Seven things we’ve learned about adding a solutions focus to reporting on migration

Throughout May, The Local hosted four online sessions about incorporating solutions-focused reporting to the migration beat. Over the month 60 journalists took part, selected from more than 200 migration reporters who expressed interest in the training.

Seven things we've learned about adding a solutions focus to reporting on migration
Reporting only on extreme or exceptional events doesn't give the full picture.

We were lucky to be joined by reporters from 19 European countries, many of them with a migrant or refugee background and all of them with experience reporting on migration.

Here are seven takeaways from the discussions.

People admit they are uninformed about migration – and they know it

Just 39 percent of people in the EU think that the media presents immigrants objectively. Even fewer, 37 percent, say they are well informed about immigration and integration.

Those stats come from the Special Eurobarometer on Integration of Immigrants in the European Union, which also showed that most people significantly over-estimate the proportion of the population with a migrant background. It's our responsibility in the media to give people the full story.

Nuance is missing

While there are many publications producing excellent reporting on migration, it's still the case that reporting on migration is over-simplified. Migrants are often portrayed in the media as victims, as a threat, or as heroes.

Each of these over-simplifications can cause harm, by dehumanising people, by presenting their existence as a threat to others, or by suggesting that they need to do something exceptional to be worthy of attention or even acceptance. 

One participant based in Norway said that as a migrant, they were angry at these headlines and that this had pushed them to started their own online publication. Several others said the biggest problem they faced in writing nuanced migration stories was getting these stories accepted by editors.

We need to listen more

When writing about problems affecting migrants, or programmes that are supposed to improve things for them, we need to listen to the people affected. That's especially true if our newsrooms aren't representative of the community – which is all too often the case.

This means being in touch with migrant communities before, during and after reporting, in order to find out their priorities and realities, and build up trust which has been badly damaged by the mistakes outlined above.

“The media too often presents refugees as a uniform mass – as people to fear or pity. Our stories influence policies and how migrants are seen by the public,” said one journalist based in the UK.

“Normally migrants' and refugees' personal experiences and narratives are invisible, so it's important to share individual stories,” commented a journalist in Italy.

Reporting on progress can lead to impact

Not everyone was comfortable with the term 'solutions journalism', and it may be more helpful to think of this coverage as reporting on a response: not a perfect solution, but something that's working at least in some way (or in some cases, something that hasn't worked as well as hoped, but where there's evidence of how the response could be improved).

We aren't simply telling our readers everything will be all right, but we are showing them a way that some things could be better.

As the Solutions Journalism Network, one of the main organisations promoting this approach (and which has given The Local a grant for our solutions-focused coronavirus coverage) says, “it's not happy journalism, it's useful journalism”.

Success that's only possible due to a unique circumstance – like exceptional talent or a one-off donation – is unlikely to help others elsewhere. Solutions-focused stories go into detail about what results were achieved, how they were achieved (and therefore how they could be replicated), and they do not shy away from limitations. Others could adopt, improve, or campaign for similar programmes.

The goal is to give a realistic picture of what's working and why so that our audiences are equipped to act. Because we've already seen what happens when all they hear about migration is disasters, crimes and tragedies. 

“I think European media have a big responsibility in the irresponsible answer that the continent has given to migration issues in the last years, feeding populist and xenophobic speeches within the EU,” said a freelance journalist in Spain.

Focusing on solutions doesn't mean forgetting the problems

Some journalists raised concerns that highlighting 'solutions' could minimise the problems, particularly where the problem was a structural one and the response a grassroots or community-led initiative, or something that only fixed a small aspect of a major issue.

Solutions-focused reporting isn't always appropriate. When a problem is newly emerging and there is little data available on what's working to fix it, reporting should focus on exposing the problem.

But we do believe this type of journalism has a place alongside regular news, investigative and features reporting. When there is evidence of a promising response, reporting on this is part of giving the full picture. At other times, you might be reporting on a project, policy or scheme that was intended to solve a problem but failed – and highlight what went wrong and why. 

Think long-term

Migration is a long-term topic; it's a fact of life. Many of the problems migrants face today have been faced by migrants over history and around the world.

This means that there might be lessons to learn from how efforts to solve these problems have worked, or failed, in the past, and in other countries. We looked at this example from The Local, where results from previous integration efforts could be used to inform today's initiatives – but the reporter also looked at how the context had changed. Responses can rarely be copy-pasted.

We also spoke about the importance of looking at the long-term effects of proposed solutions.

Schemes that make life more bearable in a refugee camp are good, but they don't address the problem of displacement or necessarily help migrants find a secure home. And well-meaning projects can have unintended consequences; schemes to get new migrants into jobs could lead to segregation on the job market over time.

The work doesn't stop when the article is published

By exposing problems you can expose unfair systems, and by analysing potential solutions, you can show a template for change.

