We are at a historic point in the debate over migration. Global migration has more than tripled since 1960, rising from 77 million to 272 million in 2019. While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed migration flows over the last year, the confluence of conflict, corruption, economic woes and climate change in many parts of the world is once again driving people from their homes in search of better opportunities and security.
This means that the need for rational debate on migration policy has rarely been greater, not only in the United States, but around the world, where migration debates are reshaping local and national politics and deepening hyper-polarization. It is increasingly difficult in many countries to have a conversation on the merits and challenges of migration, free of weaponized narratives. Developing new narratives to inform public discourse is critical to helping foster more reasoned policy debates and actions that can lead to more humanizing and just immigration policies.
A recent report titled How We Talk About Migration: The Link Between Migration Narratives, Policy and Power, conducted in partnership between the National Immigration Forum, Migration Policy Institute, the RAND Corporation and Metropolitan Group, seeks to bring in-depth understanding to how global migration narratives influence public debate. The partners conducted a research scan covering five countries experiencing significant migration flows: Colombia, Lebanon, Morocco, Sweden and the United States. The research mapped salient narratives, identified differences and analyzed similarities in migration narratives in very different political and cultural contexts. This report can be downloaded here.
In June 2021, Metropolitan Group hosted a Zoom convening on the connection between migration narratives, policy and power. About 100 people across disciplines, sectors and countries participated in the conversation which was simultaneously interpreted into Spanish. The discussion was moderated by Rodolfo Córdova Alcaraz, from Impacto Social Metropolitan Group, and featured a panel of How We Talk About Migration’s primary authors. (Click here to watch a recording of the conversation.)
The conversation featured key insights from expert panelists
Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, highlighted the important connection between narratives and policy. “Ultimately narratives shape policy,” so understanding how to shape narratives is critical. In particular, Ali argued that being able to distill where narratives come from, including who is spreading them and how, is important to understanding the policy impacts of different migration narratives. Along with advocates and policymakers, journalists and the media are a critical part of this effort. “We’re learning that telling journalists to simplify stories hasn’t worked,” so we need to focus on helping journalists tell the complex stories of migration that help the public understand the need for complicated solutions.
Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, associate director of the International Program at the Migration Policy Institute, focused on how migration narratives take root in different societies. “Sometimes when we talk about narratives, we talk about these things as fixed.” But the outcome of our research shows that there are many narratives that exist simultaneously and influence each other, including seemingly contradictory narratives that can coexist. What we don’t know much about is how these narratives influence each other; which ones are deemed most credible; and which ones are more readily dismissed. Ultimately, we need to do more than simply provide more positive narratives, which already exist, but understand what makes certain narratives “catch fire” and others fall by the wayside in different societies.
Shelly Culbertson, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, outlined how migration narratives can evolve based on different circumstances and ultimately end up shaping policy. For example, a country could have welcoming migration policies and positive narratives about the benefits and contributions of migrants. Yet at the same time, an unplanned influx of migrants could shift narratives that start framing migrants as a threat to jobs, security or cultural identity. This “tipping point” where narratives of solidarity and welcoming migrants can shift, has a direct impact on policies and in some cases results in stricter border controls, asylum policies and repatriation. In the Middle East, for example, approximately 5.6 million Syrian refugees have been hosted by neighboring countries since 2011. Initially, refugees were welcomed, but over time, public opinion soured and hospitality fatigue set in, especially in Lebanon, where narratives turned negative and politicians from across the ideological landscape started framing migrants and refugees as an existential threat to the country.
Haim Malka, vice president at the Metropolitan Group, highlighted that migration narratives are frequently being manipulated or weaponized not only to shape migration policy, but to advance a wide range of political, social and commercial goals that are often unrelated to migration. In many cases, politicians and political parties are manipulating migration narratives to attract voters and supporters, deepen political rifts, and either preserve or challenge the status quo. The result is that these narratives prevent rational discourse on migration policy and undermine public debate on the legitimate concerns that people have about migration and connected issues like borders, jobs, health care and education. In Europe, white nationalist parties are using fear-based narratives to help them move from the margins to mainstream politics. The frame of these migration narratives are not accidental, but are part of orchestrated efforts to advance different agendas and objectives. This is particularly dangerous when authoritarian governments or other malign actors seek to use migration narratives to undermine and weaken democratic norms and political institutions.
The panelists agreed that while many positive migration narratives exist, they are not resonating or effective in many communities and societies. The urgent challenge ahead is to conduct the formative work to develop effective narratives that open reasoned discourse and effective counters to fear-based narratives, and to develop supporting message frameworks that are resilient and contextually relevant. With effective narratives and message frameworks, NGOs, funders and policymakers can use those tools to foster reasoned policy debate and ultimately more humanizing policies. Please follow us on social media @metgroup and engage with this effort at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Available now: How We Talk About Migration: The Link Between Migration Narratives, Policy and Power. The full report is available here as a free download. To continue this discussion, please email us at email@example.com.