Public perception: the missing link to successful migration management?

Joanne Irvine

“Few areas of public policy are subject to greater misrepresentation in public and political discourse, yet more influenced by public opinion, than international migration”(World Migration Report 2011)

How true. So how many of us have had those alarming conversations with other people over how migrants are stealing our jobs or receiving thousands in government benefits? Probably too many. Indeed, despite growing recognition that migrants can build social, cultural and economic capital that can benefit their countries of origin as well as their host countries through entrepreneurship, development agendas and remittances to name but a few, the overall negative perception of migrants in so many societies persists. This has a direct effect on the successful integration of migrants and social cohesion seems to be becoming harder to come by, leading to a vicious circle where migrants, increasingly marginalised in host countries, can never be expected to become development actors if they are not provided with the opportunity to participate in public life and live at peace with nationals and so will always be seen as that group of people who don’t integrate, steal jobs and undeservedly receive government money.

The presence of some established 15 million migrants in the EU has turned the issue into one of the top five biggest concerns among public opinion within Europe according to the Eurobarometer. Further studies in the IOM World Migration Report 2011 show that between 1974 and 2009, worldwide public concern rates regarding immigration has gone from just over 20% of the population to almost 50% and that in some countries, the perceived percentage of the immigrant population compared to natives is much higher in Italy, Spain, the US or Canada for example, than actual real numbers. This is not to mention the increasing xenophobic and racist attacks migrants are experiencing all over the world, just look at Greece or South Africa.

The reasons behind these statistics lie in the fact that with the growing incidence of irregular migration, migration is increasingly associated in the public mind with the illegality of crossing borders and working illegally. The notion of migrants today frequently evokes an image of “asylum seeker” which in turn too often has come to be seen as someone coming to abuse the system; some even view migration as threatening to national values and national identities. Moreover, lower skilled migrants are often seen as displacing local jobs and abusing social welfare systems and can end up becoming scapegoats for economic insecurity, especially in the current global economic crisis context. Of course, there are also potent religious and cultural stereotypes that are often extreme especially when it comes to Muslim origin and practice and the security links linked to terrorism.

It is not only in the North that the negative image of immigration and even emigration persists, the same feelings can be observed in developing countries where the largest percentage of international migration actually occurs. There are negative feelings associated with the emigrants who ‘abandon’ their countries and that skilled professionals that leave tend to generate negative effects for the home country. Return migrants can also face hostility for having abandoned their home country and can be seen as less of a national than those who remained. This can also be accompanied with a feeling that returning migrants feel they are better than or superior to their fellow nationals who remained. The returnees also may have experienced different ways of life and become accustomed to different lifestyles and can experience a sense of no longer fitting in. Some returning migrants are even seen as failures that could not ‘make it’ abroad. Yet emigrants can ease unemployment problems, send back remittances and engage in development activities in favour of their home countries as potential development actors and can also come back with more skills, know-how and with a view to creating businesses and trade networks.

So just how did we get to a world of increasing xenophobia and racism where we don’t mind opening up our economies and trade to other countries but when it comes to human mobility we are more close minded and reticent to open our doors to ‘others’?

Studies by Oksana Yakushko portray a long array of theories behind xenophobia; xenophobia is intricately tied to notions of nationalism and ethnocentrism which are both characterised by a belief in the superiority of one’s own nation over others; xenophobia is also associated with times of economic and political instability where economic imbalance pulls individuals toward countries with prospects of higher earnings or sheer survival, whereas political, economic, and cultural tensions push many out of countries; some argue that negative views of immigrants emerge from fears of diminished economic resources, rapid demographic changes and diminished political influence; economic recessions and resulting fears of losing jobs to minorities have also been connected to an increase in racist and sexist beliefs. Does any of this sound familiar?

Increased xenophobic responses indeed become quite understandable given the current state of the world. Yet we also live in an ever more globalised world where knowledge and discovering the unknown comes at a mere click of a button. By now, shouldn’t we know better? Shouldn’t we be open to cultural diversity and understand how it can enrich our lives, cultures and foster development both in our countries as well as in immigrants’ home countries? If we don’t support migrant integration and their development initiatives, aren’t we ensuring their failure and feeding into our fears and stereotypes?

According to another report by the IOM on the image of migrants, part of the response lies in the fact that patterns of migration today are broader and more diverse than before, but these patterns are not well understood and therefore result in misinformation and misperceptions. Misinformation and misperceptions can perpetuate a vicious cycle, influencing government policy, mass media and public opinion, each of which then directly or indirectly influences the others, and the resulting image of migrants in that society. The real question, then, is how we are misinformed in the first place and whose role is it to ensure that we are informed of the real situation and potential benefits behind migration?

The first actor that came to my mind, of course, was the media. If “opinion polls become the plaything of the media and reporters are required to generate provocative headlines”, then as migration has increasingly attracted media attention over the past decade, it is clear that the media have a critical role to play in both influencing and reflecting public opinion on immigration. Indeed, the media have the ability to act as agenda setters and drivers on immigration issues and to mirror ongoing debates in public and private circles.

