On 16 and 17 February 2022, on behalf of the MC2CM project, I took part in the Cap’Com International Seminar Citizenship and civic participation in the territories: the role of local public communication in European Union’s countries, in Toulouse.
The objective of our participation was to present to a great network of European institutional communicators, the policy recommendations of our project in relation to communicating migration at the local level as a tool to improve local migration governance.
REBALANCING THE NARRATIVE TO STRENGTHEN LOCAL GOVERNANCE
Migration is a natural phenomenon that has shaped the cities and territories of Europe along history for many centuries. Migration makes European cities, diverse places, very dynamic places and spaces where opportunity meets freedom. This brings a potential advantage in terms of innovation and development, but it also brings the need for significant resources to ensure social inclusion, integration, urban development and housing for all.
Unfortunately, though, the prevailing narratives around migration are very polarized and produce a debate that underestimates the complexity of human mobility and is neither pragmatic nor moored in evidence. While representing a small share of the infinite realities of migration, irregular migration flows receive a large share of the media attention and forms part of the general perception and narrative surrounding migration. The success of migration policies hinges in large part on the ability of local authorities to rebalance these narratives because it is at the local level that the reality of migration plays out and affects peoples’ lives.
Over the past 10 years, we have seen several events shaping migration in the region: The European debt crisis; social tensions in North Africa and the Middle East; violent armed conflicts; poverty; and these past two years, the coronavirus pandemic, which adds new health-related concerns to migration management. While the essential contributions by migrant communities working at the forefront of the pandemic were acknowledged, migrants are still disproportionately affected by such crises.
While the politics of migration often appear volatile, public attitudes in Europe are actually stable. The volatility can be found in public opinion, which unlike underlying attitudes, shifts in response to short term events. This volatility is exacerbated by narratives that appeal to values and identities and generate emotional reactions. As the perceived importance of immigration and irregular migration have risen in recent years, the fringes of the migration debate have occupied the public discourse, polarizing public opinion.
This is a vicious circle where migration is frequently presented as “out of control.” Irregular migration, which makes up a tiny proportion of actual mobility and has been in decline in the European Union for the last six years, still dominates the discussion, despite the downward trend in overall asylum applications in comparison to the peak of migration pressure. The notion of migration perceived as a threat to host communities and cities and has become the norm across much of the region. The absence of real, majority, lived experience of human mobility distorts the narrative and policy responses on an issue that affects millions of people.
Due to their proximity to citizens and voters, local officials might be tempted to avoid communicating on such heated issues. However, communication is unavoidable and understanding perceptions and ways to address these, can help avoid conflict and unlock the full potential of migration at local level.
Most authoritative pan‑European surveys (e.g. European Social Survey (ESS) between 2002 and 2018) show that attitudes towards all types of immigration in most European countries have actually become markedly more positive, or at least less negative, in recent years. This also holds for a range of attitudinal types, including preferences to types of immigration, perceived effects of migration, and desired migration policy.
So the question is “Why does the political discourse around migration appear volatile when underlying attitudes are stable?”
The factors that condition attitudes toward migration are complex, but understandable. They include four broad categories: psychological, socialization, attitudinal and contextual. The first of these relates to personal foundations, such as values and morality. But the last of these is particularly relevant to local and regional government actors as factors include: neighborhood safety, contact with immigrants, media influence, local immigration rates, perception of immigrant levels.
4 CHALLENGES IN COMMUNICATING ON MIGRATION AT LOCAL LEVEL
As explained in the MC2CM thematic Learning Report “COMMUNICATION ON MIGRATION: REBALANCING THE NARRATIVE TO STRENGTHEN LOCAL GOVERNANCE“, Migration can appear daunting as a topic for local authorities to address. The challenges cut both ways: there are capacity limits on the side of authorities and access issues for migrants themselves. Resources and capacity vary enormously across the Euro‑Mediterranean region. But communication is unavoidable and understanding mechanisms and perceptions can avoid conflict and prevent negative impacts on social cohesion, while unlocking the undoubted benefits of migration.
LIMITED CAPACITY AND EXPERTISE
- Working on communication on migration benefits strongly from specialised input, knowledge and skill sets that city authorities do not always have.
- The basis for good decisions are good data. Cities across the region do not have uniform access to up‑to‑date information on the migration context. This is essentially a tools issue.
- A shortage of resources and capacity can hinder the development of effective communication strategies, some of which require the commitment of time and financial investment.
