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Did BBC Look at Refugee Life Through Rose Tinted Spectacles?

05/08/2016 12:18 | Updated 05 August 2016

It's fantastic to see the media portraying refugees as human and hopeful and the BBC's Our Desert Home is worlds away from the regularly demonised refugees of the tabloids and poisonous political rhetoric of recent months.

The BBC has attempted to make an important and very human aspect of the Middle East crisis accessible to more people in the UK. They have focussed on the people of Za'atari, an enormous refugee camp in Jordan, telling individual stories that the viewer can relate to. It is good for more people to understand the impact of the war in Syria on individuals and the BBC doubtless had good intentions in celebrating the triumphs of normal people over difficult circumstances. However, for an aid agency like War Child, dealing with the daily consequences of this gruesome conflict this portrayal of Za'atari is problematic.

Firstly, Za'atari is an exceptional refugee camp due to particularly high levels of international funding and interest.

The level of organisation and the standards you see in Our Desert Home are not common in the region and are certainly not the norm for the 21.3million refugees around the world. For example in many camps families are simply handed a tarpaulin to build their own structures - a far cry from the semi-permanent homes and underground sewerage in Jordan.

There is an ongoing crisis in the Central African Republic where some 415,000 people are internally displaced (IDPs). Of these around 20,000 live at M'Poko, sleeping in and beneath the fuselages of old aircraft at Bangui airport. Conditions are bleak despite the camp being nearly three years old. Furthermore, this "home" is not in the desert or the bush, but in the capital city, at the airport where passengers flying with Air France can sip champagne while looking out on the camp.

The UN and the Jordanian Government have done a great job at Za'atari which we should celebrate, but we should not let people think that this is the norm for refugees and IDPs, either in the Middle East or globally. The documentary should have put Za'atari in context before exploring life in the camp itself.

Secondly, this curated documentary of positive and hopeful experiences obscures some of the darker facts of life in Za'atari and normalises others that we should not accept.

In the first episode we are introduced to Montaha who at 18 is getting married. She is excited about the nuptials, but regrets that the conflict has prevented her from going to university. The programme celebrates weddings happening in the camp, but fails to draw attention to the alarming prevalence of child marriage, where a lack of opportunity and economic pressures push families into marrying off their daughters at younger and younger ages.

On my last visit to Za'atari I joined a teacher providing extra tuition to two sisters who were struggling at school, during the lesson their older sister brought us tea. For this girl, only fifteen, education was over as she was to marry that Friday. The mother would have preferred all her children to continue their education, but had decided it was better to concentrate limited resources on the younger girls. To ignore this other side of marriage in Za'atari is a failure to present a true picture of life there.

Child Labour is also problematically portrayed in a positive light. We meet two young boys working at one of the camp's bike shops, the story focusses on the friendship and comradery between Mohammed and Hafez and only briefly acknowledges the long-term impact on Hafez of working full time and not going to school. The programme shies away from properly exploring this critical issue for the population.

There is a more subtle danger, where problematic scenes are overplayed by a positive narrative. In one example a young child is stitching a pair of shoes on a heavy, industrial sewing machine while the narrative explains the need for better electricity supplies and the plans for solar power. Showing a child performing dangerous and unsuitable work as the backdrop to a positive news story normalises something that should be viewed as a problem and critically explored.

The style of the documentary, almost observational natural history rather than issues based reportage, is presumably designed to make viewing an immersive experience, to make us feel like we have been there and had a taste of what life is like for a refugee, however, it's a misrepresentation. The curation has successfully championed a few individuals at one of the best camps, but has obscured some important issues. Furthermore, it gives no voice to the many who, through no fault of their own, are not thriving in Za'atari, or in other camps. We might find the good news style more palatable, but we also need a dose of the harsh reality.

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