Interview with Ronnie Goldberg on labour migration and COVID19

A few days ago I had the pleasure to interview Ronnie Goldberg, Senior Counsel at the United States Council for International Business, Chair of the International Organisation of Employers and representative for the Global Forum for Migration Development. We discussed global labour migration trends and the effects of the COVID 19 pandemic. This interview is one episode of the EUROMED Migration Talks, a set of interviews launched by EUROMED Migration V.

Do you identify as European?

A few days ago I had the pleasure to be interviewed for the Europe’s Stories series, a new research project of the Dahrendorf programme of the University of Oxford.

Between Brexit, populism, Eurozone tensions and divided European reactions to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, many wonder if Europe has lost the plot. Some argue that, aside from actual policies, there is a burning need for a new narrative for the European project. 

How should it (or they) be told? By whom, for whom and, not least, by what means? In the digital age, with young Europeans growing up in the online world of social media, what are the best forms for making this story (or stories) accessible and attractive? Can one realise the European ideal of ‘unity in diversity’ in narrative/s?

This new research project of the Dahrendorf programme seeks to explore these and other questions, starting by asking what stories Europe – in all its multiple meanings, by no means confined to the institutions of the EU – does currently tell. We held a major international, interdisciplinary conference in Oxford in May 2019, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Dahrendorf Programme. We are working with polling groups such as the eupinions project. An innovative website has been launched – – containing interviews with around 100 Europeans on their formative, best and worst European moments, as well as in-depth interviews with leading Europeans and interesting findings from public opinion surveys. Podcasts created in the context of the Europe’s Stories project are available here

The project is directed by Professor Timothy Garton Ash and the Research Manager is Selma Kropp. An advisory committee consists of leading Oxford academics: Professor Paul BettsDr Jonathan BrightProfessor Faisal DevjiProfessor Carolin DuttlingerProfessor Robert GildeaProfessor Ruth HarrisDr Sudhir HazareesinghProfessor Andrew HurrellDr Hartmut Mayer, Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis, Professor Rasmus Nielsen and Professor David Priestland.

The project is generously funded by the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung für die Freiheit, the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius and Stiftung Mercator.

City-to-City Talks with Imene Ouardani – Vice-Mayor of the City of Sousse

Mobilising stakeholders and CSOs, cooperating with central authorities to develop response plans, making information more accessible. In the framework of the initiative City-to-City Migration Talks featured by Mediterranean City-to-City Migration (MC2CM), project funded by the European Union and co-funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, we have interviewed Imen Ouardani, Vice Mayor of the City of Sousse, to showcase the City’s response to COVID-19 pandemic.

The municipality of Sousse was both active and proactive when dealing with the pandemic by taking counter measures against the virus before the central government had even acted” said Ouardani, who is also the President of the Commission for Equality and Equal Opportunities between Men and Women. Finding quick and appropriate solutions for its residents has been the priority for the City of Sousse, which has cooperated side by side with regional directorates and local residents to implement measures addressing migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Coping with an outbreak, in fact, requires both quickness and agility, and this is even more true when vulnerable groups are in danger.

Fine-tuning with the local committee providing social assistance to these publics has been of paramount importance to contain the impact of the pandemic on communities treacherously affected by such a crisis. “In order to protect vulnerable communities, the City of Sousse has launched a comprehensive support programme in synergy with various stakeholders in the region, with the aim of coordinating efforts with the local committee providing social assistance to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers – adds Ouardani –. This committee has pooled its resources to respond to their pressing needs under the slogan Supportive Sousse”. Food packages, financial support, medical and psychological care have been amongst the main measures undertaken.

A considerable effort has been made also in terms of communication. The City of Sousse has chosen not only to publish all relevant information both in French and Arabic, but also to work in synergy with organisations interacting with migrant communities on a daily basis, to overcome language barriers and make information on the COVID-19 crisis more accessible. “Migrants place more trust in their own community, whether that’s in real life or virtually”, suggested Ouardani.

Sousse has been able to mobilise stakeholders and CSOs to meet the needs of migrants but also help in other relevant domains such as the health sector, as well as in monitoring compliance with measures implemented by cities and municipalities. “Demand on health and social services has exceeded their limits, thus jeopardising their ability to provide basic services to vulnerable groups – declared Ouardani –. Associations have played a key role in ensuring our efforts were a success”.