LACK OF ACCESS TO ESSENTIAL INFORMATION
Migrants, and in particular new arrivals, do not always know how to access information that might help them adapt even when it is available. This is especially true for vulnerable groups who do not share a language with the host community, or who have irregular status and may therefore be wary of attempting to access services. This is in part a knock‑on effect of the shortage of capacity identified previously, which complicates the design of relevant services for immigrants.
Local governments face organised, motivated opposition to an evidence‑based rebalancing of the migration narrative. The COVID-19 crisis has seen an acceleration of disinformation that has come to be known as the “infodemic.” The purpose of such disinformation is to sow panic and distrust. There is fertile ground around the migration debate for stoking both panic and distrust. Malicious anti‑migrant rhetoric has long been a central theme within extremist mobilisation globally and a mainstay of disinformation campaigns. Anti‑migrant and far‑right networks in the Euro‑Mediterranean region and beyond are exploiting the COVID-19 situation, as they would do with any type of crisis, to spread disinformation targeting migrants, refugees and other vulnerable populations on and offline. The pandemic has seen migrants falsely cast as a threat to public health.
POLITICS AND PRIORITIES
Communication requires resources that were already scarce before the challenges the pandemic has presented. The allocation of scarce resources may see local authorities choose to invest in other needs or de‑prioritize communication. National debates on migration can often ignore the realities that cities already face. The denial of services to irregular migrants may be popular at the national level, while the consequences are keenly felt in municipalities where these people continue to reside.
LOCAL CHALLENGES AND APPROACHES
In recent decades, cities have become more active in migration policy, developing their own philosophy and spreading awareness that effective inclusion is critical to their viability as communities. Cities are the places where migrants develop social networks, start families, find jobs, access services. They are also the places where negative consequences of mismanaged integration can be concretely felt.
This greater activism has seen cities advocate before national governments but also reach beyond the national arena to become part of networks with other cities and international organisations. For instance, cities have developed specific working areas on migration within the existing networks (e.g. UCLG and Eurocities) in order to exchange know‑how, and to lobby supra‑national institutions, such as the European Union or the United Nations;
The increased activism and the accompanying network effect of cities talking to each other means there is an emerging playbook of effective approaches. All of them rely on shifting from reactive to strategic communication at the local level. A strategy that determines how the city communicates internally (within the administration and vertically with all levels of government) and externally (to the general public and target groups).
6 RECOMMENDATIONS TO HELP LOCAL AUTHORITIES IMPROVE COMMUNICATION ON MIGRATION
Diverse and inclusive cities are also successful and attractive cities. The force underpinning this diversity is migration. Cities need to take on the challenge of communication in order to fulfil these potentials as drivers of economic development.
Local contexts differ sharply in European cities. Some cities face a generational shift from points of departure, while other are places of transit or hosting. Some cities face unemployment crises, while others face acute skills shortages. Some municipalities find their positions on migration closely aligned with national governments, while others conflict.
Even before the arrival of the COVID-19, there were clear signs that perceptions of migration had become dangerously detached from the evidence base of its real impacts.
1. Build an evidence base: Collect data to inform and depict an accurate picture of your local migration context. When recent data is unavailable, include stakeholders with deep knowledge of local migration history and precedents.
2. Build capacity: Effective communication on migration requires specialist skills. Communication capacity can lag as a priority, especially during times of acute crisis such as the pandemic. Make the argument for its importance. Cities remain the ideal platform for communicating success stories that will attract future resources and opportunities to exchange and grow.
3. Build alliances: Look beyond the national arena to international and supranational networks of cities, which are building effective alliances. These are also a repository of an increasing wealth of knowledge on best practices. Allies can be found among civil society organisations both as local implementing partners and force multipliers whose own networks and channels can provide crucial entry points to vulnerable or hard to reach groups.
4. Beware of disinformation: The joint crises in public health and the economy create fertile ground for malicious narratives, which seek to scapegoat migrants. The consequences of the “infodemic” can be as serious as those of the pandemic itself.
5. Build bridges: Various formulations have been established to express the division of opinion on migration (haters/ambivalents/lovers) and suggest a concentration on the largest group, the middle category of “ambivalents”. Effective narratives will understand the anxieties of ambivalents and build positive associations between diversity and areas such as tradition and security. Identify shared local identities that speak to these concerns and emphasise common ground.
6. Build for the long term: Migration is not a crisis, it is a human condition. Ad hoc responses to issues such as disinformation may be necessary, but do not replace the need for a coherent plan. Think strategically about building internal capacity and, where possible, diversity in municipal teams. Train staff, practitioners and the media on the benefits of migration. Cultivate relationships with local media who are often the gateway to national coverage. Incorporate migration as a component in strategic plans on areas from jobs to education and culture.