Moving beyond the ‘crisis’: Recommendations for the European Commission’s communication on migration

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The year 2015 marked the arrival of an unprecedented number of migrants and refugees in the EU. Soon politicians, policymakers and the press dubbed these events a ‘migration crisis’. With the steep increase in public attention putting migration at the very top of the political agenda, right-wing populist parties saw their chance to capitalise on voters’ concerns in a vast majority of EU member states.

It also led to migration becoming an even more ‘emotional’ topic that is not easily communicated yet strongly resonates with audiences across the continent. The European Commission, as the institution responsible for proposing policies to tackle the ‘crisis’ and for communicating them to the public, is of special significance in this context. Its role in contributing to and reinforcing the ‘migration crisis’ narrative through its communications should therefore be subject to scrutiny. It is clear that the Commission has strategically applied the crisis narrative over the course of the past five years, as it developed from a rather unstructured use of several words and phrases, to a coherent story about the ‘crisis’ as a stand-alone and historically unprecedented phenomenon. In response to the ‘crisis’, the Commission’s approach gradually morphed from a humanitarian framing (2015-16) into one focused on border management (circa 2017) and cooperation with third countries to manage migration (2018 onwards). In 2019 the Commission declared the ‘crisis’ to be over.

The Commission communicated about the so-called crisis, including its supposed end, on the basis of two factors: (i) numbers and (ii) the uncontrolled nature of arrivals. However, this Discussion Paper argues that, overall, the Commission’s use of the crisis narrative has not been accurate, neither as a description of past phenomena nor as way to address citizens’ concerns. Rather, it served the purpose of framing migration as a security issue and legitimised restrictive policy measures meant to ‘tackle the crisis’. These included, for instance, ramped up border controls or increased cooperation with third countries to curb migration.
More specifically, the Commission’s continued reliance on and application of this narrative is flawed for three reasons:

  • first, it does not take into account the far larger numbers of refugees hosted in third countries and other ongoing humanitarian crises, which in comparison, did not receive the same amount of attention;
  • second, conceptualising the ‘crisis’ in terms of numbers misses the mark in addressing citizens’ main concerns about migration;
  • third, this narrative ignores the fact that a significant part of the ‘crisis’ is related to the mismanaged policy responses, rather than the number or nature of arrivals.

More problematic, however, is that this narrative has contributed to an environment wherein right-wing populists are given ample room to spread their message. They have been able to legitimise control-oriented measures as a way to tackle the ‘crisis’. Mainstream politicians have also increasingly adopted a security-oriented discourse on migration, in the hope of appealing to voters in favour of more restrictive measures.

This Paper puts forward a number of recommendations to counter these dynamics and create a more forward-looking narrative on migration. It argues that the Commission should abandon the crisis narrative and develop a more proactive and diversified communication strategy instead, which would include the following elements:

  • Issue salience: The Commission should be aware of the impact of frequently communicating about migration on public opinion, political decision-making and the rising influence of anti-immigration forces. This awareness, however, should not stop the Commission from communicating all together. Clearly, not communicating about migration is not a viable option and could actually play into the hands of right-wing populist forces that have no qualms about using the subject as a tool to stir fear and distrust. Rather than the frequency, it is the tone and content of communication on migration that should be adjusted.
  • More diverse frames: It is important to abandon narratives that present refugees and migrants, and in particular their numbers, as an issue that needs to be addressed in the framework of crisis management. This discourse can easily be co-opted by right-wing populist actors and used to blame the EU for not doing enough. To adequately pre-empt these dynamics, the Commission should diversify the frames it uses when communicating about migration. Instead of employing a security frame by default, a greater range of frames that draw on economic or humanitarian aspects and are adaptable to different contexts and situations would lead to a more balanced discussion on migration.
  • Storytelling: Communication about migration should find a healthier balance between data and stories. Personal testimonies and storytelling are very effective in raising an audience’s empathy levels and giving a face to complex processes. Conversely, numbers and statistics are more difficult to convey to an audience and can complicate direct communication as they almost always require further explanation. However, evidence and facts should remain the foundation of all EU communications on migration.
  • Targeting of audience groups: The Commission should gain a better understanding of the diverse audiences in EU member states and shape its communications to better target them. In this respect, it is helpful to take note of research that has studied audiences at the national level and to differentiate between society groups that are specific to EU member states. With respect to audience segmentation, it is important to focus more on the so-called movable middle, which seems to be more open to positive messages about migration than previously assumed. At the same time, other audience segments must not be ignored. It is important for the content of the Commission’s messages to be consistent and coherent throughout. However, the delivery could still be tailored by taking into account the values of the targeted audience group.
  • More relatable and digestible messages: The Commission should put a greater focus on making the style and tone of its communications more relatable, for instance by clarifying the impact of its policies on individuals’ lives. In addition, messages on migration should be presented in a more digestible manner. This could be done, for instance, by empowering Commission staff to become ‘ambassadors’ who communicate directly to their national audiences, both online and offline. Moreover, translating all communications into the EU’s official 24 languages is key in building a better rapport with citizens.
  • Migration issues correctly contextualised: Often, migration issues are wrongly linked to particular problems that would find a more accurate answer in other policy areas, such as labour market reforms. The Commission should take this into account to avoid migration being used as a scapegoat for other issues.