Five Ways to Reframe the Migration Debate

Refugees at a borderMigration
Ostkreuz

The debate on migration is dominated by alarmist headlines and polls, and those hostile to migration are the most outspoken. This skews the debate and results in a perception of public opinion as negatively disposed towards migration. In turn, this provides fuel to populist politics and has resulted in regressive policy-making on migration. Kristina Kazmi knows how to reframe the debate.

Counterpoint’s research has repeatedly shown that values such as inclusion, openness and tolerance are more deeply embedded in our societies than these headlines suggest. Public opinion is more nuanced, varied and fluid. This provides an opening for progressives to rebalance the debate about migration and correct the prevailing misconceptions.

Frames are not merely about surface communication. They are mental constructs through which we understand the world and filter information. They usually operate at a subconscious level and are inextricably connected to our underlying values: depending on our frames, we interpret messages in different ways. Words activate certain frames and thereby trigger deeply embedded feelings.

Bearing this in mind, here are five practical ways to reframe the migration issue and take the sting out of the populist tail. These range from basic communication advice to the creation of overarching narratives.

1. Avoid water imagery!

Have you ever caught yourself speaking about an influx of migrants? How about a wave of immigration? The media will often tell us that we are inundated by migrants, streaming and pouring into Europe. Our borders are being breached as the flood and surge of migrants bursts through.

Even people making the case for migration will inadvertently find themselves using this language, as it is so heavily ingrained in our discourse on the topic.

But water imagery triggers feelings of panic and defensiveness. When a person is facing a flood or a massive wave of water, they will feel a lack of control and fear. The only way to protect oneself is to construct a barrier. In other words, using water metaphors activates a frame of insecurity or anxiety, which can only be mitigated by a defensive mechanism.

 

"People cannot flow or pour. Migrants are human beings who move and travel."
Kristina Kazmi

Water imagery also contributes to the dehumanization of migrants. People cannot flow or pour. Migrants are human beings who move and travel – we must take care to speak of them in this way. Of course, this does not just apply to water imagery. When speaking of migration, people often use terms associated with disease (containment/contagion), war (invasion) and animals (swarm/stampede). These terms are dehumanizing and must be avoided.

Migration
Newspaper in Britain covering the topic of migration by using water imagery, June 2015.

2. Do not strengthen populist frames by repeating them

George Lakoff, a leading researcher on the power of frames, wrote a book entitled “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” to demonstrate the strong effect of negating frames. If you are called upon not to think of something, then you will certainly think of it, thereby activating the relevant frame.

So, a politician that stands “against the politics of division and fear” to make the case for progressive migration policy is, at a deep level, reinforcing the link between migration and division or fear. It is more fruitful for this politician to tell the public what positive values she stands for.

BMW Foundation European Table

Kristina Kazmi took part in the European Table organized by the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, where participants explored migration not as a security threat but as an opportunity for economic and cultural prosperity. 

The European Tables, a series of dialogue events, are part of a program cycle entitled “Refocusing Europe,” which the Foundation launched in 2017. The series aims to present and discuss new concepts and initiatives addressing the enormous challenges that Europe is facing. It will conclude with the Munich European Forum in October 2018.

Proponents of migration policy also often speak of the need to share the burden or the urgency of taking people in to avoid a catastrophe. These expressions subtly suggest that migration is, as the populists claim, a burden and a catastrophe.

Negating populist frames involves repeating them, which serves to strengthen them. Avoid doing this and instead create and confirm positive frames, for example around migration as a social opportunity.

"Create and confirm positive frames, for example around migration as a social opportunity."

Kristina Kazmi

3. Normalize migration

In order to evoke compassion, many organisations profile migrants who have successfully integrated into their host society. When conveyed well, such story-telling can contribute to the humanisation of migrants and create connections between this person and the audience, who may relate to a shared interest or struggle.

"The repeated focus on the fact that someone is a migrant can backfire."
Kristina Kazmi

But the repeated focus on the fact that someone is a migrant can backfire. It makes migration seem like something wholly out of the ordinary, and even worse, a person’s identity is reduced to their being a migrant. It is more productive to focus on the person as a whole: perhaps they are also a parent, or they like to cook, or maybe they are an electrician.

A compelling example of this is the Danish TV2 advert, All That We Share. It creates connections among a diverse group of people based on shared experiences and characteristics, forging a true sense of community. The fact that someone is a migrant is just one of many relevant identities. It is merely a normal part of the complex human experience.

Citizens
The fact that someone is a migrant is just one of many relevant identities. Mauro Mora

4. Reclaim your values from the populists

Populists have colonised several deep-seated values in their discourse, including equality, sovereignty, security and national identity. They have successfully set up migration as the enemy of these values: migrants steal our jobs and drive down wages (inequality), migrants come in illegally (lack of sovereignty), migrants dilute our culture (national identity), migrants commit crimes (insecurity).

Progressives must make considered but forceful attempts to reclaim these values. For example, national identity could be framed in a way that celebrates an outward focus and a long history of welcoming migrants, who have helped build the country and make it successful and prosperous. As such, migration is part of a rich tradition, one to be proud of. Concepts such as patriotism can be reclaimed by those who favor an open, tolerant and outward-looking nation. What could be more patriotic than wanting others to come to your country and make it an even better place to live?

"Concepts such as patriotism can be reclaimed by those who favor an open, tolerant and outward-looking nation."
Kristina Kazmi
Patriot
What could be more patriotic than wanting others to come to your country and make it an even better place to live?

5.Create a shared purpose in building a better future

Proponents of migration often speak of a responsibility or duty towards refugees or migrants, but this tends to make people feel like victims of an imposition and can give rise to resentment and hostility. Rather, people want to make a choice, have a sense of agency and contribute to something greater than themselves.

Our research has found that it is much more fruitful to use language and evoke frames that speak to a sense of community and a shared purpose. For example, the terms solidarity or commitment trigger feelings of interconnectedness, belonging and pride. A focus on the community tends to inspire people towards cooperation and providing support.

Finding the right frames requires thoughtfulness and a deep understanding of the hidden wiring that shapes how people think. But the rewards are worth it: an open society will not respond to populist talk of floods of migrants that need to be stopped by a wall.

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