The Invisible Refugee Problem

Migrant and flags. Tel Aviv, November 2017.

Migrant and flags. Tel Aviv, November 2017.

Every photograph is a cliché. That is if you consume news every day. Whether it’s on your smartphone, or your laptop, a computer at work, or on TV, we are subject to an overwhelming barrage of programmed sameness. The same holds for social media. When a story goes viral, it has the same reach as a planned advertising campaign. The only difference is how it reaches us.

The global character of this sameness is increasingly apparent. In between the overwhelming reach of news broadcasters, and the lack of diversity in content sharing, the media we consume is instantly identifiable across the world and a part of everyone’s news experience.

The idea of citizen journalists breaking through with truly local content is increasingly a thing of the past. It’s gone back to being niche, just like local newspapers and community broadcasters used to be. The only difference is that those outlets are now individuals, mostly, not news outlets.

Long gone are the days when we could consistently go to regional outlets, exclusively focused on our backyards. We go to our friends on Facebook for that information instead. While news can and does still get through, there’s a narrative that’s often missing, that might help us frame current events as something more than just the immediate.

The consequences of such changes are huge, particularly when it comes to big stories reported on everywhere, like refugees. Few persons would argue that they’re not relevant. The Middle East and Africa remain engulfed by violence war, and there are more people on the move around the world than at any time since the Second World War.

The problem is that news is viewed as entertainment. Whether it’s being delivered by someone we went to college with or reporters with journalism school degrees, we want it to always be new, and to not so consistently negative. If all we do is hear about upheaval, what’s the point? Something must be wrong with the media for so consistently focusing on it.

This kind of thinking is especially symptomatic of those who are wont to criticise journalism focused on social and humanitarian issues. Why obsess over issues like homelessness when they’re so common? We might encounter it every day, but when it comes to the media we consume, we have the ability to bypass it in favour human interest stories and music reviews, for example.

Ideal and real Israel. Tel Aviv, August 2017.

The same is true of refugees, especially where I’ve called home – Israel, of which I am a citizen – and Germany, where I live. Both places are iconographic destinations for asylum seekers. Both are also heavily criticised for the ways in which they’ve treated migrants. Germany less so than Israel, which makes more of an explicit point of refusing to take in non-Jewish migrants of colour.

From one mother to another. Tel Aviv, March 2018.

Though a topic with international news broadcasters the last fortnight, the Israeli government’s decision to begin deporting the 50,000 thousand African refugees in the country has been notable for its lack of headline status. The story gets covered, but it is treated with less importance than other migrant stories set in Europe and the United States.

It isn’t so much that it’s a less sexy story than that of Palestinian teen protestor Ahed Tamimi, for example. The issue is that anything less than fully tabloid is simply too depressing to promote. Why commission yet another story on a first world country refusing to take responsibility for ethnic migrants from the global south? Israel’s story is just more of the same, albeit more complex, due to the Holocaust.

It makes you want to find ways to capture the refugees as you might see them – vulnerable people subject to humiliating circumstances, with nothing to look forward to. In a part of the world renown for its nonstop violence and deep-seated hatreds, what will become of these people once they come to terms with the fact no one cares for them or their survival?

One can’t help but think about the ruthlessness of Syrian government forces in Ghouta, or the savagery of a terrorist group like Daesh. They’re not just reflections of a proclivity for sadism. They’re consequences of their context, of people pushed so far to the extreme by cruelty, they have no compunction about gassing unarmed civilians or eating the heart of an enemy corpse on live TV.

With such widely documented acts of barbarity the norm these days, who cares about Africans working as dishwashers in Tel Aviv? They’ve become invisible, particularly to Israelis, many of whom have a hard time distinguishing them from ethnic Ethiopian Jews, even though to the educated eye, Eritreans and Sudanese can look quite different.

The photographs in this article are intended to break that spell, if only for the journalist who took them. With African immigrants increasingly common to Israel’s cities, it’s easy to pass them by and not notice what it is about them and their surroundings that speaks to the crisis they live with, particularly at the present juncture.

It’s an ideal subject to start out this new column with, as much of what I shoot, as a journalist are people forced to the margins. The point, or so I understand it, is to represent them.

Poverty is tiring. Tel Aviv, August 2017.

Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.