Image: Vienna – demonstration held in solidarity with refugees (“Equal rights for all” (16.02-2013)

Since autumn 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees were at the borders of Europe, migration has become a topic that has since dominated the public debate.

We all know the story of migration: More and more people are leaving their home countries to live and work in other places. There are many reasons for migration: globalization, the neo-liberal economy, climate change and its consequences, internationalized wars in the countries of origin with many victims and few prospects.

The fact that suddenly so many migrants arrived at the borders of Europe presented considerable challenges for the host countries. The new situation created fears and uncertainties among the large parts of the resident population. In their comment the established media evaluated the resulting conditions as “critical”.

The “refugee crisis” has led to a debate on the essentials of the asylum and immigration policy, both in the EU and in most member states. Discontent with politicians to handle the situation quickly and efficiently led to a strengthening of national conservative political forces.

What can do the language to mitigate fears and uncertainties? How can it help to make the debate on immigrants more balanced?
Language can consolidate existing power relations, but it can also undermine them. How we talk about migrants influences the way we deal with migrants: in our private environment, in our support of civil organizations working on behalf of migrants, and also in the exercise of our constitutional rights, e.g. through the election of a parliamentary party, which we hope will best meet our own idea of an adequate approach to migrants.

Language and the Reinforcement of Fears: The Jungle of Calais”
The background:
The “Jungle of Calais” was a tent city with temporary accommodation for migrants near the French city of Calais. Thousands of migrants camped there, waiting for a chance to travel on to the UK through the Eurotunnel. The situation in “The jungle” was  unsustainable. Media reported that it was dominated by traffickers who smuggled the migrants across the Channel.

In an interview with the British news station ITV in July 2015 David Cameron, then Prime Minister (Conservative Party) told viewers that the French port of Calais was safe and secure, despite a “swarm” of migrants trying to gain access to Britain. For Lisa Doyle, then head of advocacy for the Refugee Council, the use of the word “swarm” was “dehumanizing”– migrants were not insects.

The words Cameron used were dangerous because the situation in Calais was already inflamed and full of fear: British tabloids even called for Cameron to send in the army, as if the migrants represented a foreign power preparing to invade.

Migration, Discontent and the Language of Right-wing Populist Movements
A spontaneous decision to open the borders without ifs and buts caused a lot of discontent within large parts of the resident population. That was a great moment for right-wing populist movements and parties.
Populism is a style in politics that has its own playbook. Some of its prominent features:

Populism pits ‘the people’ against ‘the establishment’.
It
suggests that the ruling elites have lost touch with the electorate and fail to pay due tribute to the voice of the people.
It
claims to represent the voice of the “people”.

Populism is based on quick fixes aimed at bringing easy solutions to appease the disaffected masses. We do not have to discuss here the solutions that for right-wing populist movements offer: They are usually shaped by concepts that in an enlightened context have long been overcome: racism, nationalism, xenophobia. On the other hand, the popularity that ring-wing populism is experiencing across Europe is argument enough to raise the question of what the democratic parties did wrong, so that populists had been able to gain such enormous popularity.

Looking Forward from a Global Perspective
Since 2017 Louise Arbour is UN Special Representative for International Migration. She looks at migrants from a global perspective. She deplored that language has poisoned the global discourse on migrants, fuelling fears instead of highlighting potential benefits.  Many industries rely on immigrants. Migrants contribute to the prosperity of their host countries said Louise Arbour. But the positive aspects are often lost amid false perceptions and stereotypes that affect national policies – with many wealthy countries focusing on security more than development, she told a conference at the Overseas Development Institute in London:

“It’s quite shocking to see how the use of language in a very invidious way has sometimes really poisoned the public debate,” said Arbour, who is leading U.N. efforts for a global agreement on safe and orderly migration. “I am tired of the word skilled immigrants which implies everybody else is unskilled. That is not true,” she told the conference, suggesting the term “global talent” could be used instead.

Former Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino said Italy needed some 150,000 more migrants a year to cope with an ageing population, declining birthrate and young people’s aversion to working in agriculture, construction and social care. “Without migrants these sectors of the economy will simply close,” she said via video link.” This is the reality but the perception is different.”

Can Rappers Help to Reshape the Migration Debate?
Many rappers who comment on the issue of migrants are themselves refugees or immigrants. They question, identify problems, raise awareness of migration, and they have a message. Example is “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” from the music video The Hamilton Mixtape (2016). Four rappers show how important immigrants are to American society.

“Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)”, aus: The Hamilton Mixtape (2016)
Video
Text

The video shows a group of immigrants listening nervously to a radio report of the US Congress advising border security and immigration reform. The moderator comments:

As the rappers recite their texts, we see these immigrants doing jobs that keep the US running: harvesting fruits, working in hospitals and even sewing American flags.

Migration Will be a Major Issue for the Future
It is undisputed that migrants will continue to come. They carry with them experiences: about climate change, poverty, the devastating consequences of wars. The question will not be whether there should be more immigrants or less, but how, in host countries, policies can be so reshaped as to give migrants a chance to realize their potential. It will be a political, legal and economic task. Nothing less is at stake than making migration more socially just in a future socially more just society.


 

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