Many lessons learnt, and many projects on the table for the coming months. The City of Sousse would like now to establish an office to welcome and provide information and guidance to migrant communities. To foster cooperation, amongst the initiatives that Sousse would implement there is also a migration monitoring centre, which could gather all active local stakeholders working with migrants. Misinformation and discrimination require a special consideration too, according to Ouardani, as well as “preparing an economic integration strategy for migrants and notably illegal workers” and advocating to find a solution to regularise their residency status in order to enable them to fully integrate into local economic life.

Exchanging and sharing expertise and know-how with other cities of the network has been of the utmost importance to better frame these actions. “The MC2CM project – added Ouardani – has enabled us to enhance and boost communication between cities by sharing good practices and by strengthening our multilevel communication skills, whether vertically or horizontally”.  

Nominated #EUinfluencer on migration

Yesterday I was nominated in #EUinfluencer for the third time and first time as top influencer on “migration”. Thanks to ZN for organizing this great event online and thanks to my new colleagues at International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) for giving me the opportunity to explore the world of migration narratives, policy and governance. There is still a lot of work to do!

Find here the panel I had the pleasure to share with Pablo Perez and Jennifer Baker.

Dodging disenfranchising: Can “Europe” talk to its citizens?

This article was originally published in The European Post

Just before the COVID-19 lockdown that hit Europe, and the world, I flew to Brussels for a thematic roundtable on communication and disinformation. At dinner with some of the events’ speakers, I engaged in conversation with a prominent representative of a progressive pro-European think tank that said (I quote) “the benefits and the enjoyment of mobility in Europe are so evident that they hardly need to be communicated.”

On the spot, I was quite flabbergasted. For over a decade, the Brussels press corps had been pointing out how EU policy makers, and more in general EU communication, were too distant from “real Europeans”, warning them not to be overly disillusioned when it comes to regular Joe’s knowledge of the EU. Sitting at again another Brussels dinner hearing that citizens’ engagement is nothing to be worried about, left me quite astounded on the level of disillusion the dwellers of the heart of Europe are actually living in. Quite an alarming bell.

Are European citizens fully and consciously enjoying the wonders of the Union? 190 million Europeans have never been abroad. We are talking about 37% of all EU citizens today. Single currency, removal of border controls, Erasmus, or even the end of roaming charges. How could these people have a genuine interest in such issues? Yet, these are surprisingly the topics around which the institutions of the European Union have built a considerable part of their narrative, in an effort to come closer to their citizens.

The free movement of workers is a fundamental right guaranteed by the EU. All citizens are entitled to look for a job in another EU country, work and reside there without needing a permit, enjoy equal treatment with nationals in access to employment, working conditions and all other social and tax advantages. But, how many EU citizens really take advantage of this right?Among the EU citizens of working age, only 3.3 % reside in an EU country other than that of their citizenship. Now, consider that this is the union of States that went the furthest in history to foster human mobility.

What this tells us is that the vast majority of Europeans are born, live and die in the country or territory of their birth. Apart from a few capital cities, the European melting pot is hardly in sight. This does not mean that the Union is dysfunctional or that mobility is unimportant. It means instead that there is an important attachment of citizens to their home territories, that these are part of their identity and that mostly people do not have the intention to live in, and apparently even visit, other countries. If this fundamental aspect of European demography will continue to be disregarded or dismissed, the risk is that the majority of European citizens could feel even more disenfranchised by the European project.

In his book Demeure, French philosopher and Member of the European Parliament Francois Xavier Bellamy explains the difference between “Somewheres” citizens, rooted in a specific place or community, usually a small town or the countryside, socially conservative, often less educated – and “Anywheres” citizens, 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 and the strong belief that national leaders should put their interests first. Anywheres are free of nostalgia. Egalitarian and meritocratic in their attitude to race, sexuality, gender, they are light in their attachments “to larger group identities, including national ones. They value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition”.


Now, the point is: how can the Union reach Somewheres? Not an easy task, if we consider that, regardless the years of warning and analyses, the Union still preaches extensively to the choir. In fact, while there has been significant improvement over the years, the lack of specific targeted communication towards decentralized territories is a major cause for alienation of citizens towards the Union, or even more the often-debated “European way of life”.

