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On June 20th, 2022 the EPIC project hosted its last of a 4-serie webinars on migration policies and narratives. The objective was to debate and advocate for a cohesive European narrative about migration reflecting the large number of local movements around the EU to make migration policy more welcoming and tolerant.
Since EPIC is a network of local authorities and NGOs, we spoke in previous webinars about how local initiatives are fostering migrants’ integration and working to build a more inclusive narrative, for instance by implementing alternative or counter-narrative campaigns.
In this webinar, while we wanted to keep speaking about the important and very often leading role that local authorities and grassroots play in responding to crises and welcoming migrants and refugees, we also wanted to debate the role that different institutions and individuals across the different governance levels play, whether the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine may change the public perception or migration policies, and how we can ensure that in all that, the voices of migrants and refugees are put at the centre.
Marco Ricorda, political and institutional communication expert active in European and international affairs, kicked off the panel presentations with a keynote speech about migration narratives across three levels of governance and how actors operate at the different levels.
Marco started by highlighting the fact that narratives are among the most important determinants of public attitudes and behaviour – and a powerful source of (mis)perceptions. And these are shaped mainly at three levels of governance, the international, national, and local, very often disconnected among them.
At the international level, we can mainly find international organisations (IOs), operating at the intersection of nation-states, which tend to reflect their vision of how cross-border or internal mobility should be managed. Their approach to narratives includes diverse, intertwining elements, such as, for instance, a positive appreciation of migration as a natural, human, historical phenomenon; reference to universal principles (namely, human rights); and an emphasis on the benefits of migration for both host societies and migrants.
One common issue observed at this level is that narratives may stem from “communication bubbles” where like-minded, international staff working in specific neighbourhoods of certain cities hosting IOs such as Brussels or Geneva create them. However, those narratives generated by these specific groups may be detached from the realities of the majority and therefore, it is unlikely that they will reach out to a wider audience outside those “silos”.
At the national level, states and national governments are the central actors in the storytelling on migration and policy implementation. And in contrast with the praise of human rights observed by IOs, migration narratives at the national level are mainly shaped as a challenge or crisis; a response to a problem, very often framed in terms of securitisation rather than migration policies. And as we know, a number of political leaders looked to capitalise on the emotional aspect of the migration discourse to fuel anti-migrant narratives, particularly at the outset of economic crisis, an increase in inflows because of conflicts such as the war in Syria or the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, we have observed a shift of paradigm when it comes to the war in Ukraine, with basically all national governments encouraging welcoming policies. However, we need to remind, Marco said, that solidarity has limits and gaps, and that the goodwill of the people will not keep at the same levels if public services such as housing and healthcare are put under stress in the host countries.
At the local level is where we find local authorities with a unique position to contribute to reducing the gap between perceptions and reality given their proximity to the citizens. And it is certainly this level, says Marco, the one that must resonate at the international and national levels, bringing the real stories and expertise of cities and their people and croospolinating the other levels bottom-up and not the other way around.
Then, what can we do to foster a more cohesive migration narrative across the three levels? How can we break through the traditional “communication bubbles” and reach out to a wider audience? These are the takeaways from the webinar´s keynote speaker:
- More investment in thematic research specifically focused on how different levels of governance craft migration narratives and interact.
- Promote participatory fora with the aim of enhancing common understanding among the actors involved while improving multi-level governance, mainly through designing common strategic plans.
- Monitor, evaluate and revise joint efforts according to current events.
- Design campaigns that are context-specific and narrowed down to a concrete audience in a city or even neighbourhood. If you try to preach to everybody, you will reach no one.
- You may need to leave your comfort area and take some risks, for instance, do not ignore the common fears about migration of those outside the bubble but rather try to understand and address them in your message. Be ready to ask and respond to uncomfortable questions as well.
- For social media campaigning, you may want to design content that is actually reaching the profile of non-usual suspects, avoiding that only users subscribed or identified by the algorithms as interested in the content are actually watching it. Check your demographics to know who your audience is already and what “boxes” you can tick to reach others.
