Whose “Mission”? Celebrities, voice and refugees

A new Italian reality TV show is sending celebrities to refugee camps, but for refugees to be able to speak for themselves and convey the message they want to convey, the cameras must be given to refugees themselves, says Nath Gbikpi.

Nath Gbikpi
13 September 2013

“Mission”. While the first days everyone was calling it a “humanitarian reality show”, the producers prefer terms such as “docu-reality” or “social show”. It is the result of the collaboration of the UN Refugee Agency UNCHR, the Italian NGO Intersos and RAI, the Italian national public broadcasting company. From what is known up to now, eight Italian celebrities - from Italian Prince Emanuele Filiberto to singer Albano - will visit in couples different refugee camps in South Sudan, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of Congo for a period of 15 days. The final product will be two shows, which will air on prime time this coming fall. 

Although no one has seen it yet, “Mission” has already aroused a number of critics, coming predominantly from the humanitarian sector, but also from politicians, including Laura Boldrini, current President of the Chamber of Deputies, and previous spokesperson for UNHCR Italy. Boldrini warned against the exploitation of refugees for the purposes of a TV show. A number of petitions are currently circulating on the web, asking for the show not to be broadcasted, most notably one at change.org, which reached almost 90 000 signatures in a matter of days. The hashtag “#nomission” is increasingly seen on Twitter.

The heated debate around the show has mainly divided those who believe that “the ends justify the means”, and thus if sending celebrities to a refugee camp is what it takes to raise awareness and funds about the crises, let it be; and those who associate that with “poverty porn” (the use of “words and images that elicit an emotional response by their sheer shock value", "overuse of the word 'victim'" etc), and believe that there is a limit not to be crossed to ensure the respect and dignity of refugees.

The “end” of the show is, according to the organisers, to raise awareness among the Italian public about refugee crises around the world, and to generate funds to support ongoing aid work in response to these crises. Indeed, the Italian public is generally little aware of refugee crises, and humanitarian crises more generally. According to a June 2013 report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in 2012 only 4% of the Italian newscast spoke about crises, conflict, humanitarian and health emergencies. Meanwhile, 63% of the Italian population expressed a wish for more information from the media on humanitarian emergencies. What is more, as MSF relates in the same report, according to a May 2013 survey, 78% of the sampled population considered the quantity of news about gossip to be excessive, while 60% requested more information on the work of humanitarian organisations and the ways they could help. 

Another reason why a show that raises awareness could be useful in Italy is the level of hostility and ignorance that exists among the population towards refugees, asylum seekers and migrants more generally. A typical example of this is the widespread use of the word clandestini, a pejorative word to speak of irregular migrants which fails to differentiate between migrants and asylum seekers - whilst migrants may migrate for a number of reasons, asylum seekers are all potential refugees: individuals who are part of formal process in which they are asking for a state’s protection. A show that would help the general public to grasp the difference is certainly to be welcomed. What is more, the show could help to demonstrate that Italy, like its fellow European countries, only receives a very minimal portion of the overall number of refugees worldwide. Out of 893,700 new asylum applications lodged globally in 2012, Italy received 15,710, i.e. 1.7%. Meanwhile, recent UNHCR estimates suggest that the “Global South” still bears the majority of the burden, host to 80% of refugees worldwide. 

“Mission”, or at least the ideas behind it, is not completely unique and new in its genre. In fact, both the use of a TV show, and the use of celebrities, to raise awareness and funds for a given cause have already been used across the world. Shows tackling immigration and asylum issues specifically include the Australian show “Go back to where you came from”, which filmed six persons with strong views on migration issues as they made the reverse journey to that of asylum seekers fleeing to Australia (back to countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan). Similarly in Germany, the model Mirja du Mont retraced the journey from Germany to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, passing through Italy. In the Netherlands, a show was aired where participants were refused asylum seekers who needed to answer questions proving their attachment to the European country. The winner won 4,000 Euros to take with them when deported.

Looking at celebrities, the involvement of big names such as Bono and Madonna is increasing. Most famously regarding refugees, Angelina Jolie has been a longstanding goodwill ambassador for UNHCR. Furthermore, she was appointed as Special Envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in April 2012. In this role, the actress “undertakes advocacy on their [refugees’] behalf”. This has recently included delivering a speech at the UN Security Council on sexual violence against displaced persons in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There is not something inherently wrong about both of these developments. If the use of celebrities and of formats like the reality show does help in raising awareness and vital funds, then I believe that they can be valid means. But we need to think about the kind of awareness that is aroused. The most efficient way to raise funds is often assumed to be garnering the sympathy of the public by bombarding them with images of poor and helpless refugees. A format like that of “Mission” runs the risk of presenting a false image of the refugees for the purpose of raising funds; and of detracting from the voice of refugees, who will be spoken (once again) on behalf of, instead of speaking for themselves.  

One of the producers of “Mission”, Tullio Camiglieri, has already said that the show will “narrate, through their eyes [of the celebrities], those forgotten parts of the words”. Intersos has also specified how the celebrities “will choose how to describe what they have seen”. The refugee is powerless and voiceless. Furthermore, the kind of images we are to expect - of vulnerability and victimization - will no doubt send the message that only you can do something to help them. This kind of message can be, after a while, dangerous for the funds themselves: seeing the same pictures over and over, the public might start thinking that the help it sends is in fact useless. More importantly, it is a false message, which hides the resiliency and agency of the refugees. It enhances a culture of paternalism that on the long run only augments the dependency of refugees on funds. This image can be avoided. In the Dutch programme for example, for as much as the idea was of very bad taste, the asylum seekers were seen as knowledgeable and playful persons. What image of refugees will “Mission” portray? Will the combination of famous and rich celebrities next to refugees in camps necessarily lead to stereotyped images of helpless and needy poor, hiding their resilience, agency and proactiveness?

The head of UNHCR Italy, Laura Lucci, has been reassuring the public that only those refugees who want to appear on TV will appear, and that staff from UNHCR will be following the cameras non-stop in order to “protect” the refugees. Yet, the power of deciding which images to select, which speeches to keep and which to cut, will be with the producers and not with the refugees. In sum, the power of the refugees over which message to send seems to be near to null.

For refugees to be able to speak for themselves, and convey the message they want to convey, the cameras must be given to refugees themselves. In that way, the refugees could decide what to show and what not to show. Projects of this type have already been done. In 2011 in Lebanon, the Zakira Project gave Palestinian refugee children cameras to photograph life in their camp. A project by UNHCR itself, called “Do you see what I see?”, trained refugee children in Yemen and Namibia to photograph their life in a camp. Another idea could be asking the refugees to recount their experience, with the celebrities in the camp serving as interviewees. Kanere, the independent refugee-run newspaper of the Kenyan camp of Kakuma, has already proven the journalistic skills of many encamped refugees.

The use of celebrities in TV shows which aim to raise awareness and funds for refugee crises can work. Yet, there is a limit that cannot be crossed. In that spirit, the producers of "Mission" should be careful not to fall into the easy and damaging trap of creating a show that would portray refugees as powerless and once again voiceless, ultimately hurting those it is supposed to benefit. To paraphrase an old slogan, please, let's do “nothing for them without them”.

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