Covering Migration: Six Portrayals of Migration in the Eyes of the Arab Media

Covering Migration: Six Portrayals of Migration in the Eyes of the Arab Media




 In the current debate on migration from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe, we heard many voices from host countries, and very few ones from the sending countries. Even in the latter case, we mostly heard voices of politicians from the sending countries, some of which repeatedly and ambiguously utter a double talk about migration. Of course, some Western media gave space to some migrants to tell their stories, usually in an attempt to evoke sympathy from the Europeans towards migration. However, what public opinion in the Middle East and North Africa thinks about the recent migration waves to Europe is still largely unknown to European publics. This paper aims to bridge this gap.

The methods used in this paper take into account the diversity of opinions expressed (supporting migration, critical of migration etc.), and the tools of communication used (Twitter, press articles, comments etc.). Therefore, the selection of media is primarily content-oriented. That is, we aim to present to the Hungarian public in particular and the European public in general, a variety of Arab opinions on migration, in the widest spectrum possible, rather than a survey of Arab media. We conducted research in databases and search engines of Arabic media content from the recent two years, with focus on content commenting or reacting to the migration crisis in the Balkans in 2015-2016. In the course of the data collection more than 300 materials were examined, repetitions and mere news excluded. As a result, fifteen pieces were selected that express opinions on migration, from different countries and ideological tendencies, and we classified them into major standpoints, such as, among others, that migration is a tool to spread Islam etc. We selected samples both from major Arab media such as al-Jazeera and al-Hayat, and fromYoutube channels of migrants communicating their experiences about migration. It is maintained here that the expressed opinions we depict in this paper are largely representative of the opinions circulating in the Arab media. Discourse analysis has been also helpful in explaining the context, the meaning and the function of these standpoints on migration.

Migration spreads Islam

Abdullah Al Masri, an Egyptian journalist who writes for al-Jazeera (The Qatar-based worldwide TV channel and news network, influenced by the Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood) published an article in December 2017 entitled Muslims in Europe under scrutiny. His purpose is to call the leaders of Islamic institutions to study and discuss the reality and future of Muslims in Europe, and work to develop a clear vision and strategy to shape a stable future for the Muslim communities. Al Masri does not consider the consequences of such call, namely, that the loyalty and the identity of migrants will be monitored by international Islamic organizations, whatever objective these organizations propose. His advice consists in the following:

Among the important observations one should study and reflect on, in order to shape a vision that establishes stability for Muslims in Europe is to understand that the language of our time and the terms of power balances now are different from the previous eras, as hegemony is not in the number, but in competence and good planning, which should be under carried through studying, researching and understanding reality. Moreover, hegemony and success lie in the capacity to build partnerships, and the bridges and good cooperation with the other components of society, and in the understanding that Muslims are part of the European societies.[1]

One can notice a significant tendency among Arab journalists, during the migration crisis of 2015-2016, to glorify migration as an Arabisation or Islamisation of Europe. Such attitude is irresponsible and regrettable since the crisis endangered and still endangers both migrants thousands of which died on the road to Europe and Europe itself. For example, Faysal al-Qasim, a Druze Syrian, one of the top editors of al-Jazeera and one of the most popular Arab journalists, tweeted on 14 November 2017 the following: “in few years God willing Europe will become Arab, the Europeans will integrate very well with the Arabs in the West” (laughing loudly as he commented a European speaking in Arabic). An American lady commented on his tweet that she is Jewish, and that she loves Arabs and Arabic language. An Arab commentator said “he does not wish Europe to become Arab. Otherwise it will lose everything, and become a copy of the Arab countries, may God save Europe from that”. Other Arab commentators on this tweet think that an alliance between Arabs and Europeans is a necessity, and a matter of security and existence for both. Others believe that an Eur-abia is possible and can be achieved by 2050. Some think that it is a miracle and that in the near future Arabs will rule the world. A more pessimistic voice said that the difference between Arabs and Europe is 1,500 years. [2]

