Article written

  • on 07.11.2014
  • at 05:30 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

The migration debate: looking for a new narrative 0

Brussels – It has been a busy week for philanthropy in the European capital. Over 150 delegates from foundations, EU institutions and CSOs gathered in the BOZAR in Brussels to discuss the main challenges facing people and communities in Europe over the next few years. As the annual interface between philanthropy and EU institutions, EuroPhilantopics 2014 was an opportunity for participants to collaborate on shared agendas and deepen their knowledge of social issues. Co-organized by the European Foundation Centre (EFC), the event invited over twenty international speakers to debate on a range of topics and discuss improved approaches to policy development, practice and funding. Migration was unsurprisingly top of the agenda.

Immigration has become a burning issue for the European Union. While over 3,000 migrants have died in attempts to cross the Mediterranean this year, anti-immigration sentiments are growing and several Member States are fighting to clamp down on their national borders. Tensions peaked earlier this week when German chancellor Angela Merkel suggested she would rather see Britain leave the EU than undermine the principle of free movement. European leaders have reached an impasse, and as fears of being ‘swamped’ by immigrants hit the headlines it seems the debate has degenerated into a toxic, sterile spiral.

Given these circumstances, philanthropists and policymakers were invited to approach migration from a different angle and ‘look for a new narrative’. This set the tone for the opening debate and was discussed further in one of three parallel breakout sessions the following day. ‘A new narrative on migration needs to work for those who don’t believe in it,’ explained Sunder Katwala, Director of the think-tank British Future. ‘Current arguments in favor of migration do not work because they simply lecture people about why they are wrong, and elite politicians talking about the benefits of migration will not gain people’s trust.’

In Europe – as in most societies past and present –  the anti-immigration narrative is largely based on a story of ‘us’ nationals and ‘them’ migrants. ‘In order to change this we must celebrate diversity’, said Shada Islam, Director of Policy at Friends of Europe. ‘We still project an image of a fortress Europe that betrays our own values. In the global race to the top, how can Europe compete by presenting itself as inward looking and scared?’

When looking at numbers and statistics, there is currently no evidence to justify anti-immigration sentiments in Europe. In fact, a recent study by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) shows that European immigrants who arrived in the UK since 2000 have contributed over £20bn to public finances, with immigrants from the EU-15 countries contributing 64% more in taxes than they received in benefits between 2001 and 2011. Yet numbers do not go far when it comes to narratives. ‘Statistics can disprove arguments against migration but they are not enough to convince people. What we need is positive success stories’, stated Marc Richir, Deputy Head of Unit at the European Commission’s DG Home Affairs. This is where the media steps in.

‘There are plenty of loonies out there who say outrageous things about migration, which are crazy and harmful but make good stories’, said Shada Islam. ‘These must be challenged, and for this think-tanks and politicians must open up to the media and give them positive stories to change the narrative.’

‘Citizens must be directly involved in building a new narrative’, added Sunder Katwala. ‘Newspapers are a powerful way of reaching people and getting their voices out. There are plenty of positive stories that can be turned into news, and it is important communicate these to journalists .’

There may be an abundance of success stories, but it is unlikely news agencies will be poring over them anytime soon. The media in Europe is facing serious financial struggles and the level of professionalism has fallen. And as long as controversial titles sell copies, positive migration stories will not make the front page.

Politicians also could stand at an impasse. While positive narratives are important for integration and social cohesion, will it not encourage immigration and undermine efforts to discourage border-crossings? It seems that promoting positive narratives is more evident in theory than in practice.

‘Italy is currently facing serious problems’, noted Massimo Lanza, a member of the management board of Fondazione Venezia. ‘A growing number of Italians are expressing intolerance towards migrants, and Mare Nostrum has been replaced by an operation that is more about border control than rescue. What is philanthropy doing about this?’

These questions need to be asked and speakers at EuroPhilantopics were ready to seek answers. Aside from improving the delivery of positive social change, the event was also organized to identify the role philanthropy plays in a changing Europe. ‘Philanthropists can help address issues by digging beneath the surface’, said Heather Grabbe, Director of the Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI). ‘You find that many problems are not about migration at all, and that most anti-immigrant rhetoric is actually anti-elitism.’

‘What we do know is that before any action people must be willing to accept change,’ concluded Stefan Schafers, Chair of the European Programme for Integration and Migration (EPIM), ‘and this cannot happen without adopting a more positive narrative.’

By Sofia Christensen –

Photo credit: Flickr

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