More and more citizens of the Global North seem to believe that refugee migration has reached uncontrollable and intolerable levels. The populist refrain is that refugees are terrorists, that they are taking our jobs and hospital beds and that they migrate purely for financial benefit. Refugees among other migrants are also viewed as a threat to the sovereignty of the state and the safeguarding of national culture. The refrains are resonating ever more sharply in the public sphere.
So frantic is the fear-mongering that it often matters not whether the underlying narratives are real. Witness the recent “refugee terrorist attack in Sweden” which failed to occur.
Often missing from the dialogue is the refugee as a vulnerable individual desperate for security, toiling indefatigably to build a new life. People persecuted because they are different and disdained by others. Also missing is the reality that refugees and migrants are essential contributors to the economy, and that without them some sectors will collapse.
False beliefs about refugees serve their propagators’ political needs as they feed on the illusion of an otherwise-idyllic society where the outsider is the sole disturbance. But do these leaders actually harm their followers as they serve their own political aspirations?
Multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Western societies are experiencing anxiety and fear about their identity, security and well-being. Securitizing refugee migration (i.e., framing it as a security lens) bolsters the national identity of those who exclude the “other.” Thus, a state endangered by refugees is a convenient political construct that permits policy makers to stand out. A sense of insecurity based on migration is encouraged to buttress their roles as providers of national protection. The general anxiety masks deficiencies to tackle the root causes of large-scale migration including socio-economic inequality, negative impacts of globalization and poor foreign policy decisions.
The politicized narrative in which refugees are blamed for all evil in our society preys on ignorance, perpetuates stereotypes and fans the flames of racism. Refugee migration is increasingly seen in terms of border control, illegality and criminality. It has become a security issue, not necessarily because of its objective nature or the threat it actually presents, but because it is painted as such. The demonizing language of some politicians and media on migration as a threat to safety inevitably leads to xenophobia, polarization, and irrational protection concerns, again harming the nation one ostensibly purports to protect.
Ongoing anti-refugee rhetoric inevitably influences the public discourse. These vulnerable migrants are no longer understood as humans with painful individual stories. Rather they are lumped into a single pool and labeled as evil. In place of meaningful conversations, negative assumptions are projected and continuous stigmatization incites distrust and suspicion. Further dehumanization is perpetuated by increasingly restrictive and exclusionary policies and practices including deportation and detention.
Challenging the negative discourse on refugees may seem hopeless at times. But each of us, at an individual and local level, can at the very least eschew inflammatory terms like “criminal,” “illegal” and “threat” when discussing refugee migration. In doing so, we will allow into the discourse a range of real experiences inherent to migration. Inclusive discussions at the local level need to be promoted in order to build bridges between migrants and host populations and narrow the gap between people of different backgrounds. Personal relations across religious, cultural, ethnic and national divides can provide powerful engines for mutual acceptance and understanding.
We all descend from migrants and refugees. Viewing migration as an inexorable part of our common human experience will help us stop fearing it and will give us the confidence to debate and manage the toxic political discourse of “us vs. them.” Refugees and migrants are in fact citizens of a global, transnational community.
The public sphere is in desperate need of well-informed, inclusive and compassionate dialogue. The complex story of refugee migration can no longer be told simplistically and superficially. Political commitment is needed to promote responsible, more productive communication about refugees which sidesteps hate speech. Instead of merely exploiting the anxiety around migratory issues, the discourse must include political, economic, social and cultural benefits of well-organized migration and heterogeneous, harmonious global communities.
We must embrace that given the disparate demographic, social and economic realities characterizing global North and the global South, our societies have already become multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-lingual. Policy makers have a moral obligation to prepare their people for these realities, give them the language to describe these phenomena and help them understand the consequences of increased globalization. Instead of fearing refugee migration, let’s understand, discuss and leverage it to our collective benefit.