The COVID-19 pandemic is dramatically increasing the polarization of migration narratives. We can act before it distorts migration policy making.

Ways of life. Ways to move.

COVID 19 has not only caused an unprecedented damage to the world’s health systems and economy. It has significantly “infected” our societies with a sense of insecurity, fear and fragmentation. Our current conceptions of human contact, exchange, trade, and discovery are wandering towards unknown directions.

In this transitory ideological dilemma, global conceptions of “home” are gaining new value. In his book Demeure, French philosopher Francois Xavier Bellamy explains the difference between “Somewheres” citizens, rooted in a specific place or community, usually a small town or in the countryside, socially conservative, often less educated – and those who could come from “Anywhere”: footloose, often urban, socially liberal and university educated. This idea was first developed in a more specific British context by David Goodhart in “The Road to Somewhere”, where he explains that Somewheres are characterised by an unease with the modern world, a nostalgic sense that “change is loss” and the strong belief that it is the job of British leaders to put the interests of Britons first. Anywheres, meanwhile, are free of nostalgia; egalitarian and meritocratic in their attitude to race, sexuality, gender, and light in their attachments “to larger group identities, including national ones. They value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition”. One key element to consider in the analysis of the current migration narrative in Europe is, according to Goodhart, that Anywheres have ignored and labelled as xenophobic the discomfort that many people felt over the rapid ethnic change across the country.”  This caused a sentimental and emotional alienation of Somewheres, resulting frequently in admiration for new populist or extreme positions on migration. Inevitably, the COVID19 pandemic will further embitter this debate, not only by challenging the reasons for people to move and settle in new places but, even more dangerously, criticizing the values behind those reasons.

Everywhere the virus goes, it will affect the local way of life.  Especially in Europe, where society draws its principles from the Enlightenment, where life is lived ordinarily on an intimate scale, where people bump shoulders on the street or in the café and friends great each other with kisses on the cheeks, this way of life will be affected greatly.  People are now “told” or “highly encouraged” to hide inside their cities and neighborhoods, to “protect themselves” from friends, colleagues and even family. This situation makes the title of EU Commissioner for “Promoting our European Way of Life” Margaritis Schinas more timely than ever. Will we now need to protect, promote or renew what we call “European way of life” after COVID-19?

Stronger polarization

The crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic has overshadowed existing migration debates in the Euro Mediterranean region. Yet, this very crisis is inextricably linked with mobility, movement and its governance. This pandemic reveals the actual complexities of migration debates, too often reduced to a simple polarized dichotomy: On one side, we have the highly emotional reporting of the humanitarian plight of desperate migrants who risk their lives on treacherous journeys. On the other hand, we have coverage that depicts migration as a threat to the security, welfare and culture of host communities. However, the reality of migration is a lot richer and full of positive stories and data than that.

In the media coverage and public discourse, migration is frequently presented as “out of control”. Irregular migration, which makes up a tiny proportion of actual mobility, dominates the discussion, despite the downward trend in overall in asylum applications in comparison to the peak of migration pressure. The notion of migration perceived as a threat to host communities has become the norm around much of the region. Unfortunately, on the policy-making side not enough has been done to close the gap between public perceptions and the real figures and actuality of migration.

Images of vulnerable families crossing oceans on precarious boats and enduring winters in makeshift refugee camps have become ingrained parts of this narrative. It is important for all professionals in the field of migration to remind our audiences, from large conferences to family dinners, that this is not the full picture. The reality, root causes and trends of are very different and complex. Every time anyone falls into the tempting arms of simplification for the cause of visibility or inability to explain contributes to distorting this narrative.

The alarming surge in disinformation related to the Covid19 pandemic prompts similar questioning. In both cases, public communication is facing tremendous difficulties in asserting scientific evidence and regaining control of the overall narrative. The coronavirus pandemic has only fanned the flames further. A number of political leaders have tried to capitalise on the disease’s spread to fuel anti-migrant narratives and curb migrants’ rights to protection while references to the “Chinese virus” fuel a narrative of fear, discrimination and conspiracy. Migration evokes strong emotions: it gets tangled up with suspicion of difference, hostility to anyone outside the “we” group. In an age of fake news and deliberate misinformation, migration is perhaps most susceptible to this distortion.

