That Little Drowned Boy on the Beach’: Child Refugees and the Tabloid Media

Hannah RyanKatherine Tonkiss

This blog post is based on Hannah Ryan’s undergraduate dissertation project, which examined the representation of Syrian child refugees in the British tabloid media.

Existing academic knowledge has shed light on how the tabloid media constructs the figure of the migrant as a threat – typically a young and healthy male. Because of this stereotypical image, the tabloid media often portray refugees as undeserving and constructs an ‘us and them’ narrative in which the refugee is an ‘alien’. Yet it is also important to note that a focus on the strong male stereotype means that the media portrayal of other – often more vulnerable – refugees such as children, women and the elderly is not the subject of extensive academic attention.

The stereotypical portrayal of refugees has been evident in the British tabloid media’s coverage of the Syrian ‘refugee crisis’. Yet some of the most high profile coverage has centred on child refugees, particularly coming to the forefront in coverage of the death of Aylan Kurdi, and this coverage has tended to be far more sympathetic than that portraying other groups of refugees.

Research was undertaken to provide an in-depth exploration of the British tabloid media’s portrayal of Syrian child refugees, in order to add to the academic knowledge base on migration and the news media. The research focused on articles on the Syrian refugee crisis from three tabloid newspapers representing a range of political persuasions (The Sun, The Mirror and the Daily Mail) over a five month period from 1st July 2015 to 30th November 2015 which included the coverage of the death of Aylan Kurdi in September 2015.

The research used content analysis of the full sample to analyse the extent of coverage of child refugees and the regularity with which certain buzzwords were used in the coverage referring to child refugees. It then subjected a smaller sample to thematic analysis in order to gain a greater level of depth in the analysis.

The content analysis found that nearly one-third of the articles related to the Syrian refugee crisis included mention of child refugees, showing that children played a significant role in the overall coverage of the crisis. In addition to this, the content analysis also showed that those tabloid articles including children took a more sympathetic view of the refugees. Typical buzzwords found in these articles included desperate, tragedy, victim, horror and heartbreaking.

The thematic analysis shows how the child refugees were portrayed as victims and the sympathetic tone of much of the coverage. Toys, games and children’s clothing were often used to highlight the innocence of the children. For example a Daily Mail article (6th September 2015) referred to ‘the little Syrian girl clutching her toy elephant’ and the Mirror (9th September 2015) reporting on the death of Aylan Kurdi read:

Last week it was little Aylan Kurdi whose sleeping-for-ever baby body was carried from Bodrum beach where, by rights, three-year-olds should be building sandcastles, collecting pebbles and licking ice-creams.

The figure of the child refugee was also employed to humanise the refugees, with their innocence used to construct a sense of tragedy: ‘that little drowned boy on the beach in Turkey finally turned the refugee crisis from a number game to a human tragedy’ (Daily Mirror, 13th September 2015).

Another common theme was the comparison between the Syrian refugee crisis and the Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. Children were particularly used to emphasis this point and there were often calls for the British government to set up a system similar to the Kindertransport of the Second World War which brought thousands of Jewish children to the UK.

While the first three themes took a sympathetic stance towards the child refugees, the sense of threat associated with the stereotypical male migrant in the academic literature was also still present in the tabloid articles relating to Syrian child refugees. The key themes of threat were related to terrorism and the host nations’ economies. As well as this, tabloid articles also used terms ‘victims’ and ‘fear’ in discussions about whether individuals were genuine refugees or not. For example, the Daily Mail (13th September 2015) questioned:

Are these refugees with a well-founded fear of persecution, unable or fearful of returning to their homeland, or simply economic migrants in search of a better life?

These more negative narratives show how the figure of the child refugee is often juxtaposed as a deserving category of refugee against other kinds of refugees who are then posited as less deserving and subjects of suspicion. It suggests that the more sympathetic coverage of the child refugees itself underpins wider stereotypical portrayals of refugees by the tabloid media.

As such, this research suggests the importance of studying wider portrayals of different kinds of migrants and refugees in the media beyond dominant stereotypes. In revealing how the British tabloid media portrayed child refugees in the Syrian crisis, the research provided critical insights on the role of the media in constructing ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ categories which are so damaging to the ability of refugees to gain safety and sanctuary.