Journalists need to expand beyond crisis reporting in covering migration

When the Adriana, an overcrowded migrant boat, sank in Greek waters in June, drowning hundreds, the catastrophe was unusual in scale, but those traveling on global migration routes regularly encounter terrible hardship. Most of the coverage of this story, however, was limited to the disaster itself, neglecting to illuminate how a complex, multi-faceted, and deeply flawed global migration system makes such tragedies all-but inevitable. Media consumers need more comprehensive coverage of that system—the Migration Industrial Complex, if you will—which affects our lives in myriad ways. 

Migrant families stand outside of the Inn of Chicago located at 162 E. Ohio Street, where nearly 1,400 migrants are currently seeking asylum on Thursday, June 29, 2023. The Inn of Chicago is the most populated migrant housing hotel in the city of Chicago at this time.

Consider almost any complicated global issue—the economy, climate change, food production, manufacturing, trade, wars, political instability—and you will find a deep connection to migration. It plays a major role in the international economy, the stability of nations, the supply of labor, grocery store inventories of pork chops and Florida oranges, and tragedies like the sinking of the Adriana

The reach of the migration system became obvious to me during the years I conducted research for my book All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis. When one Syrian refugee I interviewed described sitting in a smuggler’s safe house in Izmir, Turkey, for example, waiting for the weather to break so that she and her five children could board a boat for Greece, she was describing one small but crucial component within the Migration Industrial Complex. But journalists need to more expansively address this complex web of services, locations, equipment, offices, and government entities that propel a major industry. 

Smugglers and safe houses play a role in this system, but so do Coast Guards, factory owners who employ migrant laborers, school systems trying to educate children on the move, immigration lawyers, and merchants who sell SIM cards and rubber dinghies. Not all of them profit from or condone criminal syndicates and human trafficking, but they all operate within an intertwined global system that has an enormous reach but about which we have only a piecemeal understanding. Journalists are in the best position to put those pieces together. 

Coverage of migration too often focuses on one of two angles: government policy (the political angle) and the lives of individual migrants (the human angle). Both are important, but such a narrow scope misses the huge web of industrial practices that enable and hinder the movements of people. Only when journalism expands beyond crisis reporting can it begin to illuminate migration as the far-reaching system that it has become. 

I can imagine a vast offering of deeply reported stories. For example, we would benefit from more expansive field reporting explaining how climate change is causing an increase in people fleeing drought in East Africa. How might efforts to address climate change help mitigate its effects and potentially allow more people to remain in their homelands? Another area for exploration would be the financing that supports networks of human trafficking. The New York Times reported that the 700 or so individuals on board The Adriana paid as much as $4000 each for their passage on the ship and that the combined total revenue for that single voyage may have reached $3.5 million. Aside from the now-arrested individuals accused of piloting and managing the boat, who else stood to profit from this major business venture? Who owned the boat? Was it insured, and, if so, how does maritime insurance interact with these criminal operations? We also need more expanded reporting on how migration affects the societies where these newcomers settle. Migrants and refugees now provide labor for major industries like meat packing, agriculture, and in the service sector, as well as eldercare. Journalism can help us see how wealthier societies have become dependent on this labor. 

Migration is no longer just a crisis; it has become a permanent fact of modern life, one that will only increase as climate change and other global instabilities worsen. To understand this long-term problem, we need to understand the industrial system that has emerged to facilitate and address it.

All of us would benefit from journalism like this, but it would especially help policy makers in a position to mitigate problems and prevent catastrophes by crafting responsive legislation. 

Better reporting would undoubtedly help migrants as well. They are consumers of media like the rest of us but often have nothing but anecdotes and word of mouth to help them make life-altering decisions. A Syrian father told me about conducting research on his mobile phone to figure out which brands of life jackets were reliable and which were fakes that would fill with water and sink. His family survived, but I imagine that others, led astray by bad information, were not so lucky.

More expansive reporting can illuminate our understanding of the networks that facilitate and hinder migration—systems both legal and criminal, humanitarian and capitalist, individual and state-sponsored. How do smuggling syndicates work? How are they financed? Who is making money? How do migrants pay for their journeys? How do they know which services to trust? Are they pawns or active players in these operations? Who is helping them or threatening them along the way? Reporting that focuses on crises, individual stories, and debates over policy leads only to short-term “fixes” that have, over the decades, achieved little, 

Such reporting ignores the ways the migration system operates as an industry and how it involves not only millions of migrants but also society at large. Only when journalists illuminate the pervasive, permanent role of migration in contemporary society will we find long-term strategies for addressing the problems of migration. We will always need reporters to cover boat disasters like The Adriana, but more comprehensive coverage of migration as an industry could make such tragedies less likely to occur.

Dana Sachs is a journalist, novelist and cofounder of the nonprofit Humanity Now: Direct Refugee Relief. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, and is the author of “All Else Failed: The Unlikely Volunteers at the Heart of the Migrant Aid Crisis.”

Share our journalism