An unexpected change of narratives

The story of migration from Africa is typically told as an irreversible mass exodus from conflict or climate change, from social unrest to lacking resources. However, despite popular belief, in almost 30 years, the scale of the global migrant population has increased only marginally, from 2.9% of the global population in 1990 to 3.4% in 2017. Migration patterns may have changed, but they have not significantly increased. African migrants account for only 14% of the global migrant population: significantly less than migrants from Asia, which account for 41%, or Europe, which account for 24%.

As reported by ECPDM, two interesting and at times ironic, perceptions and narrative shifts have emerged during the fight against COVID-19 and the macroeconomic doom the virus has generated. The first relates to how tables have turned on migration and mobility between Europe and Africa, and to how the general “control and contain” attitude towards African mobility to Europe is currently reversed, albeit temporarily. The second is the realisation that limitless mobility within Europe and easy travel access to much of the rest of the world has been taken for granted when it was in fact a privilege.

European visitors and migrants in Africa shared their experiences of social rejection and harassment, though this is occurring on a micro-scale and such anecdotes are more an anomaly than the norm. Nonetheless, these incidents mimic the sentiments we so often see in European populists’ narrative towards migrants. In time of crisis, policy-makers have a particular responsibility in ensuring the credibility of public responses. This requires understanding first where and why institutional communication fails to convince.  In this sense, the ICMPD’s flagship policy initiative “Breaking Gridlocks and Moving Forward: Recommendations for the next five years of EU migration policy” calls for more transparency in migration communication as a way to reach out to sceptical demographics.

It is time to shift the conversation on from migration crisis to migration capital and Covid-19 is a good time to dig out good news. The benefits of migration are directly proportionate to the visibility of positive stories about it and the great thing is that the vast majority of these stories are very beneficial to host communities.

There is unexplored potential, now more than ever, to discuss about “champions of migration”: individuals, or groups of people, who have made a powerful contribution to their host society, and often country of origin, in ways that are not publicly recognized. They are men and women demonstrate exceptional ability in in different realms, from entrepreneurship to public service, from health to innovation, from academia to sports. Their experiences offer a counterpoint to stuck conversations about the burdens and pressure of migration. They are examples of potential being realised, opportunities being seized in ways that make them active members of their new city, region or country.

In most high-income countries, migrants make up a large share of health workers and are more likely to be on the frontline of the COVID-19 response. Furthermore, “key workers” performing ‘systemically relevant’ jobs, like the example of formerly exploited African migrants that have now set up a co-operative near Rome selling vegetables and yoghurt, cannot be neglected. Now societies appreciate the importance of these sectors more and show them the recognition and respect they deserve but usually do not receive.

If these people were framed as “champions” not as “burdens”, their potential to rebalance a hyper-distorted narrative would be impressive and beneficial for all policy makers. Too often, these stories remain limited to greatly written articles on international outlets, but hardly touch the hearts of citizens outside of great urban centre. Rarely such stories are advertised in local papers, TV stations or targeted Facebook groups. While these stories get international attention in communities that already embrace an open attitude towards migration, they remain buried in communities where the migration debate is the harshest. More accurate targeting (especially digitally) is fundamental to reverse this trend.

What can international organizations to tackle the polarization of the debate?

  1. Let positive stories be heard

Migration is not an inherently negative phenomenon. For centuries, migration has fostered global trade links, shaped nations, fueled human endeavors and enabled skills and cultures to be shared across the globe. As world leaders recognized in the first-ever United Nations Global Compact on Migration in December 2018, migration, “is a source of prosperity, innovation and sustainable development in our globalized world.” Humanity has always been on the move. Migrations are the fabric of our shared existence and have strengthened continents, countries and communities for millennia. Migrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. Migrants are net contributors and demographics trends make clear that labour market demand for migrant labour will increase in the coming decade. Economically, they invent products, start companies and create jobs. Mobile foreign-born and technically skilled entrepreneurs are bringing about profound transformations in the global economy. Hence, it is important to talk about mobility and migration in a realistic and balanced way as a human condition that can affect us all positively and deliver progress in the region.

