Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
The third Migrant Voice conference has been an amazing experience. We spent two days debating and discussing ways to shape the debate about migrants from their point of view and that of non-migrants. For me, it has been a new experience and one that has promoted much thinking and new ideas to develop. Among the issues that were raised, what made me reflect most was the widely shared desire to promote a “positive” image of the “migrants”. But who are the migrants? And is it right to call them so? Is someone always a migrant, or should I, as an Italian student who left Italy to study, and who now can’t easily go back there to work, consider myself a migrant now? And what does it mean to promote a “positive” image of the people who leave their countries of origin to settle in Great Britain? How can we go in depth in understanding how to get to the people that do not think migrants are a resource and to be welcomed, and make them change their ideas?
We spoke about this in the final workshop during the second day. We discussed the strategy for shaping future debate, evaluating the impact of “positive” versus “negative” stories about immigrants, and we pondered about the necessity to have a vision versus the necessity to be realistic in our planning. Examples were discussed by our group that concerned stories of successful immigrants, or immigrants who had become an important and valued part of the host community. There was general agreement on the fact that these kinds of “good” stories should be promoted more efficiently in the debate, in order to shape a “positive” image of migrants.
The issue I raised during this workshop concerned the words “positive” and “good story”, and the consequences of promoting stories with a “human angle”. My contribution was based on two initial thoughts. The first day I had heard David Goodhart (director of the think tank Demos and author of the debated “The British Dream”) speaking about immigration, illustrating his view about the meaning of British identity and the historical “naturality” of the fear of the stranger. His vision, which has been contested, made me think of the fact that the vision shared by many people who oppose integration and extension of rights to migrants is largely based on an image of the stranger as someone who is going to take something from them, i.e. the right to security, to work, to have a house, to be helped when necessary through benefits etc. Therefore the migrant is seen as someone that is dangerous because her/his presence in the country can promote a loss of status of the natives, and the latter think of their identity as tied to the possibility of accessing these rights in a privileged manner.
My second thought was about the widely discussed necessity of sharing more “good” stories about migrants, truthful accounts of the facts surrounding migrants’ stories and of their contribution to the ‘host community’, which could show that, in reality, this concern of migrants was ill-based and irrational. I brought to the group my concern about this idea that I thought could still in reality be a very much defensive one. In simply bringing “positive” stories to counteract discourses based on fear of the migrant, one would simply, and again, respond to these discourses, reinforcing them indirectly, instead of activating innovative views and reshaping the debate along new lines. Explanations based on fear would still be unchallenged, but simply responded to. In addition, this kind of story could not prevent the opposite side from raising its usual arguments as a response, maybe recurring to a biased reading of statistics as support to circulate to the wider lay audience that lacks factual knowledge about immigrations (I am thinking here, for example, to data about access to health service, benefits, or crime, outside of their context and used without sufficient critical analysis). Finally, focussing too much on “good” stories makes it more difficult to explain the potential exceptionality of the situation that the migrants often experience in their lives, and how it is this, instead of their being foreigners, which could explain differences or tendencies in their experiences.
Much easier to deal with, for me, was the second main idea that circulated through the workshop. In reality, an alternative debate to promote the migrants’ situation should point to offer images of what living as a migrant is like, through a “human” angle. That could trigger some understanding of the migrants’ experience among the citizens who support limitations to their rights, because coverage of “human” details could more easily be associated to our human status: i. e. the feelings, roles and relationships of the British people in their private lives (for example: a story about a migrant mother separated from her children is a story about motherhood that can more easily promote empathy by a British mother).
However, the “human” angle may balance the debate about this contested theme in a biased way. A “human” focused story can circulate on its own, and it can be used in place of providing the immigrants’ explanation of the problems described. Any “human” story focuses especially on the personal experience of migrants, their individual challenges and problems as told by an interviewer or a journalist, and it does not automatically entail providing new explanations for the reasons for which these challenges are experienced. These would require that these stories are constantly accompanied by a good analysis, but this is not always the case once these stories circulate through the variety of media outlets available. This is why a focus on “human” stories in relation to the migrant’s experience could promote an understanding of the migrant as a victim or as a poor person, but it does not automatically challenge existent beliefs about migrants, nor they do trigger an alternative analysis of the reality that British themselves experience.
As a consequence, promoting “human” and “positive” stories cannot be detached from another element: stressing commonalities between the experiences of migrants and those of British people. This was the challenge that Professor Bridget Anderson launched in her engaging response to the ‘Immigration Question Time’ debate during the first day of the conference. This became one of the most important points for the workshop’s discussion of the second day, when we also spoke of the problems we all experience in our lives. Our discussion quickly showed that the usual division “us” and “them” was useless to fully understand these problems and discuss their solution (while it was only useful for defending established privileged rights for British people). Focusing on common experiences issues, like our jobs, our families, our experiences of studying in UK, etc. may be a powerful way to shake the debate and innovate it, it would allow for focusing the debate on new options and choices that people have the right to but cannot easily think of, because it brings migrants and groups of British citizens onto the same level. During the first day, another, specific option to promote a focus on “commonalities” was provided by Professor Bridget Anderson, who proposed to share and spread migrants’ knowledge on issues that concerns Brits, like for example their first-hand knowledge about access to specific services provided by the welfare institutions.
In particular, I think that stressing commonalities could help opening the way for a debate about actors and factors that actually occur due to the lack of security that many people experience today. While it can be relatively easy for a British person that is not preoccupied with her/his monthly income to share progressive views about migrants, the real challenge for the debate remains that of convincing British people that strongly feel the uncertainty of the economic times we are living in, and that tend to be influenced by media and politicians and thus blame migrants for their problems. In this case, positive and human stories could have limited effects, but stressing commonalities could provide alternative explanations and different attitudes. As Barbara Samaluk wrote, “scaremongering immigration debate thus acts as a screen discourse which is effectively putting attention away from real problems”. Through commonalities citizens may be able to develop a more critical approach in front of the uncertainty and fear they experience after the loss of a secure economic income (that in the extreme has enormously raised suicide numbers in Italy and Greece over the last months, but that also increases racist attacks). The common factors affecting both their and the migrants’ situation, alongside the instrumental use that media and politicians make of the debate about migrants (highlighted by Jason Bergen in his post “When Rhetoric becomes policy”), can become clearer to them.
In this sense, it may be useful to give full voice also to our common concerns and fears, so that the debate can shift towards ways of working together to solve the problems that trigger these. This would go hand in hand with a new language that expands the concept of “migrants” to include in it any individual moving to a new place, and that substitutes current categories with words like “neighbours”, “students”, “workers” “colleagues”, “women”, “children”, “families”, etc. This means letting voices in society participate in establishing a new vision of identity which goes beyond nationalism, and which is built on shared problems, experiences and solutions. This new identity fully matches a society where opportunities, options and choices can be enhanced, both for British citizens and migrants, by the experience that migrants bring in.
I strongly agree with the passion shown by Rita Chadha during the plenary of the first day, when she exclaimed that we have lost the empathy, and that we have been afraid to put forward an alternative and we have focused too much on the statistics, which are often misunderstood and easy to twist in the mainstream political debate, to defend the migrants. Only the passion and the human connection can promote images that allow British people to see themselves in the other, in order to find common solutions for common problems, against a biased debate that hides the general attack on people’s rights.