In migration policymaking, as in other fields, narrative is one of the main drivers of public behaviour, a powerful shaper of perception and a determining factor in the process of shaping public opinion.

The way migration phenomenon is communicated has a direct influence in society and the attitudes and opinion of individuals. Language can be used as an instrument of power and through discourse certain behaviours can be induced or recipients can be persuaded. Attitudes and beliefs around migration are often temporary and change rapidly depending on new developments or external circumstances. The narrative can help to generate understanding and counteract hatred, discrimination and xenophobia. Or, conversely, they can be used to foster such hatred or discrimination.

With this in mind on 1 December 2022, I spoke at the European Migration Network meeting in Madrid called “The importance of narratives in the migration discourse: analysis, impact and good practices” where I explained the concept of the governance of migration narratives.

Although it is a multi-faceted phenomenon with countless realities, migration in the Europe and the Mediterranean is perceived as a controversial and polarizing topic that is too often associated with “crisis communication” instead of “strategic constant communication”, thus causing serious difficulties for policy makers. Understanding the full range of perceptions, narratives and communication technologies used at international, national and local level is essential to promote a comprehensive discourse that facilitates the implementation of evidence-based policy.

As long as migration is dealt with as an ad hoc “crisis” rather than a continuous set of phenomena, policy makers will always be in difficulty in a sort of run to put down a fire after another rather than building a solid a firefighter station. So how can we make this happen?

One of the answers that is to move from “Capacity building” towards “Capacity partnerships.” In Europe and its neighbourhood, countries have increasingly invested in development of capacities to address challenges, including, but not limited to, irregular migration, reintegration of returning populations and human trafficking. At the same time, cooperation on migration seeks to address expectations for comprehensive partnerships that deliver benefits to the economy, development, stability and security.

Moving towards a mutual acknowledgement of partners’ competences, capacities, resources and needs is essential to ensure that migration partnerships deliver on the call to address challenges of irregular migration and forced displacement while facilitating safe and legal pathways. This spirit is embodied in the joint leadership and shared responsibilities approach put forward through capacity partnerships.

Pragmatically, migration capacity partnerships require:

  • a multi-dimensional governance to bridge the engagement and capacity gaps between migration stakeholders;
  • a professionalisation of concerned stakeholders to establish mutually acknowledged industry standards;
  • a modernisation of resources and optimisation of investment to upgrade infrastructures, equipment and services;
  • a communication on migration because the success or failure of migration partnerships greatly depends on stakeholders’ capacity to drive migration narratives that provides the space to pursue partnership priorities.

The governance of migration narratives

How do actors operating at the different levels craft and disseminate narratives? How do these actors interact with one another? How does this interaction impact policymaking?

During his visit to Malta, Pope Francis spoke in favour of migrants and in particular encouraged Europe’s embrace of Ukrainian refugees. Drawing a comparison with Saint Paul’s shipwreck on the island in 60 A.D., the Pontiff said 

“… we see another kind of shipwreck taking place: the shipwreck of civilisation, which threatens not only migrants but us all. How can we save ourselves from this shipwreck which risks sinking the ship of our civilisation? By conducting ourselves with kindness and humanity. By regarding people not merely as statistics […but] for what they really are: people, men and women, brothers and sisters, each with his or her own life story.” 

In this evocative address, the Pope highlighted a very important element of migration policymaking: migration narratives, communication and related storytelling. What are narratives and why do they matter?

In migration policy, narratives the most important determinants of public attitudes and behaviour, and powerful shapers of (mis)perceptions.  Narratives can be defined as 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 might be “how migrants and migration are perceived and spoken about.” A fact that may surprise you is that, in Europe, attitudes to immigration are not becoming more negative. Rather, they are notably stable and, in recent years, have actually become more positive. The recent outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees in Europe seems to be a clear manifestation of these compassionate attitudes.

Narratives are complex. They can be produced and reproduced, crafted and revised. They can include assumptions about causality, good and bad, responsibility and consequences.

But who constructs the migration narratives that prevail?

