Migration is a defining feature of urbanisation. Cities are places where people come together to live, work and find opportunities. It is also in the city where the reality of social and economic accommodation of newcomers and their interaction with host community
takes place. At the Mediterranean Urban Forum in Seville (MUM Forum) in June 2022 I had the pleasure to coordinate a communication workshop that gathered practitioners and experts to engage in an interactive exchange and set of discussions on current migration narratives at the local level which placed a particular focus on communication strategies addressing migrant youth and minors, while addressing challenges such as misinformation, rumours and local migration governance.
In migration policymaking, narratives are regularly mentioned as some of the most important determinants of public attitudes, behaviour and sources of perceptions and misperceptions. Narratives are selective representations of reality across at least two points in time that include a causal claim. They are necessary to decipher, explain and simplify complex realities. A simpler definition would be “how we perceive and speak about migrants and migration.” A fact that may be surprising to readers is that in Europe attitudes to immigration are not becoming more negative. Rather, they are notably stable and, in recent years, have become more positive. The recent outpouring of support to welcome Ukrainian refugees in Europe seems to be a manifestation of these attitudes.
When talking about migration narratives it is possible to identify mainly three levels of governance, often unrelated and hardly communicating with each other: The international, national, and local levels.
The first one pertains to international organisations, important players in the design and implementation of migration policy. What type of narratives do they craft? What are the key elements of such narratives? International organisations, which by definition operate at the intersection of nation-states, tend to reflect their vision on how cross-border or internal mobility should be managed. Their approach to narratives include diverse elements intertwining with each other, such as for instance a positive appreciation of migration as a natural, human, historical phenomenon, the reference to universal principles, namely human rights, and an emphasis on the benefits of migration for both host societies and migrants. In this realm, migration narratives are influenced by the “silos effect” among the internal departments of international organizations (such as directorates working on migration and directorates working in development cooperation), and most controversially “communication bubbles” where like-minded, international staff working in specific neighbourhoods of cities hosting international organizations (i.e. Brussels, Geneva, Washington) create narratives that are somewhat detached to the realities of the majority of citizens and seem unable to analyse, conceive or even acknowledge how alternative narratives develop. Migration is probably one of the most distorted topics affected by the ‘communication bubbles’ effect for two reasons: Firstly, the same implementers of such narratives are usually called “expats” (rather than “migrants”), indicating their non-attachment or temporary attachment to their host cities; secondly, they tend to be people that make the most out of migration, therefore tend to underestimate value-based communication towards audiences that do not share the values of universalism and benevolence and are less equipped to communicate to groups valuing tradition, conformity and security concerns.
International non-governmental organisations shape migration narratives too, mainly by forging stories whose purpose is combating the securitisation discourse carried out by political movements exploiting the salience of the phenomenon for electoral purposes. This is why such stories, which target the global civil society, somehow represent counter-narratives aiming to challenge the prevailing migration discourse.
The second level, is the national one. States and national governments are central actors in the storytelling of migration and policy implementation. In this framework, in Europe, migration is mainly depicted as a challenge in response to which quick and practical solutions have to be put forward. In this context we have witnessed recently elements of contrast with regards to two different types of migration influxes. For instance, a number of political leaders have tried to capitalise on the emotional feature of the discourse of migration related to Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East by fuelling anti-migrant narratives, in particular at the very outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many commentators are discussing how the same actors are openly doing the very opposite towards the narratives of million of Ukrainians fleeing into neighbouring countries. As Marta Foresti and Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou from ODI pointed out “It was encouraging to see EU countries come to unprecedented agreement to lift visa restrictions for Ukrainian refugees and in this crisis. And it is disheartening to see that that despite public opinion and condemnation by the international community, the hostile environment in the UK is still alive and kicking, even with inevitable U-turns in sight, that we’ve all gotten so used to in recent times.”
The salience of migration in political discussions contributes to such emotional activation. This is why state narratives tend to be securitarian which tend to be shaped by irregular (uncontrolled) immigration, not by migration as such. The more distorted and the more unbalanced the narrative is, the more states corner themselves deeper into a cul-de-sac, where they no longer dictate how the narrative frames their policies, but rather it becomes the narrative which drives them and dictates their policies.
And what about the local level, when it comes to the storytelling of migration? What is the role of cities in forging migration narratives? Is it possible to scale-up local narratives, by giving them prominence at the international level? Cities, due to their proximity to citizens, are in a unique position to foster a pragmatic, evidence-based and rights-based debate on migration, which is imperative not only to raise awareness in local communities but also to adopt effective inclusion policies. Local initiatives can successfully resonate at the international level, and the expertise of cities can bring added value for all.
Speaking with one voice
There are many issues at stake when it comes to the impact of migration narratives on policy-making. And one of these is the cleavage between the international, national, and local level of governance, which translates into a fragmented and multifaceted discourse. Specific attention should be given to this fragmentation, in order to foster fruitful discussions among the different actors involved in the storytelling of migration.
How can this be done? Firstly, by promoting investments in thematic research, specifically focusing on how different levels of governance craft migration narratives and interact. Secondly, by promoting fora with the aim of enhancing common understanding between the actors at stake while improving multi-level governance, mainly through the design of common strategic plans to implement. Thirdly, these joint efforts should be monitored, evaluated and revised to align with current realities.
The current Ukrainian refugee crisis has triggered a remarkable and unprecedented outpouring of support. In fact, the attitudes and actions towards Ukrainians fleeing the war appear to be somehow aligned, both at the international and at the national and local levels. Even media coverage seems to put across a different nuance, compared to the one which has been used to report on other refugee crisis over the last years. It is also true these attitudes will necessarily remain stable, since European hospitality may wear out over time, and tensions could arise. This is why promoting a solid understanding between the actors involved in the storytelling of migration, as well as developing a common knowledge about the diverse implications and effects of migration narratives on policy-making, must be encouraged and pursued at all levels of governance.