CAN THERE BE A 'SAFE HAVEN' FOR TRAUMA SURVIVORS IN THIS SOCIAL MEDIA DOMINATED WORLD?

AuthorStroinska, Magda
PositionNarrating Migration and Diaspora - Report
  1. Introduction: what is in a label?

    The 20th century was referred to as the century of the refugee or exile (from both World Wars and the conflicts in Europe and central Africa), and the present century as that of migration--immigrant/ emigrant, migrant or refugee. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees [UNHCR] (UNHCR, 2018), in 2017 the number of forcibly displaced persons worldwide amounted to 68.6 million, of which 25.4 million were refugees and 3.1 million were asylum-seekers, all fleeing from persecution, war or violence mainly in the countries of the Middle East and Africa: Syria (the largest refugee group), Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Eritrea. To the above worldwide totals the approximately 150.3 million economic migrants--or migrant workers as the United Nations refer to them (Migration, 2017) can also be added. (1)

    The meanings of the different terms used to describe persons forcibly displaced from their country have changed and continue to change according to the connotations and associations they produce in different countries and situations. A refugee--in the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford English Living Dictionary, n.d.), or in Merriam Webster (Merriam Webster English Dictionary, n.d.), is "[a] person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster"; while the Cambridge English Dictionary (Cambridge English Dictionary, n.d.) is the only one to add for 'economic reasons' to the definition. Sometimes confused with refugee is the term exile--"1. The state of being barred from one's native country, typically for political or punitive reasons. 1.1 A person who lives away from their native country, either from choice or compulsion" (Oxford Dictionary). The migrant has been defined as "[a] person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions" (Oxford), or "a worker who moves from place to place to do seasonal work" (Google Dictionary). According to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, asylum seeker is the term used to define persons who have "left their country of origin seeking safety, who have applied to another country, and are awaiting a decision on their application." Under this Convention, member nations have a legal and moral duty to provide international protection to both refugees and asylum seekers.

    But the distinction between refugees, asylum seekers and other people migrating is often ignored by countries (e.g. the current crisis of South American nationals seeking asylum in the US; some European leaders in Italy, Austria and Hungary; the United States where 'undocumented immigrants' have now become 'illegal aliens' with all the connotations that this WWII designation resurrects). French sociologist and blogger Eric Fassin (Lehn 2018) perhaps explains this best:

    "The emigrant is the one who has left, the immigrant is the one who has arrived, the migrant is the one who has no 'purpose' to be here, nor anywhere: he's just moving about". We will show how the populist and nativist associations and parties use labelling as a destructive weapon against the other, and as J. K. Rowling's character says "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." Regardless of the name, designation or label given to these vast numbers of forcibly displaced persons, they have all suffered from persecution, war, ethnic cleansing or other forms of violence, in some cases for many years, before their decision to leave their native country in order to seek a safe haven. Adults and children alike brought with them memories of their traumatic experiences, and, unfortunately, in most cases, more and new trauma was added during their long and arduous journey to a final safe place, sometimes halfway around the world from their home country. Once arrived and settled in their safe haven, they had to start dealing with their traumatic memories in order to heal and continue with their lives. But given the current rise of xenophobic populism, hate speech and hate crimes, this healing process may become difficult to sustain because these recent immigrants are systematically re-traumatized by the actions of others in their new country.

  2. The rise of populism, hate speech and hate crimes

    The rise within nations of xenophobic populism, with the subsequent impact of discrimination, prejudice, racism, nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and authoritarian dictatorships on affected peoples is not a new phenomenon: there have been instances recorded and commented on across the ages. Simultaneously with the rise of populism, the world has seen an ever-increasing surge in hate speech with alarming consequences for the 'discriminated against'--whether traditional subjects of discrimination (e.g.: marginalized populations such as Jews, Roma peoples or other ethnic and/ or cultural minorities), or the most recent ones such as refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in general. This surge has been encouraged, protected, aided and abetted by the actions and rhetoric of certain populist governments and leaders--one only has to mention the name of Donald Trump for people everywhere to give examples of his inflammatory, discriminatory and humiliating speech regarding the subjects of his vitriol. As Victor Klemperer (1946/2000:15-16) remarked in his study of the language of the Third Reich, "Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic effect sets in after all."

    What constitutes hate speech? According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (Merriam Webster English Dictionary, n.d.), the legal definition of hate speech is language use (in any form--oral or visual) "that is intended to insult, offend, or intimidate a person because of some trait (such as race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or disability)", while the Cambridge Online Dictionary

    (Cambridge Online Dictionary, n.d.) adds the important consequence of hate speech, "public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence [italics added by authors]". In formulating a hateful message, the speaker purposely intends that the subject of the hate speech shall suffer some form of economic consequence (e.g.: loss of job, reduction in pay, prohibition from applying for a job, housing or other benefits) and/ or social harm (e.g.: by posting and sharing tweets, videos of violent confrontations or shaming subjects on social media platforms). In extreme cases, violence against the subject of the hate speech is purposely intended by the speaker. Donald Trump during a March 2016 Presidential campaign rally in Kentucky encouraged his supporters to use physical violence to deal with some protesters (Did Donald Trump Encourage Violence at His Rallies? 2019): "[k]nock the crap out of them, would you? Just knock the hell [---] I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise."

  3. Social media: tool for the dissemination of hate speech / hate crimes or instrument to combat hate speech/hate crimes?

    The widespread use and accessibility to diverse social media platforms (e.g.: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat) and the potential instantaneous worldwide reach of any posted items (such as blogs, pictures, videos, news and 'fake news') makes the current crisis affecting war survivors, refugees and migrants different. These platforms allow anyone with access the opportunity to express their views--whether positive and encouraging or negative and hateful--about those different from themselves (refugees, migrants, legal or illegal immigrants, in other words, anyone who could be seen as the other) and work to keep them from coming into their (or any closely associated) country.

    Social media platforms also allow for 'anonymous' tribal affiliation and instantaneous exposure so that the inflamed rhetoric has a much larger reach. In addition, it can be spread to different countries since language is no longer a barrier, given that English is now an established global lingua franca. Where English is not known, online translation apps can be used to 'get the message', sometimes unfortunately with misinterpretations that can be even more sinister. Online sites can be 'camouflaged' to seem like legitimate government sites until one reads the message. Populist sites operate with impunity since they rely on the conventions allowing for free speech and the free exchange of ideas which are a hallmark of social media platforms to spread their message, or allow party members to be contacted when a 'mob' is needed at an event.

    Psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists have described the natural tendency all humans have to gather together into 'groups' based on norms, values, beliefs and an understanding of the roles of group members within the group that unite them and give them a guide to acceptable behaviour. This group adhesion provides many benefits to the members, such as social, psychological support (e.g.: from religious groups, political parties, athletic clubs, ethnic groups or communities in a geographic area) and perhaps even economic stability (e.g.: trade unions or...

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