In the same vain, the Islammessage, a very popular Islamist website, influenced by Salafism, and based in Saudi Arabia, interviewed ʻAlāʼ Muhammad Saʻid, the Head of the Islamic Union of Imams and Islamic Instructors in Spain, who said that the dream about Spain returning to the realm of Islam is possible as long as Muslims themselves follow faithfully the teachings and authorities of Islam.[3] He also said:

Muslims have been present in Spain for more than eight centuries, but then for about five centuries the Islamic presence in Spain has become very weak, until God Almighty facilitated some migrations of students, or those who fled their country and left, either for political reasons, or economic reasons, and even this presence remained weak until the eighties when migration began to Spain with the economic boom that occurred after the accession to the European Union. [This] began to increase migration significantly, until the population of Muslims in Spain reached more than one million and 700 thousand people who live in different Spanish regions…and the number of mosques in Spain is more than 900 including an Islamic center, a mosque, and a praying room in all regions of Spain, each of them plays a role in the call to God Almighty.[4]

It is noteworthy that Islamic discourses do not hide their agendas, and religious press or religiously influenced press says overtly what it works for and wishes to achieve. The return of Spain to Islamic rule is widely spread in Islamic rhetoric, moderate and radical alike.

Migration is a grace

Jaʻfar Qarʻuni, a Lebanese journalist, a supporter of Hezbollah, writing for the website Yasur – in the Lebanese city Sur (Tyre) -, praises the benefits of migration as follows:

Immigration is a blessing from God that opens the doors of livelihood and knowledge, and it has been and continues to bounce on the homeland (Lebanon) with many good things. Why some people complain about migration? Disasters are predestined in the book of God, before they are cleared. May Allah have mercy on our martyrs in the calamities and enthroned them with their mercy in paradise and give them the best reward… most of the suffering of migrants come from reasons that have nothing to do with migration: it comes from weakness of the personality of the migrant, its faith and its education…yes the land of God is wide, and you should travel to get knowledge and good income, and blessed who uses this for the will of God, to spread the good, and the good word, and make it a new homeland… [5]

Encouraging migration does not come from some Islamic voices alone, but also from secularist ones. Ahmed Ateyya, a secularist Egyptian journalist, tweeted on 17 April 2014 the following message “migrate and you will be sane, migrate because in migration there is blessing”. Ateyya is followed on twitter by 21 thousand people.[6] He follows here a religious tone while at the same time indirectly criticizes the situation of freedom and sanity in Egypt. However, coming from an intellectual and activist of human rights, this is indeed a paradox to call to migration as a solution. One commentator on his advice asked him: “please show me the way to migration, and my God reward you the best reward”. A second comment asked him ironically: “can you send me a link to migration?”. This pathological rhetoric about the blessings of migration might convince youth that struggle to improve social and political rights in the Arab countries is useless, and does not deserve patience and commitment.

Migration is a curse, or almost

Al-Hayat is a leading liberal Arab newspaper edited by the Lebanese Ghassan Charbel, and is based in London. In February 2016, it published an article entitled “Who said that migration is a grace…always?”. It comments on the wave of migration in Lebanon, pinpointing the economic and social problems as the push factors. It also depicts the increasing number of returnees from abroad to Lebanon after discovering that there is no magical solution. It told the story of Habib, one of the returnees as follows:

When Habib called his steadfast father in his village, telling him that he was returning to Lebanon after two years of traveling to work abroad, he felt joy at first glance but many questions never left him. His son, who received an engineering degree from the Lebanese University, tried very hard to find a good job in his country. He felt that there was no promising future in Lebanon. He decided to immigrate to Germany after hearing a lot about the jobs available there. But what struck Habib on his arrival in Berlin was the extent to which the Lebanese had to compete over jobs with foreign workers coming from various countries of the world and eager to establish a new life, including Syrians who come in thousands. The problem was undoubtedly the salary. Habib was targeting a minimum salary to establish a decent life in Germany, but other workers accept much lower wages and live in groups to save money. This stands as an obstacle to Habib’s ambitions. He said “In Lebanon, I remember the competition with foreign workers and I had to accept an amount that was not enough to meet the needs of life, so I decided to go back, because it is more honorable for me to suffer in my country than feel humiliated in foreign lands.[7]