What I feel, especially now that I left Brussels after 10 years in the business, is not only a communication gap, but also a true delegitimisation of those who do not embrace “wokeness.” The priorities of Brussels-dwellers are so divergent from the majority of Europeans, that a “new wave of disenfranchisement” is on the way. Looking at numerous campaigns, it seems that topics related to the rule of law in some Member States, gender equality and green policies trump issues such as jobs, migration, economic recovery or the demographic challenges of territories losing inhabitants. The former are certainly fundamental for the progress of liberal-democracy, but the latter are what “the people” care about today. Turning a blind eye on this is very dangerous for the future of Europe, and EU communicators may regret this soon. Euroscepticism in some countries, including founding Members such as Italy, is worryingly high. Dreamy, overly unrealistic, and far progressive narratives make things worse and drive away those who already feel estranged and (legitimately!) share alternative values.

A new narrative for Europe must start from the territories and their people. Otherwise, we risk to witness some new “-exits”, and it would be too late then, for regrets.

Il salto che deve fare l’Ue nella comunicazione.

Questo editoriale é stato pubblicato su Formiche
L’Unione europea continua a parlare ai “suoi”, dimenticando i territori decentralizzati: è delle principali cause di alienazione dei cittadini verso l’Unione. Ecco da dover ripartire

Poco prima del lockdown causato dal coronavirus, che ha colpito l’Europa e il mondo, mi trovavo a Bruxelles per un evento istituzionale su comunicazione e disinformazione. A cena con alcuni dei relatori, intrattenni una conversazione con un rappresentante di spicco di un think tank progressista pro-europeista, che disse: ”I vantaggi della mobilità Europea sono talmente evidenti sarebbe futile continuare a comunicarli. Oltretutto, quasi tutti i miei amici sono sempre in viaggio in Europa”.

Sul momento rimasi sbalordito. Per oltre un decennio, il nocciolo duro del Brussels Press Corps ha sottolineato come i responsabili delle politiche dell’Unione europea e soprattutto gli addetti alla comunicazione delle stesse, fossero troppo distanti dai “veri cittadini europei”, i quali non condividono né si interessano alle tematiche che nella “bolla europea” invadono la sfera del dibattito.

Sedersi nuovamente a un’altra cena a base di nouvelle cuisine dietro al Berlaymont, ascoltando l’ennesima ineluttabile testimonianza (ovviamente personale) che il sentimento dei cittadini non sia nulla di cui preoccuparsi, mi lasciò basito per il livello di disillusione in cui vivono gli abitanti del cuore dell’Europa. Un vero campanello d’allarme. Una sorta di sindrome di Peter Pan, dove i fautori della narrativa europea non vogliono crescere per affrontare le responsabilità che sono là fuori. “Dimenticali Wendy, dimenticali tutti, vieni com me dove non dovrai mai, mai pensare alle cose dei grandi”.

Mettiamo la realtà sul tavolo.

Centonovanta milioni di europei non sono mai stati all’estero, ossia il 37% di tutti i cittadini Ue. Moneta unica, rimozione dei controlli alle frontiere, Erasmus, fine delle tariffe di roaming. Come possono queste persone avere un genuino interesse per tali questioni? Eppure, questi sono sorprendentemente ancora oggi i temi attorno ai quali le istituzioni europee costruiscono parte della loro narrativa, nel tentativo di avvicinarsi ai cittadini.

La libera circolazione dei lavoratori è un diritto fondamentale garantito dall’Ue. Tutti i cittadini hanno il diritto di cercare un lavoro in un altro Paese dell’Ue, risiedervi senza bisogno di un permesso, godere della parità di trattamento nell’accesso all’occupazione, alle condizioni di lavoro e i connessi vantaggi sociali e fiscali. Ma quanti cittadini dell’Ue si avvalgono davvero di questo diritto? Tra i cittadini Ue in età lavorativa, solo il 3,3% risiede in un Paese dell’Ue diverso da quello di cittadinanza. Soffermiamoci sul fatto che stiamo discutendo dell’unione di Stati che più nella storia ha favorito e incentivato la mobilità.

