At two in the morning of October 29, an inflatable raft carrying 54 people broke up in heavy seas off Malaga, Spain, near the Straits of Gibraltar. The passengers, from Cameroon and Mali, had been attempting to cross to EU territory via a 50-mile route from Morocco. “I’ve lost my eight-month-old baby and my sister,” one of just 15 survivors, a Cameroonian woman identified only as Enga, told Diario Sur, a large newspaper in southern Spain. The sinking, in which 39 drowned, led national news in Spain but was barely covered internationally.
The same day, however, English-language media aggressively covered a nearly identical tragedy off Lesvos, Greece, 1,500 miles across the Mediterranean. Video and written reports from the Greek incident, in which 15 drowned and 38 remain missing, appeared in The Guardian, Daily Mail, and The New York Times’ “Open Source” column, among others. Spokespeople for United Nations migration agencies and a passel of human rights organizations worked social media heavily, seeking to draw attention to the Greek disaster.
— Melissa Fleming (@melissarfleming) October 29, 2015
It’s not surprising that coverage of the lethal Mediterranean refugee crisis, a story encompassing millions of people on three continents, tends to focus on one place at a time. Before Greece and Turkey, foreign media had descended on Lampedusa, Italy, Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, and the Canary Islands, where deadly crossings were common as far back as 2008. The cameras go where the situation seems most acute.
But the recent focus on Greece has been different in one important way. In the past two months, social media campaigns driven by NGOs, most visibly Human Rights Watch, have taken a leading role in shaping how and where the vast crisis is covered.
“We really are entering a phase where we’re starting to operate as a media organization,” said Andrew Stroehlein, European spokesman for Human Rights Watch.
“They are totally behaving like reporters,” said Madrid-based correspondent Lauren Frayer, who spent most of September and October in Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia covering migration for NPR and others. She often found herself working alongside a Human Rights Watch researcher.
“She was doing exactly the same work as a journalist,” says Frayer. “She was part of the pack completely, and tweeting lots of photos.”
In Eastern Europe, NGOs were able to assign more staff to more places, and keep them there longer than media organizations could. Many media outlets have “correspondents in Berlin and Paris, but central Europe is uncovered for months at a time … . A lot of these [NGOs], HRW and others, are on the ground full time.”
Though foreign reporters were already working on Lesvos and neighboring Izmir, Turkey, as long as a year ago, the international media’s interest in Greece and Turkey exploded following HRW’s staffer Peter Bouckaert’s discovery of Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir’s shocking picture of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi, which was taken on a beach near Izmir.
— Peter Bouckaert (@bouckap) September 2, 2015
The photo had already been published by Turkey’s Dogon News Agency, but was not widely noticed. HRW essentially republished the photo itself rather than flagging it for international media outlets. “When we’re posting to social media, we’re kind of competing for some of the same audience [as media organizations],” said Stroehlein.
Unlike media organizations, however, groups like HRW don’t necessarily have to follow stories where they lead; in some cases, they’re actually barred from doing so. The Moroccan government recently kicked HRW out, making it harder for the group to follow up on the dozens of deaths and injuries in attempted border crossings documented by Spanish media this year.
Moroccan police arrested and deported two Amnesty International migration researchers last June. Medecins Sans Frontiers, another organization closely followed by journalists, which publicizes its migration-related operations on social media, has not worked in Morocco for more than a year.
Spanish media follows the migration story closely, led by outlets like Madrid’s ElDiario.es, which created a special section to cover the crisis. But since HRW and Amnesty International have been gone from Morocco, coverage of conflicts along Morocco’s border with Spain, and deaths in its Mediterranean channels, has waned accordingly, especially in the Anglophone media.