The article does not close the gate for migration. It knows the importance of migration for the Lebanese Diaspora, becoming one of the wealthiest Diasporas in the world. It rather tells its readers that one cannot migrate and expect to be wealthier in few years, as it was the case decades ago. As it argues:

There was a time when immigration meant the establishment of a new life, and even accumulation of wealth, but now it means getting a job the salary of which often is not much higher than the average salary in Lebanon. However, immigration remains attractive to European countries, hoping for citizenship, which means access to many services we lack in Lebanon, especially social security of old age, retirement and financial support in case of unemployment. Those who think that if they will travel for a few years and come back to buy a house in Lebanon and live in prosperity from what he earned abroad, it is a difficult dream to achieve. [8]

Failure of integration. Whose fault is it?

One favourite subject of Arab media is publishing articles on the Islamophobic attacks on mosques, women with headscarves, racist comments etc. Reactions to such materials depend on the audience and the context. These articles certainly dissuade some readers from pursuing the migration venue. However, the articles are written in a way that triggers different emotions. If the venue of publication is religious, it is almost sure that most of the comments will blame Europe. Herein, we shall cite an article published in Elaph, the most read and followed liberal information website in the Internet, created by the liberal Saudi-British businessman, Othman Al Omeir in London, entitled “Escalation of hostility to Muslims in Sweden”. In principle, its audience is not religious. The article in question depicts some Islamophbic acts in Sweden. It reports the acts in the following manner:

Muslims in Sweden feel that society is turning against them at a time of increasing attacks against mosques in this country, which many thought it was a safe place with no racial discrimination. In the past few days, three mosques have been set on fire in different cities of Sweden, the largest of which was in the mosque of the city of Eskilstuna, which caught fire when about 70 worshipers were in the building.

This article generated 48 comments. One can identify two types of comments: those that blame Europe and take Muslims for religious victims (approximately 40%), and those which consider Muslims to be responsible for failure to integrate (approximately 60%). A comment says that Satan’s friends (the anti-Muslim) feel the danger because of the strong expansion of the religion of God (Islam), and that everyone knows the ability of the religion of Islam to spread and grow in every soil and in every land. In the same standpoint, a comment says that “If you burn a church in any Muslim country, America and the United Nations will go against the Muslims. Fight them all as they fight you all”. A third comment in this category considers that there is a conspiracy against Muslims: “Europe and America have been very successful in making the world all over hate Muslims. If we return to just 5 years back we will see that Europe and America brought terrorists and extremists to power in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia and wanted to bring them to power in Syria…”[9]

The second standpoint which blames Muslims for what happens, understands that reasons for such acts against mosques exist. A comment considers that “the entry of Muslim migrants to Europe created unknown problems, and while Europeans accepted Muslims for humanitarian reasons, they discovered the truth about Muslims and started rethinking about accepting Islam. Muslims lost many golden opportunities to rationalise and secularise themselves”. Another comment says that “the problem is that mosques are used for politics, sedition, criminal acts and terrorism. So, there is no surprise in what happened in Sweden: it happens all the time in Muslim countries”. An Iraqi commentator said to the Iraqi community in Sweden “You are exhausting the budget of Sweden and you are all claiming that you are divorcees and that you are suffering from mental illnesses so that you can receive double social aid. Some of you are politically sectarian big fishes, and some of you claim to have been political prisoners…come back to Iraq,… and give space to other Iraqis to migrate. You are ruling Iraq now together with the Kurds with iron and fire. Come back.”[10] Another comment calls the Muslim community “to reconsider its mistakes a little to know the reasons that led the Swedes to treat Muslims in this manner, so they will find that they have committed many mistakes against themselves and the country that received them and did the best for them. What is required of them today is to draw up lists of radical Muslims, Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood, and monitor all their actions, and inform the authorities about this category of criminal misdemeanors”.[11]