It is time to shift the conversation on from migration crisis to migration capital, from the perception of threat to the recognition of opportunity.  Data on its own has proved to be a limited tool in responding to imbalances in perception. Real-life examples, human stories and symbols can provide a more relatable way to engage public opinion. Success stories, large and small have a vital role to play in shifting attention and salience from the negative to the positive side of this phenomenon.

The benefits of migration are directly proportionate to the visibility of positive stories about it. The great thing is that the vast majority of migration stories are very positive and beneficial to host communities.

Introducing “Champions of Migration”

In particular, we find that there is unexplored potential, now more than ever, to discuss about “Champions of migration”: individuals, or groups of people, who have made a powerful contribution to their host society, and often country of origin, in ways that are not publicly recognized. Champions of Migration are men and women who demonstrate exceptional ability in in different realms, from entrepreneurship to public service, from investments to innovation, from politics to academia and from sports to arts. Their life stories and experience offer a counterpoint to stuck conversations about the burdens and pressure of migration. They are examples of potential being realised, opportunities being seized in ways that make them active members of their new city, region or country.

Their power lies in the profoundly personal ways they contribute to changing perceptions at the local level and provide a means to amplify their message in a wider context and promote a new balanced narrative on migration.

While displaying greatness, virtue and merit it is important to point out that migration is not a story of winners and losers. Members of the hosting community must not feel like they are “giving in” to a situation they cannot control or that their emotions and concerns are not taken into account by governments and policy-makers. Rather, they must be empowered to promote their way of life instead of feeling the need to protect it from an external threat. On the other hand, migrants must not feel like they are taking part in a competition where only a few exceptional members of their community are rewarded for doing things that receive attention, praise and media visibility.

Extremely successful migrants in sports, business, science and arts already have a powerful impact on public perception of people born outside their country of residence.  But “champions of migration” is not a concept intended only to exalt the exceptional few at the expense of embracing the many. It is a concept that seeks to make the everyday accomplishments and contributions of migrants visible, human and relatable.

  1. Analyse issue salience.

As explained in “Impact of Public Attitudes to migration on the political environment in the Euro-Mediterranean Region” as salience increases, both emotion and knowledge of the issue increase. Journalism that is well-informed, value-balanced and evidence-based is crucial to informing the public and creating an environment in which negative feedback loops are avoided. Emotional engagement is how media framing is likely to have the most influence on issue salience, and subsequent political behaviour. Polarisation results from individuals selectively choosing which information they are exposed to following emotional activation. This seems to be a self-reinforcing cycle.

The causes of variation in issue salience remain undertheorized and are rarely tested. Salience varies between individuals according to three factors: self-interest, social identification and values, whereas it varies across time according to ‘prominent events or problems’ that ‘focus national attention.’

Higher salience causes activation of one’s emotional systems and interest in the issue by citizens. Emotions activated via higher salience include anger, sadness, disgust, pride, hope, happiness, fear and sympathy. It is this emotional activation, which may be why individuals base their political behaviour on certain issues, this seems to be the case for immigration. There is a need for more detailed data on migration issue salience—not just the salience of ‘immigration’ but also particular aspects such as irregular immigration.

  1. Fight disinformation

Unreliable and false information is spreading around the world to such an extent, that some commentators are now referring to the new avalanche of misinformation that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic as an “infodemic”. In times of high fears, uncertainties and unknowns, there is fertile ground for fabrications to flourish and grow.

According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), Anti-migrant and far-right networks are exploiting the Covid-19 situation to spread disinformation targeting migrants, refugees and other vulnerable populations on- and offline, as well as explicit threats of violence. In such an environment, it is hardly surpris­ing that broader conspiracy theories are flourishing. The general use of the term ‘coronavirus’ for this specific outbreak has fed many conspiracy theorists, as the term is actually broadly used in epidemiology for a family of viruses, meaning that refer­ences and patents relating to ‘coronavirus’ existed well before this specific outbreak in 2019-2020.

