Thursday

30th Mar 2017

Opinion

Politicians can change people's minds on migrants

  • More inclusive integration policies help the public to trust migrants and see the benefits of immigration to society (Photo: Takver)

A poll published last week by the London-based think tank, Chatham House, found that a majority of Europeans in 10 EU countries would support a Trump-style ban on migration from mainly Muslim countries.

This is, as Chatham House said,“sobering news” and should serve as a massive wake-up call to policymakers in Brussels and across Europe who, in the wake of the rise of so-called far-right populist parties, have failed to speak out in support of refugees and migrants and instead pandered to the fear-mongering of far-right politicians.

It is indeed this increasing refusal by centrist politicians to stand up and explain the facts to their citizens that is leading, at least in part, to such polling results.

A survey carried out last year by the European Social Survey in 21 European countries found that negative attitudes towards migrants do not appear to be linked with net migration rates, but rather “the most preferred [migrants] were people from the same race or ethnic group as the majority”.

Hence, “Jewish people are much more welcome than Muslims, who in turn are more welcome than Roma” without any specific basis in people’s experiences or the country’s context.

However, such attitudes do not have to be accepted as status quo because policies and politicians can substantially affect them.

Inclusive integration

Numerous studies using our Migrant Integration Policy Index (Mipex) show that more inclusive integration policies help the public to trust migrants and see the benefits of immigration to society.

People living in countries with ambitious and inclusive integration policies are much more likely to believe that their country is right to give immigrants the same rights as national citizens.

Canada, the Nordic countries and Portugal, for instance, are good examples of this.

In contrast, where integration policies are under developed, even in countries with small numbers of migrants, high levels of anti-migrant sentiment are often found and restrictive policies likely to only reinforce public distrust and xenophobia.

Worryingly, Mipex research also shows that once the far-right starts to achieve success in elections, centrist politicians reshape their rhetoric and integration policies to please that part of the electorate.

This, in turn, has the effect of essentially legitimising the far-right’s fear-mongering and helps to spread anti-immigrant attitudes.

Politicians have a duty to their citizens to inform them about the facts on migration and not let them ride their own wave of hearsay and fear.

To stop this increase of hate and unfounded fear, policymakers from both the left and right of the political spectrum need to find the will to stand up and tell the truth.

Similar to the US

Several studies show that citizens across Europe grossly over-estimate the number of immigrants and Muslims in their country, leading to negative attitudes that appear to have no link with net migration rates.

Importantly, research also shows that correcting these numbers and misperceptions improves public attitudes towards migrants.

Unfortunately though, as a forthcoming report by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) will highlight, politicians have generally taken the opposite approach since 9/11.

We are all responsible for stopping this negative discourse, but as the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has insisted, politicians in particular have a responsibility to win the integration debate, helping the public “to understand the migrants and changes around them and to build trust and relationships with newcomers and different cultural communities”.

Politicians should therefore be focusing on showing that more inclusive and effective integration policies can benefit everyone in society rather than finding ways to essentially close Europe’s borders.

Michele LeVoy, Director of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) under-lines that what is happening in the US is not too dissimilar to the situation in the EU where “our protections and rights are [also] being ebbed away in order to appear tough on migration. Public, media, and judicial oversight are now critical if we here in Europe are to avoid similar failures".

Politicians, you have been warned.

Thomas Huddleston is programme director at Migration Policy Group, an NGO in Brussels

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