Ciò che questo ci dice è che la stragrande maggioranza degli europei nasce, vive e muore nel Paese o nel territorio di origine. Con l’eccezione di alcune capitali, il “crogiuolo europeo”, il cosiddetto melting pot, non è una realtà. Ciò non significa che l’Unione sia disfunzionale o che la mobilità non sia importante. Significa piuttosto che esiste un importante attaccamento dei cittadini ai loro territori, che tali fanno parte della loro identità e che per lo più le persone non hanno l’intenzione di vivere in, o addirittura visitare, altri Paesi. Se questo aspetto fondamentale della demografia europea continuerà a essere respinto, la maggioranza dei cittadini continuerà a sentirsi alienata, o peggio, svantaggiata dal progetto europeo stesso piuttosto che parte integrante.

Nel suo libro Demeure il filosofo francese ed europarlamentare Francois-Xavier Bellamy spiega la differenza tra cittadini somewheres — radicati in un luogo o comunità specifici, socialmente conservatori e spesso meno istruiti — e cittadini anywheres — disinvolti, spesso urbani, socialmente liberali e con istruzione universitaria. I somewheres sono caratterizzati da un disagio con il mondo moderno e dalla forte convinzione che i leader nazionali dovrebbero mettere i loro interessi al primo posto (vi ricorda qualcosa?). Al contrario gli anywheres sono privi di nostalgia, egualitari, meritocratici e fluidi nel loro concetto di razza, sessualità, genere e non sono attaccati alle identità di gruppo più grandi, comprese quelle nazionali. Danno valore all’autonomia e all’autorealizzazione prima della stabilità, della comunità o della tradizione. È importante spiegare che in Europa gli anywheres sono numericamente la minoranza, dunque il punto è: come può l’Unione raggiungere i somewheres? Un compito non facile, se si considera che, nonostante gli anni di moniti, avvertimenti e esortazioni dai più grandi esperti in comunicazione del mondo, l’Unione stia ancora parlando solo “ai suoi”, ossia a quelli che già godono e approfittano della mobilità di persone, beni e servizi garantita dal mercato unico. Mentre negli anni possiamo notare un miglioramento significativo, la mancanza di una comunicazione mirata e specifica verso i territori decentralizzati è una delle principali cause di alienazione dei cittadini verso l’Unione, o ancor più il noto “stile di vita e valori europei” spesso dibattuti, ma totalmente indefiniti. Pensate che in Europa la maggior parte delle elezioni, anche regionali, non sono combattute su un asse destra contro sinistra ma su una nuova dimensione di grande centro urbano contro periferia.

Ciò che sento, ora che ho lasciato Bruxelles dopo 10 anni di attività fra i corridoi delle istituzioni é che l’Unione stia comunicando “l’isola che non c’é”, dimenticandosi della realtà. Osservando numerose campagne di informazione, sembra che i temi legati allo Stato di diritto (in alcuni Stati membri), le quote rosa e le politiche verdi prevalgano su questioni come il lavoro, la migrazione, la ripresa economica o le sfide demografiche dei territori che perdono abitanti. Mentre i primi sono certamente fondamentali per il progresso della democrazia liberale, i secondi sono ciò che interessa al “popolo” oggi. Chiudere un occhio su questo è molto pericoloso per il futuro dell’Europa.

L’euroscetticismo in alcuni Paesi, compresi membri fondatori come l’Italia, è preoccupantemente alto. Narrative sognanti, eccessivamente irrealistiche e troppo progressiste allontanano coloro che si sentono già estranei e (legittimamente!) condividono valori alternativi. La comunicazione deve ritrovare efficacia e coraggio per spiegare e promuovere lo spirito e i valori del vivere civile e sociale europeo, senza conformismo o ipocrisia.

L’unico cruccio di Jean-Claude Juncker durante il suo mandato da presidente della Commissione europea fu proprio quello di non intervenire nel dibattito sulla Brexit. Una nuova narrazione per l’Europa deve partire dai territori e dalla loro gente. Altrimenti rischiamo di assistere ad alcune nuove “uscite”, e allora sarebbe troppo tardi, per i rimpianti.

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.

How the COVID-19 ‘Infodemic’ targets migrants

One of the more sinister aspects of the global pandemic is the spread of deliberately misleading information online. ICMPD’s Regional Office for the Mediterranean considers how disinformation networks work to falsely portray migrants as vectors for the disease.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a threat to health. It has also increased the potential for panic within societies. Aggressive states and political extremists want to manipulate this for political ends by spreading disinformation — to the extent that the UN has declared a global ‘infodemic’ a alongside the crisis itself. Migrants are a classic and very vulnerable target of such networks, first because the subject of immigration itself generates fear; and second because migrants are over-represented in the populations of 10 of the 15 countries with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.