The international level

International organisations, operating at the intersection of nation states, tend to reflect their vision of how cross-border or internal mobility should be managed. Their approach to narratives includes diverse, intertwining elements, such as, for instance, a positive appreciation of migration as a natural, human, historical phenomenon; 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 often strongly influenced by the “silo effect” within international organisations (such as among directorates working on migration or development cooperation). More controversially, narratives may stem from “communication bubbles” where like-minded, international staff working in specific neighbourhoods of certain cities hosting IOs (Brussels, Geneva, Washington) create narratives that may be detached from the realities of the majority and seem unable to analyse, conceive or even acknowledge how alternative narratives develop.

In my view, there are two main reasons why the migration field is so susceptible to communication bubble distortion. Firstly, the non-attachment or temporary attachment felt by the implementers of such narratives to their host cities (frequently espousing the label “expat” rather than “migrant”); secondly, this group tends to have been given the opportunity to make the most out of migration, and therefore may underestimate value-based communication with audiences that do not share their values of universalism and benevolence and are less equipped to communicate with groups valuing tradition, conformity and security concerns.  

The national level

National governments are central actors in the storytelling on migration. Within this frame, migration in Europe is mainly depicted as a challenge – in response to which quick and practical solutions must be put forward. This dynamic allowed a marked contrast to be observed in regard to two recent migration influxes, the 2015 migration crisis and today’s Ukrainian refugees crisis.

The increased salience of migration in political discussions contributes to such emotional activation. And this is why state narratives tend to be securitarian, which has of course a very specific impact on policy. Security narratives tend to be shaped by irregular (uncontrolled) migration, not by migration as such. The more distorted and polarised the narrative, the deeper policymakers back themselves into a cul-de-sac, where they no longer dictate how the narrative frames their policies, but rather it becomes the narrative that is driving them and dictating their policies.

Faced with a gloomy demographic future, continuously presenting migration as an existential threat creates a context wherein reversing such an approach (and attracting migrants) with each day becomes more complicated, and the sheer scale of the task a deterrent in itself – posing as it does short-term risks that are too high, long-term political benefits that are too distant, etc.

The local level

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?

Local authorities actively contribute to reducing the gap between perceptions and reality. Cities, due to their proximity to citizens, are in a unique position to foster a pragmatic, evidence- and rights-based debate on migration – imperative not only to raising local awareness but also to adopting effective inclusion policies. Local initiatives can successfully resonate at the international level, and the expertise of cities can bring added value for all.

An interesting example of local-level engagement is the #ItTakesACommunity campaign, launched in 2020 by the Global Forum on Migration & Development. The campaign brings together national governments, cities, businesses, civil society and international organisations to promote balanced narratives on all forms of human mobility by sharing stories about social cohesion and the positive impact that migration and diversity can have on communities.

Speaking with one voice

A multitude of issues impact migration narratives, one central issue being the problematic cleavage between the international, national and local levels of governance, making for a fragmented discourse where stakeholders talk past each other. This is why specific attention should be paid to this matter, fostering fruitful discussions among the different actors involved in telling the migration story.

How can this be done? Firstly, spur investment in thematic research specifically focused on how different levels of governance craft migration narratives and interact. Secondly, promote fora with the aim of enhancing common understanding among the actors involved while improving multi-level governance, mainly through designing common strategic plans. Thirdly, monitor, evaluate and revise joint efforts according to current events.

The ongoing Ukrainian refugee crisis has triggered an unprecedented outpouring of support among European policymakers and citizens alike. Indeed, the palette of attitudes and tones used in relation to Ukrainians fleeing the war appears to be somewhat aligned across the international, national and local levels. Even mainstream media coverage seems to have adopted a different nuance than that employed when reporting on other recent refugee crises. However, this does not mean that positive attitudes are guaranteed to prevail, since European hospitality may wear out over time, and tensions may arise. This is all the more reason why promoting solid understanding among the actors involved in migration storytelling, as well as developing a common knowledge framework on the diverse implications and effects of migration narratives on policymaking, must be encouraged and pursued at all levels of governance. 

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