Overseas Development Institute Report Suggests Urgent Strategy Shift
These are the facts: migratory flows, even the most abundant, make a decisive contribution to economic growth and job creation in destination societies. With few exceptions, they have a neutral effect on the wages of the populations in which they are established, reduce global inequality and contribute to demographic rebalancing in aging societies like ours. And there is no proven link between refugees and terrorism or between the abundance of migrants and increased insecurity; rather the opposite.
If these are the facts, why, according to the International Organization for Migration, 82 out of 100 Europeans (73/100, in the case of North Americans) want to see immigration levels reduced or frozen? For a very simple reason: rational facts count for very little in this debate compared to emotions and perceptions.
This is one of the main conclusions reached by a fascinating paper from the Overseas Development Institute and Chatham House on public attitudes towards refugees and immigrants. The practice of myth-busting, which some of us are so fond of and on which much of the pro-migrant communication strategy rests, is a (counterproductive) waste of time. While we engage in an academic and elitist debate on aggregate numbers, the bulk of society focuses on “real world problems”, such as the cost of care for immigrants, their willingness to “integrate” or concern about of the lack of control that transfers irregular immigration. His vision conforms to a partial interpretation of reality (an immigrant is the one in front of me in the queue of the ambulatory or the woman with a covered head that I cross in the street, not my little daughter’s friend from school or the lady who cares for my mother) and is deeply rooted in the idea of the outside as a threat. Political attitudes, social campaigns, information from the media and the opinion of the migrants themselves play a relevant but accessory role in this panorama. It is not clear what the role of education and schools would be.
To be clear, it is not that the majority oppose immigration, but that they have conflicting feelings that they are not able to resolve easily. The right strategy could upset the balance one way or the other and quite quickly, as we have seen dramatically with the Brexit and Trump victories.
The immigration reform movement urgently needs to change strategy, the authors suggest. Academic and ‘vertical’ information should be replaced by frank discussion about the issues that concern people and the measures that could resolve them. That means landing in national and local contexts, adapting messages and accepting painful transactions: can NGOs, for example, present refugees as capable and operational individuals rather than victims who need our compassion and money? Can we replace the usual channels –like this blog- with the voices of those who can speak about their own experience in welcoming immigrants, for example?
The conclusions of this work are disturbing, because they show that evidence does not always win against emotions. The former is still essential in an informed public debate that demands accountability and offers solutions, but the latter must gain ground that we have so far denied them.