Fertile ground to misinform

Disinformation is used to sow panic and dismay in the target population, lower trust in authorities and fragment social cohesion. According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), disinformation networks are now trying to combine the low level of public debate on migration with anxiety about COVID-19 to depict migrants as an elevated threat to public health. Typically, the tools used are automated software programmes (‘bots’) which spread stylised messages across social media platforms in the hope they will be picked up and repeated.

Some narratives include:

  • Suggestions that migration routes, in particular along the Greek-Turkish border, are acting as a vector for the virus to spread
  • Speculation that immigrant and minor­ity communities in major cities are using the virus as an opportunity to riot
  • Claims that migrants specifically ignore lockdown rules and asylum seekers are violently resisting quarantine
  • Claims that migrants will use the pandemic as an opportunity to ‘invade Europe’.

Certain categories of migrants such as irregular migrants in the Mediterranean are particularly affected by COVID-19 -related disinformation since they are already subject to overly simplistic media framing. Under lockdown, Italy and Malta closed their ports in response to the COVID-19 crisis. But irregular crossings in the Mediterranean continue as do tensions over how to handle the people rescued.  Disinformation campaigns threaten to inflame this highly sensitive situation, where human rights, security concerns, border control and the essential trust needed to sustain third country cooperation are all in play.

How the COVID-19 ‘Infodemic’ targets migrants

Anti-disinformation action

Cooperation between authorities and media is not without hurdles and dialogue is often contentious. The Ethical Journalism Network has published specific guidelines on how to report accurately on COVID-19 in response to discriminatory rhetoric and sensationalist media coverage propelling discrimination, very much in line with ICMPD’s own Observations on media and migration (released as part of the EUROMED Migration IV project).

In Europe, the EU institutions are trying to dispel myths about the pandemic and have condemned statements portraying migrants or specific ethnic groups as responsible for the disease. The Croatian Ministry of Interior has responded to rumours about asylum seekers allegedly spreading COVID-19 by clarifying that asylum seekers residing in Croatian shelters were not infected. Similarly, the Spanish government condemned outright any attempt to use the pandemic to spread xenophobia.

Tech companies have a critical role. According to a special report from the European External Action Service, most online platforms have worked to increase the visibility of the World Health Organisation and other authoritative, reliable sources of health-related content. Facebook announced it would take down “claims that are designed to discourage treatment or taking appropriate precautions”. The company asks third-party fact-checkers and health authorities to flag problematic content and removes posts that fail the tests. Facebook is also offering free ad space to national health ministries and reliable organisations to advertise accurate information on COVID-19. Twitter broadened its definition of ‘harm’ to address content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information and announced it would make greater use of machine-learning and automation to track abusive and manipulative content. Such efforts are key but research also suggests that there is still a way to go before an effective model is found.

One way to counter such disinformation is to highlight how migrant workers keep societies functional during lockdown restrictions and spread greater awareness of how countries, regions and cities are in fact making huge efforts to retain migrants due to their contribution to the COVID-19 response. The Overseas Development Institute collates hard information and statistics on this phenomenon, which shows that there is wealth of solid examples and good news stories to draw from.

Stronger efforts needed

Debates over immigration and asylum have always been highly susceptible to misrepresentation, which in turn has often produced sub-optimal policy and hampered integration efforts. In the age of disinformation, it is even harder to achieve a balanced public discussion that is functional rather than antagonistic to effective governance, reconciles evidence with the need for emotional resonance, and achieves a greater understanding about the costs and benefits of immigration. A vital step towards winning space for this in the public sphere will be for governments, institutions, news sources, civil society and the big digital platforms to work together to promote authoritative sources. Otherwise crude, misleading narratives take root and develop a life of their own. That was true before the COVID-19 pandemic. It is even more true, now.

The original version of this article was published on ICMPD

Cities need a stronger role in migration governance

Following an intervention at the latest ARLEM Plenary in Barcelona, I would like to spend a few words on a fantastic project I am now working on at the International Centre for Migration and Policy Development (ICMPD)

While the issue of migration management in the Euro-Mediterranean region seemed to have seen a time of reduced salience over the past months, recent events have brought the topic back up on the policy making agenda.

