Racial stereotypes and negative overtones have often driven the European media’s coverage of the refugees who arrived on the continent after fleeing from Syria and other conflict zones in recent years.
But thanks to the role of community media, such as radio programs and podcasts, migrants have found an outlet to share information, educate fellow refugees and host communities, keep abreast of developments at home and find a respite from the hardships of their day-to-day lives.
“Radio is a way to let migrants express themselves, find their voice and even enjoy a convivial moment, particularly if they are going through distressing situations,” said Cloé Chastel, a member of Micro Camp, a French association that organizes workshops to teach basic radio and journalism skills to migrants in France and as far away as Kurdistan and Georgia.
“We have had instances where participants wanted to discuss their country’s political situation or personal problems,” said Chastel. “But often they tell us they want to use the medium to do something more pleasurable, like playing music or sharing recipes, to take their minds off serious issues.”
In France, migrants’ community radio programs tend to focus on practical themes or solving problems like administrative procedures and access to welfare.
One such program is Stalingrad Connection, named after the Paris neighborhood that became a makeshift camp for thousands of people at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe in 2016. The program is broadcast in four languages from Fréquence Paris Plurielle, a community radio station, and via podcast.
One of Stalingrad Connection’s regular listeners is Moussab, who fled to France from Sudan, where he had been imprisoned several times for his work as a print journalist. “I see this program as a way of giving a voice to all migrants who live in France,” said Moussab, who asked that his full name not be used.
Highlighting Refugees’ Lives
Broadcasting for an hour a week in four languages (English, French, Arabic and Dari, one of Afghanistan’s two official languages) the program was born out of a wish to preserve the Stalingrad community’s network after authorities dismantled the camp. Local volunteers and refugees produce the show.
The segments aim to share refugees’ experiences as well as offer practical information, like useful addresses and tips for newcomers.
“We ask, ‘What are your problems? How do you manage with food or personal hygiene?’” said Hassan Baigi, a 25-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan who contributes to the program. “But we don’t aim to show the ‘dark side’ of refugees living on a street. We want to highlight their qualities, talk about their previous lives as teachers or students in their own countries and show how they could contribute to French society.”
Stalingrad Connection is also a source of insights for refugees as they try to grapple with French bureaucracy and the complexities of the asylum-seeking process. According to Ofpra, the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons, only 27 percent of applicants are granted asylum status, often because the paperwork is not in order or is completed incorrectly.
“We have cooperated with refugee associations’ staff to produce programs that teach how to fill in forms correctly—for example, highlighting the difference between given names and family names—and generally provide advice that is not available on government websites,” said Margot Colinet, 34, a member of the Stalingrad Connection collective. “It’s the kind of advice you only know when you have been in the field.”
This educational approach has become even more relevant as the French government seeks to tighten asylum law by shortening application deadlines. Under a new immigration bill introduced by President Emmanuel Macron, migrants seeking to receive asylum in France who once had 120 days to file their applications would instead have only 90 days.
“The direct participation of migrants in community programs can help them integrate in the social context where the radio stations operate,” said Nadia Bellardi, a transcultural media consultant who has worked with the Zurich-based community radio station LoRa. “This is very important for those who have just arrived, don’t have any friends and don’t know how to deal with the bureaucracy of the host country.”
Bellardi also pointed out the educational role that these radio outlets play for those who participate in the programs, because the traditional separation between radio listeners and contributors is blurred.
“Migrants receive broadcast training and become aware of editorial planning and responsibilities,” she said.
A Safe Space for Self-Expression
In southern Italy, where migrants are often exploited as fruit and vegetable pickers, a local community radio project broadcasts from a makeshift shed that has become a safe space where people can drop by after a long day spent working in the fields and talk about their hardships.
Founded in 2012 and carried on various West African radio stations, Radio Ghetto, Voci Libere (Radio Ghetto, Free Voices) aims to give a voice to the dwellers of the Gran Ghetto near Foggia, in southern Italy.
The Gran Ghetto is a shantytown that houses hundreds—thousands during the summer season—of legal and undocumented migrant farm workers from all over the world, but mostly West Africa. Landowners hire often-brutal gang masters to recruit laborers in an exploitative system called “caporalato” enforced by the local mafia.
The living conditions of most migrants and their families don’t meet basic safety or humane standards. While workers make an average of $35 a day in the region, they can expect to spend half of that on food, transport, water and a cut for the gang master.
Since its inception, Radio Ghetto has become a free space for debate, entertainment, relaxation and sometimes arguments, according to the local volunteers who helped set it up. During the broadcasts, workers discuss issues and difficulties of their life and work, play music, comment on Italian and faraway news and organize rap contests.
“We provide the equipment and a program outline, but then we give free rein to the people living in the shanty towns so that they become the ‘makers’ of the program,” said Raffaele Urselli, 32, a member of the Radio Ghetto collective who also works as a freelance researcher for the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation office in Athens.
He says the feedback from Italian and migrant listeners has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We organize phone-ins and once even got a call from the migrants’ camp in Calais,” said Urselli. “It was someone who had lived in the Ghetto before moving on to France. He still had our phone number and decided to call to chat with us.”