It’s certainly possible that media focus has landed on Greece instead of Libya, Jordan or Spain because that’s where the story is today. The shipwreck off Spain in October was tragic, but it was also the first on such a scale in years. Meanwhile, of the nearly quarter million people who emigrated to Europe by sea in October, most were entering through Greece. On just one day, October 20, according to Reuters, more than 10,000 arrived on Lesvos. In Spain, just over 1,600 people have been rescued attempting sea crossings in all of 2015, according to the Spanish Red Cross. That’s a huge number of people to rescue at sea. But it’s nowhere near the scale of the crisis—and, arguably, the story—in Greece. That said, the largest number of refugees on the move remains outside Europe, in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Yet coverage of those populations has remained far less than coverage of events in Greece and Eastern Europe.
Even locally in Spain, the NGO-press dynamic is similar to that operating internationally. On the Gibraltar straits, a local human rights NGO, Caminando Fronteras (“Walking Borders”), a network based in Tangier and southern Spain, has become the main source of news, tweeting out reports of attempted crossings every few days. The group’s most visible spokesperson, Helena Maleno, who sometimes refers to herself as a journalist, is more deeply sourced among migrants than many Spanish or Moroccan reporters, and often receives distress calls on her mobile phone from boats foundering offshore. She then tweets what she learns to local journalists.
— Helena Maleno Garzón (@HelenaMaleno) November 6, 2015
The interdependence between NGOs and traditional media on the migration story has spurred at least one large effort to rethink how media covers the crisis. Led by Univison and Fusion, The 19 Million Project identifies itself as “a coalition of journalists, coders, designers, digital strategists and global citizens” seeking to “advance the narrative” of the crisis. The group is currently meeting in Rome, and has attracted support from large media backers including the Nieman Foundation and Google News Lab.
NGOs working on migration understand the barriers reporters face in covering the story, and are cleverly positioning themselves as a solution. “We help reporters convince their editors to part with some cash from their travel budget,” said HRW’s Stroehlein. “We’re saying, ‘there’s a story here, and there is imagery,’ because imagery is important, particularly for television.”
They have also started using their status as human rights observers to gain access in places where journalists have been barred. NPR freelancer Frayer says she managed to enter a refugee camp in Slovenia last month by tagging along with a HRW researcher who was traveling with her group of reporters “These groups can use their status as observers to get in and essentially do the job we would be doing,” she said.
In Slovenia, Frayer was soon identified as a reporter and escorted outside. The NGO observer was allowed to stay, photograph, and tweet.
This access and global reach also means NGOs that are cleverest with social media can push their version of a complex story directly to policymakers they hope to influence, without having to convince news editors to see things their way. “It used to be you write a report, wait six months and give that to journalists. [Now] we look at our Web stats, and 50 percent of our traffic” originates from Twitter and Facebook, including “people in the European [Union] institutions, from governments, the State Department,” Stroehlein says.*
In the weeks since the dual shipwrecks off Spain and Greece, coverage of migration, which UNHCR estimates involves 60 million people worldwide, has remained focused on one place: the Greek island of Lesvos, and the trail leading from there. On November 10, NBC reported the interception of a luxury yacht off the island with 245 Syrian refugees aboard. The BBC interviewed a doctor who’d used his vacation to help refugees there, and Mashable noted ghoulish reports that the island’s cemetery had run out of space. Newsweek published a harrowing interview with a volunteer who had been on the beach during the previous week’s disaster.
On November 5, meanwhile, Spanish police rescued two people found suffocating under the false floor of a car that had driven from Morocco into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. A day later, also in Ceuta, 12 people, including two minors, were rescued attempting to cross from Morocco to Spain by sea. On Nov. 7, Spanish coastal police rescued a dozen men believed to have crossed from Algeria. They were floating off Murcia, Spain, several hours north of where the earlier shipwreck had occurred. Over the next three days police arrested three men who had just landed on the Spanish island of Formentera, rescued three men crossing from Morocco, and recovered three bodies off Malaga, believed to be victims of the October 29 disaster. On November 11, 19 people including a pregnant woman were rescued while drifting two miles off Spanish waters.
None of the week’s migration incidents off Spain, the nearest crossing between Africa and Europe, has been reported widely outside the region, or in English.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that half of Human Rights Watch’s Web traffic originates from government offices.