Migration is not the solution

One of the top newspapers in Algeria Echourouk, a daily Liberal Arab speaking newspaper published since 1990, interviewed an Algerian reporter who has been living in France for 14 years, and who advices other Algerian reporters not to migrate  stating that “Migration is not the solution, and the solution is that Algerian media should give freedom to reporters”.[12] A similar message was published by the Moroccan news website Maghress which interviewed Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Moroccan writer internationally known and a returnee to Morocco. Ben Jelloun asserts that “migration is not the solution to the problems experienced by Morocco, especially since this migration is illegal and secret and cause the destruction of the lives of hundreds of people.”[13]

 Similar views can be found in personal stories told in different media on the Internet. On Youtube, dozens of videos of migrants circulate, telling the young Arabs not to migrate, promoting the central idea that there are other solutions, and that migration is a problem not a solution. The videos show all the failures of achieving material success in Europe compared to other young people who did not migrate and who still made it at home. Some comments insist that the content of the videos is true and that people who go to Europe usually fail, and that once one goes home, he can make it. Others, do not believe these warnings, and think that this is nonsense since the person who issues the warnings himself still lives in Europe.[14]

 In particular, Arab Christians agree that migration is not the solution to their persecution in the Middle East. For example, Sulaqa Boulos Yousef, an Iraqi Christian author, wrote in August 2014 an article entitled “Migration is not the solution” in Kitabat (a major Iraqi online newspaper which attracted 418,337 likes on Facebook) saying that “My brother, the immigrant, you will spend your life until you settle down and live on aid, and you will not be as easily as you are in your country, and if you have capital you can invest it in your country. As for the social services in the West, they will inevitably be achieved sooner or later in our country. The country is in labor and this will not last long”.[15]

 Death boats as seen from Syria

One always encounters the question of what the Syrian government, which is in control of most of the territory and population, thinks about its migrating population, dying in boats in the Mediterranean. The same question can be addressed to rebels in Syria. We inspected two Syrian websites, one pro-government and one anti-government to find answers to this question. An article in the Syrian pro-government newspaper al-Fida’ published in Hama on 15 September 2015, entitled “Immigration to the unknown … in the boats of death when young people leave … who will build the homeland?” writes:

The immigration of educated and skilled Syrians is increasingly draining the country’s workforce and quality of service…this escape has affected work in government and educational institutions and factories – but this effect is not felt anywhere more than in the health sector…there is a great need for those skills to rebuild Syria in the future. The youth who migrate is the main source of development in the short and long term. Youth are the makers of development and development is prepared for them. Hence, it is necessary to work to spread a state of collective awareness to the seriousness of this quantitative and qualitative transformation in the structure of the youthful mind resulting from the circumstances in which the country is going through. The situation of migration has been transformed from an individual phenomenon into a serious social phenomenon, difficult to eradicate, through the migration of our finest youth and dispersion in the vast land of God and the most extreme parts of the world.[16]

The same newspaper lamented in another article that “every day we hear about this journey of migration and the numbers of missing people in the death boats, but the youth… is duff and his eyes are blinded no longer see and hear, but only [think about] this dangerous migration, which would disintegrate the Syrian society and destroy the country and drain it from its people and its inhabitants, escaping from nothing”.[17]

Another point of view, that of the Syrian National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (called the moderate Syrian opposition) through its website, puts the responsibility on the Syrian regime and the international community in the article entitled “Syrians drown amidst the silence of the International community” lamenting that:

The National Coalition calls upon the international community to shoulder its humanitarian and moral responsibilities towards the Syrian people, to work to end the crisis of the Syrian refugees and to find ways to transport them to temporary safe areas until they return to their homes and prevent traders from manipulating them

Generally, the Syrian media considers mass migration as an undertaking encouraged by Western politicians to divide Syria, the smugglers who benefit and the naive Syrian people who dream of a prosperous life in Europe. Some Syrian opposition media, who has little influence in Syria, uses the Syrian migration wave as a political instrument to obtain international support for its conflict with the Syrian regime.


