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Refugees #NotWelcome? The Contentious Politics of Solidarity in Digital Spaces

By Alexandra C. Budabin

In May 2019, I traveled to Florence to participate in a conference hosted by the Center on Social Movement Studies (COSMOS) on the Contentious Politics of Solidarity. Hosted by Donatella della Porta and Elias Steinhilper. The conference was an occasion to discuss the ways in which recent migration flows in Europe since the summer of 2015 have promoted acts of solidarity in host countries. As time has passed, however, support for migrants has become challenged, as Professor della Porta described, to the extent that acts of solidarity have become criminalized, stigmatized, by mainstream media, political parties, and politicians. Scholarship must now turn to how solidarity initiatives have mobilized in response to repressive tactics. The conference brought together scholars of social movement and civil society to discuss how we might bridge disciplines to study the interactions among NGOs and social movements --voluntary action, advocacy, or protest--in moments of crisis.

With my collaborator Nina Hall of John Hopkins SAIS, I presented work in progress related to studying resistance to solidarity in digital spaces. In the last few years, we have seen how a number of humanitarian campaigns led by various authorities--state, UNHCR, and civil society—have attempted to foster solidarity between receiving countries and refugees. From Ireland to Italy, Sweden to Slovakia, new civil society, and volunteer, initiatives sprung up to assist refugees. In many countries, there was a strong sense of solidarity, and empathy, towards the thousands fleeing persecution from Middle East and North Africa. These acts of solidarity and rhetorical endorsements moved into digital space in the form of hashtags such as #WelcomeRefugee, #RefugeesWelcome, #Letthemstay, #WithRefugees.  

Yet, Nina and I found that the sentiment of fostering solidarity towards migrants and refugees was not shared by all. Some people felt concerned, and even threatened by the flows of migrants and asylum seekers into their countries. We found that a variety of arguments were being advanced in digital spaces through the circulation of hashtags such as #FuckRefugees, #FuckOffRefugees, #Rapefugees, #NotWelcomeRefugees, and #RefugeesNotWelcome. These hashtags circulated and appeared to be directly responding to the pro-solidarity hashtags discussed above. As one tweet in 2016 summed up, “Fuck refugees not #WithRefugees We don't need more scroungers, rapists and terrorists. We should look after our own poor! #fuckrefugees.”  

In light of ongoing discussions on how to curb hate speech, we focus on the social media debates around accepting migrants and refugees.  This is part of a body of work that studies the backlash against refugees both on-line and offline. In particular, as some research suggests that Facebook enables online hate speech to shift into real-life violent crime against refugees; the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand is a most recent example on this link. Our work lays bare the ways in which twitter is a critical space for solidarity contestation where anti-solidarity discourses often respond directly to pro-solidarity campaigns (by invoking the same hashtags). We see descriptions of the refugee situation (#refugees, #refugeecrisis, #Syrianrefugees) as well as mentions of the pro-refugee hashtags like #RefugeesWelcome and #WithRefugees alongside anti-refugee hashtags (#fuckrefugees and #RefugeesNotWelcome). Some policies are mentioned (#muslimban and #shiftingburden) that might be used by either camp. National contexts are reflected in references to particular politicians (Trudeau, Obama, @MayorofLondon, Trump) as well as their slogans (Trump’s #maga). A worrisome range of offensive speech is on display in addition to the anchoring hashtags: the #fuckrefugees hashtag is accompanied by additional uses of the #fuck connected to categories, politicians, opposition groups (Liberals), as well as other (liberal) movements like Black Lives Matter. Racially specific language like #NoKebabsallowed also makes an appearance here. White supremacy sentiments and organizations are invoked heavily. Groups like Red Nation Rising, a conservative affiliation in the US and European Brotherhood make an appearance along with injunctions to #Defendeurope. There are explicit references to Hail Odin, White Supremacy, White Europa, and White Colonies. These references reveal public attitudes that circulate, connected or disconnected from informal groups or political parties.

Following our presentation, the question of the ethical implications of our project was raised. Does our research give undue attention and significance to online hate speech in ways that may assist anti-solidarity forces? Citing her discussions with pro-solidarity activists, my collaborator Nina Hall discussed the limitations of studying only progressive pro-solidarity movements; indeed, understanding the anti-solidarity networks and online spaces of hate speech is critical for today’s advocates. Our work is concerned with the arguments made by anti-solidarity and anti-migrant forces to make legible their grievances, dominant narratives, along with the misinformation that feeds some of these arguments. We found that there were a wide-range of frames used--cultural, economic, gender, security, and legal—with some being more popularly adopted and diffused than others. We note that engagement with international refugee laws and policies is minimal while claims to specific national contexts and local concerns is dominant. It may be that pro and anti-refugee solidarity groups are talking past each other, not to each other. As another conference participant pointed out, our work will help pro-solidarity groups adjust their communication strategies to take into account what works and doesn’t work when communicating the needs of migrants and refugees. Future work will continue to explicate the nature of arguments against migrants and refugees, better trace the diffusion across the Northern American and European contexts, and offer tips to NGOs and advocates on responding to anti-solidarity sentiments. 

Photo credit: https://refugees-welcome.blogs.uni-hamburg.de/


Dr. Alexandra C. Budabin is a Senior Researcher at the University of Dayton Human Rights CenterShe is conducting research on transnational advocacy around gender-based sexual violence with Dr. Natalie F. Hudson. She is a Co-I on the research project "Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things", funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research 2017-2020. 

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