So how do they do this exactly? Well the media provide information on migration by showing statistics, trends and events that are deemed to be of interest. Moreover, the media ‘frame’ the topic by highlighting certain aspects of migration and leaving out others, by using particular language and rhetoric. In this sense, not only do the media provide people with facts, they also give them a sense of how that information should be interpreted. Negative effects come when immigration is referred to as ‘floods’ of immigrants for example, which suggests countries being overwhelmed. The frequency with which migration topics are covered is also important. Studies show that issues that receive more regular coverage often become more salient for the public and help to shape political and social priorities. A while ago I came across an extremely negative video news piece on the immigrant situation in a little town just outside Barcelona called Salt which, amongst other things, goes on to say, in an extremely ominous tone that Muslims are coming back to Spain “not to become Spaniards” and then goes on to cite a survey that shows that 7 out of 10 Muslim immigrants consider themselves Muslim rather than Spanish. I used to live in Barcelona and when I showed this video to two English students of mine and asked them what they thought without giving any background information beforehand, they agreed and began to talk of how Muslims don’t integrate and how the Chinese are getting all the business benefits. This may just be a perfect example of how the media can instigate negative feelings towards immigration. I then asked them how they felt about me being Scottish and living in Barcelona and they said that was fine. At that moment I wondered whether it was because I was European and not wearing a headscarf so I told them that I certainly don’t consider myself to be Spanish or Catalan, because I’m Scottish and that will never change because that’s where I was born so why should Muslims stop feeling Muslim and start feeling Spanish and do Spaniards living abroad deny their Spanish nationality? I doubt it. They were stumped.

So how can we combat the negative images of immigration in the media? One positive example is apparent in the IOM World Migration Report 2011 which recognises the efforts of an Italian media awareness raising campaign. IOM joined forces with an advertising agency and launched several projects aimed at sensitising both the media and the general public to the realities of migration. The campaign painted a picture of migrants that often goes unreported – how they bring positive contributions to home and host society.

Of course, not only do the media have important roles to play in public perception of immigrants, so too do governments and the private sector. The IOM sustains that governments in home and host countries cannot expect migration policy to work effectively without investing in managing the image of migrants in society and there are indeed some hints on how: Transparency in migration management and dealing fairly and openly with abuses to migration systems is important to gain support for migrants and migration policy-making; making clear that there is a need for labour migrants to justify policies; assuring the integration and assimilation of migrants into the job market and their access to education, health and social services will also encourage their integration and increased productivity; projects and programmes directly addressing the negative image of immigrants in society; using a rights based approach to justifying migrants’ access to the same services and benefits as locals based on international and national laws and treaties; promoting migration for development agendas that show what migrants can do for both host and home countries and; to development appropriate national media policies that ensure a correct and balanced portrayal of the migration phenomena.

Regarding the private sector, in increasingly more business sectors, migrants are constituting a large part of the workforce and lower skilled migrants are actually filling up jobs that nationals don’t want rather than stealing national jobs and often for lower wages and less benefits. Highly qualified migrants are employed in fields related to their expertise and training and are in a position to contribute, through their employment to their host societies though they are met with mixed feelings and sometimes perceived as a threat to the host society, particularly if involved in big businesses or buying out smaller local businesses etc. To fight these negative images, the private sector must recognise the benefits of addressing this image through creating appropriate working conditions for migrants. To do this, they must engage with migrants, NGOs and migrants’ associations to build partnerships and really come to terms with the growing mobility of the world’s population.

Last, but certainly not least, migrants themselves and migrants’ associations are also extremely important for public perception. Firstly, they must understand that in their interaction within the host community, whether in economic, social or cultural terms, migrants have obligations to respect authority and comply with the national laws of society. How they do this is directly reflected on the image of migrants in their community. Moreover, who better to show what positive contributions migrants can bring to host and home countries that the very people doing so through campaigns, events and their participation in public and political life? It is sometimes difficult to broach delicate topics like racism or xenophobia or fight against the negative images they might have in a society, but spaces like social media where opinions and experiences can be shared are becoming more and more common and are reaching more and more people.

Indeed, countries all over the world have responded in many ways to this new migration situation with a variety of policies ranging from tighter border controls, addressing human trafficking, clearer asylum rules, prioritising integration policies and cooperation with migrant home countries all in a bid to manage migration adequately. Of course, these are all extremely important areas and all interdependent but without a more positive public perception of immigration, it seems clear that pro-immigration policies just won’t win the vote or support of nationals.

Improving public perceptions of migrants and migration is indeed a new topic to be addressed at the up and coming Global Forum on Migration and Development and here at the JMDI we have launched a photo and a video competition to promote the positive image of migration through its contribution to development. We encourage you participate and to contribute to this blog with your thoughts or share with us your stories on how your organisation is contributing to combating the negative image of migrants and migration. Perhaps it’s true when they say that you need to see to believe, so not only do we need to harness the potential benefits of migration, let’s start painting a positive picture on what we are doing to ensure that migration really does work for development.


Joanne's article is a great one and I fully agree with it. What we have found over the past years is working together with the media is definitely possible and the right thing to do. The way we've done it is through our annual RADIO1812 event, a global radio event on the occasion of International Migrants Day. Hundreds of radio's from across the world have participated already and we are planning for this year's edition as you read this. All suggestions are welcome - just write to or to me directly. We also launched the first edition of our new audio magazine: ODYSSEIA. The next one will be released on 18th November with a focus on migrant domestic workers.

René Plaetevoet