Two salient features emerge from the covering of the current migration crisis in the Arab speaking media. On the one hand, contrary to the mainstream Western media, it is not politically correct. Arab media have no taboo in this regard, and whether it portrays migration as greed, hegemony, or disaster, it is close to reality, at least of how migration is lived by Arab migrants. On the other hand, Arab media reports on migration emotionally and one can even say pathetically. Arab media generally overpraises migration either for its positive outcomes for the economies and societies of sending countries or laments over the negative outcomes for the host societies, and for the migrants themselves.                  

What are missing in Arab media, considered to be a taboo, are information and reports about responsibility of governments in the Arab countries. Arab media – while it covers fully the actual process of migration – also veils some of the factors that lead to it. For instance, it does not address the responsibility of governments, the primary responsible in allowing this mass movement and failing to create better conditions for young people to hope for. There is a lack in the Arab media of acknowledging that deficiencies in the economic governance, the absence of love of homeland, lack of critical thinking lead people to the mirage of migration. Instead, it endorses a paternalist tone towards the young migrants, treating them like losers and teenagers, following a fantasy. It is true after all, but ruling elites in the sending countries have a direct co-responsibility in such despair.

Moreover, most media consider it a shame that the whole world sees the disastrous waves of migration from the Middle Eastern and North African countries. These media are not nuanced enough to see the social consequences of such migration in European societies, and in the sending ones. Although, Arab media are aware that European societies are threatened by Islamism, they propose that migrants go for an easier life, and are not particularly framed by Islamists.

All in all, the reactions to the migration crisis seem to range between lamentations, immobility and joy. They lack involvement, as if the problem is rather accidental or external. Very few pieces call to take firm action in favour of stopping migration. Most media seem to understand the root problem to be “paradise pursuit”, but they are unable to produce a coherent narrative to convince the Arab youth to stay.

[1] Abdullah Al Masri, al-Muslimun fi urubba tahta al-mijharالمسلمون-في-أوروبا-تحت-المجهر (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[2] (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[3] Bilad al-Andalus sa taʻud bi-ʻawdat ummat al-islam wa-Ghazza ramz al-ʻizza wa-l-sumud accessed 29 January 2018)

[4] Bilad al-Andalus sa taʻud bi-ʻawdat ummat al-islam wa-Ghazza ramz al-ʻizza wa-l-sumud accessed 29 January 2018)

[5] Jaʻfar Qarʻuni, Al-hijra niʻma min Allah.. wa-l-ghurba wa-l-kawarith imtihanat (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[6] Ahmed Ateyya on Twitter: “هاجروا تصحوا.. هاجروا فإن في الهجرة بركة..” (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[7] Véronique Abu Ghazala, Man qala inna al-hijra “niʻma” … daʼiman?مَن-قال-إنّ-الهجرة–نعمة——دائماً؟ (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[8] Véronique Abu Ghazala, Man qala inna al-hijra “niʻma” … daʼiman?مَن-قال-إنّ-الهجرة–نعمة——دائماً؟ (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[9] Tasaʻud al-ʻadaʼ lil-muslimin fi al-Suwid (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[10] Tasaʻud al-ʻadaʼ lil-muslimin fi al-Suwid (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[11] Tasaʻud al-ʻadaʼ lil-muslimin fi al-Suwid (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[12]  Ana taʼir abhath ʻan al-hurriya, wa-likann al-hijra laysat hiya al-hall (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[13] al-hijra al-sirriyya laysat al-hall li-mashakil al-buldan al-ifriqiyya (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[14] Nasiha min muhajir ila al-shabab al-maghribi accessed 29 January 2018)

[15] al-hijra laysat al-hall (last accessed 29 January 2018)


[16]al-hijra nahwa al-majhul .. fi qawarib al-mawt ʻindama yughadir al-shabab.. man sayabni al-watan ? (last accessed 29 January 2018)

[17] Hijrat al-shabab .. khasarat la tuʻawwad (last accessed 29 January 2018)

Photo: The National