Conspiratorial narratives targeting migrants detected on social networks include:

  • Suggestions that migrant routes, and in particular the ongoing situation on the Greece/Turkey border in Europe or the Mexico border in the US, will act as a vector for the virus to spread.
  • Speculation that immigrant and minor­ity communities in major cities will use the virus as an opportunity to riot.
  • Migrants specifically are ignoring coronavirus lockdown rules and asylum seekers are rioting against quarantine and flying ISIS flags.
  • Migrants are taking the opportunity of the pandemic to “invade Europe”

This surge in anti-migrants narrative is extremely dangerous. Beneath the spread of all “fake news,” misinformation, disinformation, digital falsehoods and foreign influence lies society’s failure to teach its citizens information literacy: how to think critically about the deluge of information that confronts them in our modern digital age. Instead, society has prioritized speed over accuracy, sharing over reading, commenting over understanding. To truly solve the issue of disinformation we must blend technological assistance with teaching our citizens to be literate consumers of the world around them.

  1. Cooperate with social media companies

As I openly advocated in a keynote at the latest Club of Venice plenary, the power to tackle disinformation is in the hands of social media companies but governments and international organizations have a role to play in pushing for stronger and firmer policies and laws to prevent the spread of disinformation.

Fighting disinformation has to be a coordinated effort involving all relevant actors, from institutions to social platforms, from news media to consumers’ associations. These must closely cooperate with online platforms in order for them to promote authoritative sources, demote content that is fact-checked as false or misleading, and take down illegal content or content that could cause physical harm.

From the side of the institutions, three things can be done:

·         Increase the technological knowledge of policy makers. There is still an important gap between the institutions’ knowledge of how social media work and the knowledge needed to effectively legislate to regulate the spectrum of action of tech and media companies. This is a good time to invest in related knowledge and expertise.

·         International organizations and governments have the legal, legislative and normative power and the political weight to push for responsible advertising. While internet companies have taken major steps in this direction, the ultimate legal framework for action must be led by governments.

·         We must not fall into the tempting arms of “fashionable hating” just because it may benefit our image. Many celebrities, including prominent European and American politicians are using Facebook as a scapegoat for their own inability to address the public, labeling it as some sort “disinformation-for-profit machine.” Simply resorting to accusations, that paradoxically are often intended to get likes, views or engagement on the very platforms that are criticized, solves no issues.

What can internet companies do?

Social media companies are in the front line to tamp down coronavirus misinformation. While Facebook has recently been criticized for its unwillingness to block false political ads, the company has had the most clear-cut policy on COVID-19 misinformation. It relies on third-party fact-checkers and health authorities flagging problematic content, and removes posts that fail the tests. It also blocks or restricts hashtags that spread misinformation on its sister platform, Instagram.

For reasons of credibility and reliability, it is time that internet companies co-draft standards of practice like tv, radio and newspapers do. As mentioned before, this needs to be enforced by institutions and still today more legislative work is needed. In every industry, a company is liable when their product is defective. In every industry you can be sued for the harm they cause. Government can push to have social networks accountable when this happens, the power is in their hand. Companies should be more proactive in making this would-be-historic step a reality.

Enact coordinated and positive communication action now.

ICMPD has long been leading the way in supporting the establishment of a more balanced narrative on migration especially via the The Mediterranean City-to-City Migration Project (MC2CM) and EUROMED Migration IV. The former brings together experts and cities to contribute to improved migration governance at city level, including migrants’ access to basic services and human rights. The latter supports EU Member States and the European Neighbourhood Instrument Southern Partner Countries in establishing a comprehensive, constructive and operational dialogue and co-operation framework on migration. These activities are implemented with a constant view to the cross cutting issue of reconnecting migration and knowledge. It aims to accumulate evidence-based knowledge, and establish effective communication, in order to contribute to a more balanced narrative on migration in the region. These efforts are today more important than ever and they must continue their work for better migration governance, better protection of migrants and better inclusion of the voices of host communities.

Organizations and government must work together to offer a dignified life to displaced people in a way that they can be active contributors to their host communities. They must make sure that great examples of success are well communicated and presented as a demonstration that cooperation, even in the toughest situations, is stronger than division. It is essential that we cooperate to prevent that hate-speech and inappropriate language poison relationships and divide people more than this pandemic is already doing. It is of the utmost importance that the lives of migrants are not considered political pawns or mere rhetorical bargaining chips.

We need clear, honest and open voices to start this new narrative. This pandemic represents an unfortunate but unmissable opportunity to start.

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