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Enough with Bashing Refugees Online

Image via NBC News

YouTube aimed to raise awareness about the lives of individual refugees to put faces to statistics. The online community responded with insults and negativity.

YouTube’s response to the newest refugee campaign video circulating the internet raises an important debate on the line between censorship and the limits to free expression.   

The video, #MoreThanARefugee, was created by YouTube Creators for Change and the International Rescue Committee to encourage people to be more accepting of refugees.  However, the campaign was met with overwhelming criticism and, in some cases, blatant hate towards refugees.  

YouTube’s decision to remove some anti-refugee comments from the video has been widely criticized for curtailing freedom of speech. Just the same, though, the number of hateful comments, which prompted the company’s response, raises broader concerns about the growing division among various peoples of the world. 

The statistics concerning European migration and refugee displacement are staggering.  The UN Refugee Agency states that we are experiencing the highest levels of displacement on record, with around 65.6 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. This figure is astounding. It also highlights the age in which we live: the age of the refugee.  However, at the end of the day, the refugee crisis is also a human one, which statistics alone cannot fully cover.

#More Than A Refugee is a unique campaign in that it stresses stories about individual refugees to put faces to statistics. Individual stories, like those highlighted in the video, are frequently lost in the sheer number of refugees attempting to resettle and rebuild their lives. However, we must be extremely cautious not to let numbers blind us to what is, in the end, a humanitarian issue. #MoreThanARefugee intends to highlight exactly that, while also raising private donations to support refugees. 

Therefore, discussing whether YouTube was right to delete contentious comments, hateful words misses the point and transforms a humanitarian discussion into a political or intellectual exercise about freedom of speech. 

The production was criticized by those who felt that its creators were attempting to focus their narrative on stories about displaced families rather than those concerning single male refugees. However, the assumption that most refugees are young, single men is not correct. According to the United Nations,  an astounding half of the current refugee population consists of children under the age of 18.

The hateful reaction to the video is particularly ironic considering its overall peaceful message that refugees are more than what has happened to them. This is a crucial element to keep in mind as hate and fear continue to spread in response to the massive influxes of displaced persons. In light of the recent attack on a Muslim mosque in London, this message is especially pertinent.

Refugees are more than a number. Each of the 22.5 million refugees worldwide are real people, with real lives and real aspirations. YouTube’s decision to delete certain comments undoubtedly raises concerns over the fine line between respecting free speech while also preventing hate. However, the controversy over YouTube’s actions should not diminish the message of the #MoreThanARefugee campaign.   

At the end of the day, no matter what circumstances we are born under, we are all human. That is what #MoreThanARefugee reminds us. We must not let refugee status reduce people to their current situation or rob them of what makes them an individual.  

Today, differences among peoples too often generate fear and contempt. Perhaps, though, if we can remember the things which makes us all human instead of Syrian or American, Palestinian or Israeli, Sudanese or British, we will be able to confront the “age of the refugee” on a united front.

In the meantime, we can at least afford those affected by tragedy the respect they deserve as individuals rather than diminishing them to numbers.  

Alexa Boncimino is a student at Columbia University. She is interested in issues pertaining to refugee resettlement.

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