Refugee reporting reflections

REPORTING on refugees, both in Afghanistan and in Europe, was the topic of October's LFB meeting. Photographer Guy Smallman showed images from his recent visit to a camp near Kabul for refugees bombed out of Helmand province, and also from his earlier visit to a camp for refugees in Calais trying to enter the UK. He started by explaining the NUJ guidelines on reporting refugees and asylum seekers.

Refugee children: photo © Guy Smallman
Refugee children.

Guy repeated union advice to attend hostile environment training courses and drew attention to various relevant schemes. Guy advises when covering refugee situations:

  • Camps often have a pecking order, for example it may be bad manners not to talk to tribal elders or spokesmen. There are always internal divisions in a camp, so seek out other opinions within the camp too.
  • Always seek official documents or reports from NGOs about the situation in camps. Giving a voice to displaced people is difficult, especially without official facts or figures. Guy was able to photograph Afghan government documents, held by camp elders, listing the families and fatalities in that camp. He also recorded the interview on a camcorder to have a visual record of claims about children being sold into slavery by starving families.
  • "Always tell somebody where you're going. A lot of refugee camps have criminal gangs operating inside them. Get a local SIM card for your mobile phone. Show up unannounced if possible. The fewer people who know about your movements the better."
  • Never get your cash out in public, it's not fair on the people you pay, they will be mobbed as will you. Pay people discreetly for their time or work.
  • In many places it's rude to refuse food offered to you, but some of it may make you very ill. Guy always tells them that "I have had a serious stomach upset and my doctor has told me only to eat bread and rice." Check with NGOs for outbreaks of diseases before you go. Branch Treasurer Jenny Vaughan emphasised the dangers of "phenomenally dreadful" malaria. "It kills more than any other disease... take it completely seriously."
  • Your most important piece of equipment is an NUJ Press Card, together with your international press card from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
  • See www.londonfreelance.org/fl/0704warl.html for Guy's advice on working with fixers you can trust. In a conflict situation everyone with language skills will be desperate to earn money. This does not necessarily mean that they are qualified to keep you safe.

People Guy met in Afghanistan were pleasantly surprised but pleased to see him working unembedded - rather than being tethered to an army unit. In Kabul this is possible. Everywhere else in the country, the roads are not considered to be safe. Visits to refugee camps by "embeds" or politicians are often proceeded by "heavies" who set the agenda for the visit. Being unembedded gives you a different viewpoint.

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