We discussed some of the ways of maximising the impact of journalism, from taking time to listen to feedback and questions to getting your article in front of decision-makers and a wider audience. We also shared resources on awards, grants, and publications that support this kind of journalism. And we discussed ways to start building relationships and trust with people who have been traditionally underserved by media.

Why did we organise these sessions?

The Local was founded in 2004 by two British immigrants to Sweden. Today, we operate news sites in nine countries in Europe, but our core audience is still people who cross borders. Our mission is to help our readers navigate their new countries, and make sure that their voices are heard.

We know that migration can be good, bad or everything in between, but too often the ‘everything in between’ is lost in public debate. This training is our way of using what we have learned about reporting on migration and solutions journalism over the years, and helping other journalists with this experience to share knowledge.

The curriculum has been developed independently by The Local journalists Jessica Phelan and Catherine Edwards, but it is made possible thanks to the EU-wide project MAX (Maximising Migrants' Contributions to Society). Funded by the EU's Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, MAX aims to expand the public narrative around immigration in Europe and highlight stories of real people who have migrated and the communities they have joined.

What next?

If you're not a journalist, but are interested in hearing more about the sessions, get in touch. We're especially open to feedback from people with a migrant background. You can also contact our training organisers below.

Many of the migration reporters who participated were interested in keeping in touch and possible future collaborations. You can follow them on Twitter here.

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A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’

The people from Western Sahara have been fighting for their independence for decades. Under the control of Spain for over a century until 1974, Western Sahrawis were able to have a Spanish National ID and passport, to serve as public servants and in the army, with the western Sahara declared by fascist dictator Francisco Franco as the 53rd province of Spain.

A cultural exchange programme for the ‘forgotten Spanish colony’
Some of the children participating in the programme experience health conditions caused by the tough life in the refugee camps. Photo: Sonia Clemente
This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

In 1974, after pressure from the UN, Spain agreed to a referendum to accept the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. But when Morocco, supported by France and the U.S., invaded the country, Spain abandoned the Sahrawis. Nowadays, 80 percent of their country is occupied by Morocco, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens are stranded in refugee camps in Algeria. The result is that people living in this region are denied the same rights given to other former colonies, such as the ability to claim Spanish citizenship.

Today, the fifth of the country that is not controlled by Morocco is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and it is governed by the Polisario Front, recognised by 46 governments around the world, although none in the EU. In Spain, some local organisations and public figures campaign for their government to support the Sahrawi people.

“Spanish citizens have stood next to the Sahrawi people for 45 years because they understand that Spain has a political and legal responsibility with the Sahrawi people, but they see their political leaders incapable of amending this error. It is the great divorce in Spain,” Abdulah Arabi, the Polisario Front Delegate in Spain said, “Spaniards are holding a responsibility that belongs to their government.”

At the time of the interview with the Sahrawi Delegate, Abdulah Arabi expressed concern that they were closer than ever to a break of the truce. Two weeks later the truce broke. “We have generations that have been born in refugee camps waiting for the UN to apply their peace plan so their parents and grandparents can decide what they want to be.”

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Holidays in Peace

One of the most successful programmes trying to both improve the conditions of the Sahrawis in refugee camps and to bring awareness to the conflict is Holidays in Peace. It allows Sahrawi children living in Algerian refugee camps, in one of the roughest deserts in the world, to live in Spain for the summers with host families.

This programme allows kids to avoid the desert heat, and access medical treatment and check-ups. It also helps them to learn Spanish, the second official language of the SADR. 

The programme began in 1976 with just a handful of children, and only three years later, 100 children spent their summers in Spain. In the 1980s the initiative gathered institutional support from the SADR government and several Spanish civil associations under the umbrella of “Friends of the Saharawi People.”

By the early 2000s, thousands of kids would travel every summer.

“In the good year before the 2008 crisis when the [Spanish] government donations were larger, we were able to bring up to 10,000 children every summer,” Arabi said.

Many of these children come back for several summers and stay with the same families again. When the children return to the camps, the host families often visit and send care packages. The associations also send vans full of supplies a few times a year to the camps.

Raúl Bedrina, who joined one of the associations in Madrid, and later helped to create the Gdeim Izik association in the south of the Spanish capital, hosted a child for the first time eight years ago.

“It is not charity, it is solidarity. These children are the best ambassadors of the Sahrawi people, who share a common history with us,” he said.

Western Sahara is the only Arab country with Spanish as a co-official language. However, the language barrier is still a challenge for the children, as they only began studying Spanish around the same time that they travel for the first time.

“At that age, kids are like sponges, in two months they are fluent,” Bedrina said, “but we put in the effort, too. Every day for one or two hours before going out or to the pool, we would sit with a picture dictionary and helped him.”

Bedrina talks about the cultural shock the children suffer when they arrive. The first thing they want to do is call home.

“Our kid went to bed crying for days because he missed his family. It’s also very odd for them to see things like a refrigerator, and they keep checking to see if things are still cold,” he said. They are also used to much more independence, to just go out a run around without supervision “but if only because of traffic, that is not possible here.”