As one of the greatest political challenges of our times, migration is too complex and nuanced to be addressed solely by one nation, one ministry or one city alone. All levels of governance must work together by understanding and accepting the functional part each of them plays. National governments cannot act alone on such a multi-faceted and evolving issue and cities must acknowledge and embrace their own role as necessary active agents in migration governance.

11th ARLEM Plenary, Barcelona, 23/01/2020

Why is this important? It is at the local level that the reality of migration affect peoples’ lives, whether they are newly arrived immigrants or long-term residents of a city. Migration has a direct impact on cities, its administrators and its people. However, cities currently hardly influence the conceptualization and application of migration policies, which are mostly drafted on a national or supranational level. This creates a governance discrepancy between policy-making and policy-implementation.

If this continues, there are serious risks that migration policies will impair the level of social cohesion of the territories and disrupt the quality of life of its inhabitants. Better synergies between cities and governments are necessary across all policy areas such as employment, education and urban planning that have a direct impact on mobility and migration.

This is where the benefit of the MC2CM project is shown at best.

This ICMPD-led project (in partnership with UCLG and UN-Habitat and supported by the EU and Swiss government) helps policy makers bridge this gap and raise awareness, to the most relevant stakeholders, about the challenges, opportunities and needs to address. Migration is a territorial challenge with numerous different traits. It cannot be tackled with a one-size-fit-all type of approach.

MC2CM is building experience and knowledge about migration at the local level and informing stakeholders through our dialogues and practices in the regions. Over the the past five years, the project:

  • Involved 20 cities as active members of its networks in the Euro-Mediterranean.
  • Welcomed over 400 representatives from 100 different local administrations.
  • Published 9 City Migration Profiles in its first phase (Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Lisbon, Lyon, Madrid, Tangier, Tunis, Turin). The second phase of the project already counts 7 profiles under work (Casablanca, Rabat, Oujda, Sousse, Sfax, Seville and Cadiz costal area), and 4 more will follow mid 2020 (Grenoble, Naples, Irbid and Ramallah).
  • Supported cities dialogues and mutual learning across 12 thematic events (on social cohesion; access to education; communication; culture; civil society involvement) and high-level panels.
  • The project allocates 800.000€ grants for local actions in SPCs countries to support migrants’ inclusion and local authorities’ role in migration governance.

Concretely the project advocates for:

  • Supporting the set-up of inter-administrative cooperation and multilevel governance.
  • Developing the knowledge and data sets amassed on local migration contexts to provide a solid evidence-base to future local actions.
  • Promote a diverse economy and support new labour opportunities involving local entrepreneurship, innovative economic sectors and vocational training as efficient tools to foster access to employment.
  • Facilitate dialogue with trade unions and social entities, thus contributing to a proper monitoring of the labour market and avoiding exploitative measures towards migrants.
  • Facilitate qualifications and skills recognition to enable the incorporation of newcomers in the labour market, along with the introduction of new skills and opportunities in local economies.

Further acceptance for immigration and migrants’ rights can only be achieved through policies that ensure that no member of a community feels left behind. We need to address the pressing issue of host communities expressing dissatisfaction with the way migration is playing out in their territories.

Through our project we saw some example of how cities such as Amman, who has seen their population double in less than a decade due to migration and forced displacement, or Vienna, with a third of its population of foreign origin – do not see migration as a problem but as a task of governance they can deal with very successfully.

Partnerships for development 

There is a huge potential for such initiatives that bring together the national level, the city level, the private sector and the people, be they migrants or non-migrants. If any of these are left out, we are likely to failWe need to stop paying lip service to cooperation and start enacting it in practice.

We should keep building strong coalitions among donors, international organizations and government representatives. This includes establishing standing communication lines between the various existing initiatives to avoid duplication and fragmentation, as it is often the case.

ICMPD is fully committed to broadening our support for local and regional authorities in building their capacity to address migration challenges and benefit from migration as a tool for local development. We aspire to accompany national governments, as we do in several Mediterranean countries, in their efforts to embrace comprehensive migration policies.

ARLEM has the mandate to voice the needs of local and regional authorities in the Euro-Mediterranean and influence decentralization frameworks both at EU level and in Southern Partnership Countries (SPCs). This meets the aim of the work we are carrying out in the MC2CM project and the spirit of our promotion of city-to-city cooperation.