Anila Noor, Managing Director of New Women Connectors (NWC) offered her insights on how to enable meaningful participation of migrants and refugees in decision-making so that they can shape their own narrative.
Participation is about who has the right, resources and the space to share her/his opinion and the power to generate an impact with such opinion. Anila and her team have been working to build mechanisms and spaces to bring the voices of migrants and refugees as partners, and not just as beneficiaries of social policies. Since the 2015 crisis, many actors started to reach out to refugee and migrant-led organisations but rather than actual participation, they were merely consulted in an ad hoc basis, without follow up and the chances to get to know if there was a real impact of what they were consulted about. “Once the event is over, the mic is taking over from the migrants who were invited to present their stories as beneficiaries”, said Anila. A mechanism and structural transformation are needed to put in place real meaningful participation where open and safe spaces are involving all actors as co-partners. Where they contribute throughout the process and not only to provide feedback on an already pre-designed structured given to them. Systemic change is needed to avoid this tokenistic approach.
To achieve this in an inclusive way, vulnerable groups may also need capacity building and empowerment sessions that take into account their specific needs, for instance, the intersectionality of being a migrant woman, and not focusing only on their vulnerability, but also on their resilience. To acknowledge that involving migrants and refugees is difficult because of the language or administrative barriers is a first step to solving the problem. But to change the system, it is needed to address that issue, instead of blaming the status quo without making any effort to transform it.
NWC has proposed a framework of transformative participation which it describes as ‘an infinity model of participation, which incorporates elements of other models and that envisages the interaction of different actors (including refugees) in the context of unbalanced power relations, where there is an urgent need to hear the voices of refugees and consider their inputs meaningfully. In this way, the model also resonates with the guiding motto of the GRN: ‘Nothing about us without us’.
Francisco Ramírez, Social worker and Management Technician at the General Directorate of Social Services and Relations with the Third Sector of the Region of Murcia closed the interventions by presenting the work they have done in the EPIC “sibling” project REGIN – Regions for Migrants and Refugees Integration.
In the framework of its integration pilot action, the Region of Murcia created a Commission within the Regional Forum for Immigration (a regional body for participation and consultation), made up of a plurality of stakeholders in the field of integration. The main aim of the commission is to define the general lines for incorporating policies on the integration of third-country nationals into the regional operational programme. To set up this body, a comprehensive stakeholder mapping to engage actors from all sectors was needed. The Commission, named “Social Cohesion Commission”, met up seven times to debate and analyse the different proposals, culminating in the creation of a final document, subsequently presented, and approved at the plenary session of the Regional Forum for Immigration. Following the approval of this proposal, the General Directorate of social services worked with the General Directorate of European Programmes on incorporating and defining specific inclusion projects. Currently, the Commission has become a sustainable body beyond the REGIN project, integrated as part of the consolidated administrative structure of the region of Murcia.
The Commission has voted and worked on different priorities, such as elaborating an agreed technical document, which could serve as a basis for the definition and adjustment to the new ESF+ regulations to incorporate integration policies in the region, as well as different raising awareness actions. Among them, the region has carried out the anti-discrimination campaign “Real Reality Glasses“. The central element of the campaign was an audio-visual spot with political representatives and personalities from Murcia broadcasted on regional TV to launch a clear message against hate speech and racial prejudices. Several entities represented in the Commission collaborated in the dissemination process through their own websites and social networks. They are currently in the process of assessing its impact, and there is a clear demand to keep, as a regional administration, this type of awareness-raising actions over time.
 See Beyond consultation. Unpacking the most essential components of meaningful participation by refugee leaders. Published by Oxfam International (on behalf of GRN, EU-COMAR and NWC). ISBN 978-1-78748-877-9 in March 2022. At https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/621363/bp-beyond-consultation-participation-refugee-leaders-310322-en.pdf