“The ties you, as a host family, establish with the family are very strong. They are sending their children to a house they don’t know, so they want to know you.” Many of the host families visit the camps to meet the Sahrawi family, and the families want to send their other children to the same host family. “Our kid was the one who sold us the idea to host his younger sister. He took us for a ride,” Bedrina remembers, laughing.

Each host family is assigned a Sahrawi family, and they get to know each other as part of the process.

These children are not orphans, they have families who love and care for them, and it has to be made clear to the host families that the children will come back to their families after the summer. There are other programmes for teenagers who come to study in high schools during the school year and who go back home for the summer, but it is a much smaller programme.

The 2008 economic crash affected the programme a lot. Local governments cut the funding given to each association and they found it harder to fundraise money during the year. Many families who had hosted kids in the past couldn’t host those years because they were suffering from unemployment or financial troubles.

Most host families are middle class and the weight of an added member in the household was too much for many of them. “Kids come with nothing,” Bedrina said, “you have to give them clothes, food, et cetera…”

Because of this, the number of years the children would travel was reduced from five to three, so more children could continue to travel. However, it still cut the number of children able to travel by more than half for some years. Things had started to improve in this respect, but then Covid-19 hit.

An outdoor prison

The conditions in the desert are very dire. “There is no vegetation, no water, and temperatures go higher than 50 degrees,” Arabi said.

Before Covid-19, there were two times a year where host families could travel to the camps, around Easter around Christmas. For Bedrina, and many families, although hosting a child has been quite an experience, nothing compares to visiting the camps, and seeing the conditions.

“All Westerners should go and see a refugee camp to open their minds about what is going on in the world. I have seen colleagues go there and feel completely overtaken by the injustice and the world would fall on them. It was too much for them,” he said. Bedrina has been three times to the camps, not only meeting the families but also interviewing women about their vision on the conflict for a documentary and bringing humanitarian aid collected in Spain.

Photo: Sonia Clemente

Bedrina described the camps where Sahrawis have been living for 45 years as “a giant outdoor prison. It is difficult to describe with words.”

“The first days there I thought I had a cold because I was having trouble breathing, but then I realized it was the sand dust I had been swallowing all day,” he said

David Pobes, another volunteer in an association also travelled by car to the camps to take donations gathered in Madrid. He lived with the family he had been in contact with. “You live with them, and you can see they have nothing. The homes usually have two rooms. Not two bedrooms, two rooms. There is no furniture and they sleep on the floor. While you are there you eat with them, cook with them, and clean with them,” Pobes said.

'Saved many lives'

While the main objectives of Holidays in Peace are building awareness of the Sahrawis’ situation, and to take the children away from the camps during the hot summers, one of the key aspects that have helped save lives is the access to better medical care and nutrition during the summer.

Healthcare is a scarce resource in the camps. “We have a Ministry of Health that guarantees health in all the towns in the camps. But the dispensaries are indeed basic,” Arabi said. When David Pobes visited one of the clinics in the camps, he was surprised by it: “in one room, they had an old gas refrigerator for insulin. That was the best technology I saw.”

The clinics are meant mostly for first aid. If it is more serious, the patient must go to the province hospital or the national hospital. If it is even more serious, they must be transported abroad. However, access to specialized medicine is rare.

During the summers in Spain, the children get a full check-up with a blood test and access to specialists. “Thanks to these check-ups we have been able to save many lives of children who are now living a normal life, thanks to this programme,” Arabi said.

Spain has universal healthcare, meaning that the children can access the Spanish healthcare system upon arrival. Children in the camps suffer from hearing and sight problems because of the sandstorms. “You wouldn’t believe the stones that I have seen taken out of these children’s ears. Stones!” Pobes said.

When it comes to sight problems, the associations run fundraisers the entire year not only to cover the €600 flight but also glasses these kids might need. Some optometrists provide the glasses for free for these kids, but unfortunately, there are not enough.

Adapting to the pandemic

Due to Covid-19, the programme was cancelled for the first time since it began decades ago.

To alleviate the effects of not running the programme, the Polisario Front came up with an alternative list of events in the camps. During July and the first half of August children in the refugee camps have taken part in cultural and sports activities.

“We have done practically everything they would do here, such as medical check-ups, but, of course, conditions are not the same, as structures are fragile there.” Arabi said.

They took part in poetry and music workshops, football, cross country, and a programme of exchanges with older people who told them their life stories. They have been able to offer this version of the programme to all the children in the camps, around 9,000.

In August a group was taken to the liberated territories. It was the first time they could see them. Arabi said the programme was a bit rush, as they couldn’t be sure what the Covid conditions were going to be or if they would be able to do it at all, “but the results have been good.”

The plans for next summer remain uncertain, but the hope is that it will be able to return to its usual format, providing many children with a connection to a Spanish host family, language lessons, medical care and a break from life in the camps.

Thess Mostoles is a Spanish journalist currently living in the UK and reporting on international politics, war and conflict.