and a policeman for Europe’s guilty conscience. Last but not least, a regime of humanitarian visas and temporary protections should be introduced, as well as investing into development programmes in the countries of origin, and stopping the wars in those. Unfortunately, western democracies are better at heating the conflicts than stopping them.

European media are often seen by civil society organizations as at least partly responsible for allowing the populist far-right to frame the debate on refugees, asylum seekers and migrants and to contribute to a negative discourse. What does research reveal about the objectivity and tone of media coverage?

There are some ambiguous results made in researches by my colleagues. While some emphasize objective and neutral media portrayals during the event of the Balkan corridor, others are informing about biased reporting characterized by victimization discourses, security notions, humanitarianism discourses, false argumentations and the usage of terms that focus on incidents and sensationalism. On the other hand, there are really devoted and dedicated researchers-journalists bringing more systematic, person-oriented, positive stories, in general, also being very critical toward border regime, and rigid asylum policies.

How do Croatian media report on migrants and refugees, and how has the tone in reporting on these topics changed in recent years?

According to these researches first we have seen change in the rhetoric. The term refugee in summer of 2015 was changed to migrant, and then to illegal migrant after the closure of the Balkan corridor. From a more humane and humanitarian tone, in accordance with official rhetoric of ex-minister Ranko Ostojić, we got to the discourses of security, of threat, endangerment, fear, moral panic that we have today. It is not enough to say that public opinion depends only on media representation in a situation when highly ranked politicians, ministries and even a president are using primarily securitization discourses when discussing migration issues. It’s almost as if you have unison voices on Croatian national television who are accusing NGOs for helping ‘migrants’ in ‘illegal’ activities of border crossings. That is a big strike on the citizens’ potential and willingness for solidarity, similar to the trends in the Visegrad countries. Luckily there are some pockets of resistance to this prevailing atmosphere among human and civil rights actors, enthusiasts, and some refugees themselves who work on changing these discourses.

Where do media fail in refugee and migration reporting?

In a primary postulate – to bring an objective, multiperspective point of view and evidences for any contested sentence they are about to convey from the side of stakeholders. Secondly, they fail to approach to this topic in more of a systematic and continuous manner. Thirdly, they often tend to exclude voices of those who are just objectivized in their reports – refugees and migrants themselves, instead of giving them chance to speak for themselves. And fourthly, instead on focusing mostly on real or constructed negativities, some more positive examples and good practices related to the topic could affect public attitudes more in a welcoming culture way. And lastly, they should embrace a proper terminology when reporting.

How can media and journalists do a better job when reporting on refugee and migration issues?

Not to repeat what I said in the previous answer, they might approach the people, and ask refugees and migrants for their opinions and perspectives. Among some official actors they should always use the triangular method of checking their sources at least from three different addresses. They could also follow the stories of success, for example, in regards to integration practices, emancipation, solidarity and social cohesion. Journalists should not be impressed by official stances and should critically question the work of institutions, nor should they always bring the stories of refugees and migrants without double-checking consistencies of their testimonies and narratives. I guess that both could add to more objective, neutral and de-passionate reporting, although playing on audiences’ feelings should work more in an informing and sensibilizing manner, rather than spreading panic.

What kind of interactions between migration trends, political dynamics and media coverage can be observed?

Media is oftentimes a proponent of prevailing political discourse. Nowadays we have moral panic in society about three interrelated things: increased emigration, poor demographic and economic prospects, and irregular migration and border control. It seems that one could trigger others, for example you may hear in public that we should not accept refugees because ‘our people’ are leaving the country. It is the first time in the contemporary history of Croatia that migration as such is becoming one of the pivotal issues in the political campaigns and parties’ programmes. Unfortunately, still little is formed as any sensible and coherent programme in which migration trends are seen as a potential rather than a catastrophe of any kind. Independent media services are trying to fight prevailing modes of reporting and bring about more neutral and more objective reportages.

How is the public and medial discourse on these topics influenced by politics?

There are many researches on public attitudes towards migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and others, and the ways how politics are influencing these. Needless to say that politicians as well as other significant public persons are opinion-makers. Media is here to convey their message to general public and very often to co-create these attitudes. It seems however, stemming from our research, that the media as the primary source of information still does not influence public attitudes to any significant level, definitely not that significant as any other known and usual sociodemographic and contextual variables, which a researcher needs to take into account. It is posited that being male, older, dogmatically religious, strongly nationally identified, politically conservative or right and far-right, and less educated is oftentimes associated with negative attitudes. Somewhat similar we have got in researches in Croatian context, although we cannot claim that all that majority who got the first initial information about migrants, refugees, and asylum through mainstream media will have more negative attitudes in comparison to others whose primary source of information were schools or other institutions, family, colleagues at works, and else.

What aspects and issues related to migration, asylum, integration and diversity are at the moment important and relevant to media coverage in Croatia? What are the central topics in this context? What is not reported?

Definitely it is a process of distribution of people and acceptance and accommodation in local communities of those refugees coming through resettlement and to lesser extent relocation programmes. This process was vastly covered by the media, far more than those cases of refugees through ‘regular procedure’, for the reason that now we have the allocation of people across the country, in comparison to the period of 2003-2016. Regional centres and smaller cities are now becoming new homes for this population, which also brings new integration challenges. Different dimensions of inclusion are at stake: housing, language learning and cultural orientation, education, employment, social care, health services. The sensitization of general public and working on social cohesion in local communities is necessary if we want to see the results of good integration models. Thus, what is reported is mostly the initial phase of their coming to local communities, later stories are covered in a non-systematic and discontinuous manner.

In which way the coexistence and neighbourhood of immigrants or newcomers and locals is discussed in the Croatian media?

Very timidly, but for example “New Neighbours”, a documentary film series, was a great help for us in order to see how things work in other capitals, in another context. It is yet to be surveyed and researched about this, I cannot say that much has been done in this regard up to now.

Has it become harder to distinguish between refugees and migrants? Is that actually a well-asked question?

It is a legitimate question and the answer is yes, it has become harder to distinguish between refugees and migrants. Refugees are just one part of overall migrant population that is about a billion of people on Earth. They are forced migrants and displaced across their national borders, who presumably got some sort of protection status. On the other hand, migrants, be them voluntary or involuntary, regular, or irregular, are in most of the cases those who move in order to achieve better life. But in todays’ world better life also means safe life, and if one’s safety is shaken by war, violence, persecution, he or she could be recognized as a refugee, unlike people whose safety is shaken by poverty, deprivation, climate. All these categories diffuse, the latter could be consequences of the former, or sometimes they could lead to the former. On the migratory path one person could change, some say ‘mix’, his or her status falling into or out of different categories that an observer, a researcher or an assistant could come up with in order to designate that person’s unique experience of moving. It is a human being that stands behind all these layers of concepts and meanings.

Where do you see the main challenges in the context of media and migration – today and in the future?

The future direction that EUrope will take. Unfortunately, it does not seem optimistic to think that securitization will prevail as a hand that punishes, with a small humanitarian hand that protects, but these are the tendencies. The media role is to remind us, but sometimes it looks like we have become dumb and deaf on media reportings. Spectacularization of deaths, missing and suffering at sea and continental borders has created the culture of apathy towards refugees. Social psychologists would say that each empathy has its own expiration date, thus, we all need to foster solidarity and social cohesion in-between and among local communities where newcomers are striving to integrate into. On the other hand, citizens have to fight back imputed discourses of moral panic and threat in order to ensure and exercise solidarity with people in need as their new neighbours.

Please note: This text is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.