Tuesday

22nd Jan 2019

Opinion

Migration and May elections - time to get facts right

  • The ease with which far-right movements are able to produce questionable "data" on current migration trends is striking (Photo: Alessandro Rota/Oxfam)

Migration will be one of the most prominent, divisive and potentially decisive topics in the forthcoming European elections.

The integrity and accuracy, or otherwise, of the debates that will be held during the forthcoming campaign will be critical.

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They could potentially tilt the balance in favour of a drastic increase in the European Parliament representation of far-right and populist parties.

Yet, if the past few months are anything to go by, misinformation and misconceptions are likely to dominate any such debates.

The turmoil that has preceded the adoption of the UN Global Compact for Migration in December 2018 in Marrakech has probably set the tone for what is to come during the EP elections.

While the compact is a non-binding and largely aspirational document outlining a set of principles for future international cooperation in the field of migration, misunderstandings about the possible implications of such an agreement have abounded throughout 2018.

In particular, suggestions that the compact would open the door to millions of new migrants in all major host nations, or that migration would now be formally classified as a "human right", have flooded the social media with increased animosity as adoption of the compact was drawing close.

Conspiracy theories

These developments are indicative of two ongoing trends: first, the growing determination of populist movements and conspiracy theorists (including, in recent weeks, within the 'yellow vest' movement in France) to use migration as a core theme in their potentially ill-intentioned agenda; second, and as importantly, the relative illiteracy of mainstream political parties and public opinion at large regarding key migration facts.

The ease with which far-right and populist movements are able to produce questionable "data" and "evidence" on current migration trends during electoral debates in most member states, and the frequent unpreparedness of mainstream parties and commentators to participate in such debates with irrefutable facts and convincing arguments, are often striking.

What this suggests is that, while adequately produced by a range of EU and UN bodies, migration data is still insufficiently disseminated and made easily functional within relevant political spheres and civil society.

This is in addition to the fact that while a growing number of UN and EU official documents stress the need to optimise the "benefits" of selective migration, these are rarely described in any comprehensive and convincing manner (except perhaps than by quoting existing evidence showing that migrants are net tax contributors or that, in some cases, they "take on jobs that natives do not want").

Ahead of the potentially game-changing EP elections, there is now a pressing need for systematic analysis and dissemination of the exact benefits and possible negatives of migration in key areas of the EU's national economies and societies.

This should also include some counterfactuals highlighting the effects of the lack of any future immigration in a range of key sectors of activity (including health, education and research, construction and agriculture) in major member states, particularly in those, such as the Visegrad Group, Austria and Italy, that have been most vocal in advancing their anti-immigration agenda.

Clearly, such analysis should also examine, particularly in response to arguments put forward by far-right and populist parties, the possible negatives of migration, including in terms of security, public social expenditure and employment.

Migration to the EU has declined drastically in recent times.

Less migration, more panic

As a report by Frontex published on 4 January has highlighted, irregular migration has decreased by 90 percent from the height of the migrant crisis in 2015 and by roughly 25 percent from 2017.

Yet, the impression conveyed is that the more migration declines the more it is able to advance to the top of the EU election agenda.

If misinformation in the field of migration can bring a government down, as in the recent case of Belgium following the country's adoption of the UN pact, then it can no doubt produce a populist majority in the European parliament.

The Belgian government fell because of a set of largely fallacious but cleverly-packaged arguments.

The European parliament can gain a populist majority building on the same dynamics.

Permanent remedies to the above developments are yet to be identified.

However, few would dispute that irrefutable and adequately disseminated facts, rather than raw, humanistic statements, could have the potential to correct the often toxic popular beliefs and growing urban myths in the field of migration.

While indisputable and easily-accessible facts might not produce any effect on the most ill-intentioned political parties and commentators, they could at least contribute to better equipping mainstream parties ahead of the EP elections and to enlightening the genuinely ill-informed segments of civil society.

Solon Ardittis is managing director of Eurasylum, a research fellow at the Institute of Labor Economics (IZA) and the Global Labor Organization (GLO), and co-editor of Migration Policy Practice.

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