November 18, 2014

Change the migration story

The public and political debate around migration in most European countries has taken on the tone of mass hysteria. The rancid rhetoric of immigrants who are invading our countries. 

As well as threatening our national security, capsizing our economy and welfare system and imposing their barbaric cultural and religious habits on our civilized society is echoing throughout Europe, supported by the same mix of unfounded arguments, cheap prejudices and irrational fear of the unknown.

Visiting Malta last week, where I was invited to address this topic in a public talk, I was therefore not surprised to hear that immigration is the high-voltage issue everywhere. Along with Italy, Greece and Spain, Malta has been at the epicenter of Europe’s immigration crises in the last few years.

The anti-immigrant tension in the island is tangible.

The general perception among Maltese citizens that they have been abandoned by the European institutions is understandable if seen in the light of the lack of a coherent migration and asylum policy at EU level. As equally understandable is the frustration of a small country that was caught unprepared to deal with a relatively new phenomenon which is inevitably posing new challenges and reshaping the island’s society, economy and culture.

What is hardly defensible, however, is the groundless belief that the changes caused by the inflow of people who are fleeing wars, human rights abuses and poverty in search for a better life in Europe necessarily represent a threat. And disturbing it is to hear that – fuelled by this false perception – sentiments of hostility, especially targeting African migrants, are becoming more popular in the public chit-chat and degenerating into hate speech on online forums and social media.

This is happening in Malta as anywhere else in Europe.

Extremist nationalist ideologies are gaining support in many EU member states and xenophobic discourse is resurfacing in the public arena. With the upcoming European Parliament elections next year, many observers fear that these trends could lead to the most anti-European Parliament in history, which may ultimately have devastating impacts on our democracies as well as on the very existence of the EU.

Yet, politicians don’t seem to be particularly attentive as they are too focused on pandering to easy populism and feeding voters’ concerns. Do we really have to wait and see the effects of this hatred before we take action? If we don’t, then, it is the time to end this toxic immigration debate and try and put it in the right perspective.

We need a whole new narrative for migration and asylum. We need to immediately rethink the storytelling. This must start from the media, which so often have fallen into the trap of exacerbating ugly stereotypes and, sometimes without realising, of inciting misinformation and intolerance.

It’s up to us journalists to start telling a different story. The media can and must take the lead in shifting the public perceptions and eventually oblige our governments to lift their collective heads out of the sand.

Telling a different story about migration means first of all getting rid of all the misleading arguments that are poisoning the climate. It means challenging the dominant myths, getting the numbers and facts right.

When, early this year, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the fiscal impact of immigration on the most advanced economies among the 34 OECD member countries has been slightly positive in terms of GDP, very little space and relevance was given to this news. Neither did this finding stop politicians from feeding misunderstandings in the public opinion.

In fact, it seems like despite the growing body of evidence contradicting the common views on immigration, the gap between public perception and the actual facts grows wider and wider.

Telling a different story means, most importantly, recognizing once and for all that migration is a global and human rights issue, being driven by a basic human instinct to survive and to break away from poor life conditions.

It will require an act of intellectual honesty and the lowest dose of cynicism from politicians to admit that there is no Frontex that could ever stop that.

People, with or without papers, who have chosen to put themselves through a perilous journey, aware of facing death, in order to escape conflicts, any kind of persecutions, economic misery, deserve, first and foremost, their dignity back.

We journalists shouldn’t be too cautious to give these stories the importance they deserve, let the migrants get involved in the debate and let them speak for themselves. And, as citizens of a civilized society, before embarking on myopic discussions over border controls or deportation policies, we should first be able to empathise with the experiences of these people on a human level.

As long as our biased debate keeps focusing instead on the ‘illegal immigrants’ narrative, we will not be able to discuss human beings and their rights for protection. Instead, we will keep missing the point, gripped as we are by a collective paranoia around a dehumanized and abstract entity serving only as a scapegoat for political opportunism and for our most irrational fears.

Author Maria Teresa Sette

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