The crisis of refugees’ representation in campaigning and advocacy

Forced Migration, Communication and Media Coverage

by Vasiliki Apatzidou

This project aims to deal with the crisis of refugees’ representation in campaigning and advocacy and propose for an alternative approach to this issue.

 Ιmages and stories the campaigners or advocates use to serve the representational project/goal can silence the subjects – the refugees, and take away their agency. This is happening by perpetuating images of refugees as vulnerable and tragic figures, that have no choice, in order to persuade the wider public how much they suffer and to touch upon the heart of the people, and in this way to both achieve fundraising aims and reshape political commitments and legislation reforms. This way of presenting refugees is contributing to the silencing of them as active and critical subjects and it is failing to represent the lively and critical voices of refugees.

 In 2008, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Greece launched an advertising campaign, the driving theme of which was the phrase (there are ghosts around us). The campaign included a pamphlet, television spot, and posters at bus stops throughout Athens. On the pamphlet, three faces, two men and one woman, peer out of a black backdrop, half in shadow. Refugees, the UNHCR in Greece suggests, are “ghosts” for a few different reasons. First, they have in a sense “died,” having left behind the lives, social ties, and the places that “belong to them.” Second, they are hunted and afraid, as they run from place to place, unable to rest. Finally, they may also frighten the assumed viewer: the final image in the television spot features the elderly man gazing directly at the viewer, as he emerges finally out of shadow.

This campaign is an indicative example of the representation of “the refugee,” with the accompanying stereotypes that it entails: in this case, a hunted, frightened ghost, with no choices.

The problem in this kind of advocacy projects is the loss of agency for refugees presenting them as victims rather than survivors and as objects rather than subjects. The lives of refugees are often presented by humanitarian agencies in ways that draw attention to their suffering, This is perhaps unsurprising. The work of humanitarian agencies depends on them knowing the most pressing issues faced by displaced populations. The pressure to identify needs and deliver programs that demonstrate impact as well as ‘value for money’, alongside the imperative to obtain funding, can compromise how research is conducted with refugees and how their experiences are represented. 

Narrowly framing the experiences of refugees can result in refugees being positioned as always needing assistance or external intervention not able to partcicipate in the economic activities of the countries. The act of representation is itself political. When refugees are perpetually presented as vulnerable, suffering, and somehow lacking, it reinforces the hierarchies between humanitarian agencies and the communities (or ‘beneficiaries’) they serve.

This general trend contributes to the overarching narrative that does not seek to see the person behind the label applied to them, and has designated migrants and refugees as victims and people incapable of helping themselves.

This presentation aims to change this narrative and propose to the advocates/campaigners and humanitarian organisations an alternative approach as per the representation of refugees: presenting them as powerful subjects that have agency and identity and can actively participate in policy and reform dialogues. In this way, inclusion and empowerment of refugees will be promoted rather than victimhood.


Vasiliki Apatzidou

Vasiliki Apatzidou is a Greek Lawyer that has an LLM in International and European Law from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and KU Leuven. After completing her legal studies, she decided to deal with the issue of forced displacement and she completed the MA International Humanitarian Action with a focus on Forced Migration & Human Security at the University of Groningen and the University of Malta. She is a legal practicioner that was worked for more than 3 years in the field in Greek refugee camps at the borders, detention centres and shelters of unaccompanied children.