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Moving beyond the 'crisis': Recommendations for the European Commission's communication on migration

Katharina Bamberg

Date: 09/12/2019
The year 2015 marked the arrival of an unprecedented number of migrants and refugees in the EU. Soon politicians, policymakers and the press dubbed these events a ‘migration crisis’, and it quickly rose to the top of the political agenda. 

The European Commission had – and still has – a significant role to play in how the ‘migration crisis’ narrative came about. In its communications, it tended to highlight two factors: the numbers, and the uncontrolled nature of arrivals. In the past five years, it developed from a rather unstructured use of several words and phrases to a coherent story about the ‘crisis’ as a stand-alone and historically unprecedented phenomenon. 

In this Discussion Paper, however, Katharina Bamberg counters that the Commission’s use of the crisis narrative has not been accurate; neither as a fateful description of what was happening nor as a way to address citizens’ concerns. Instead, it served to frame migration as a security issue and legitimised restrictive policy measures, such as ramped-up border controls and increased cooperation with third countries to curb migration. 

More problematic, however, is that this narrative has contributed to an environment wherein right-wing populists are given ample room to spread their message. In many member states, they saw their chance to capitalise on voters’ concerns and used the situation as a tool to stir up fear and distrust. Mainstream politicians have subsequently also adopted a sterner discourse on migration, in the hope to appeal to voters who favour more restrictive measures. 

To counter these dynamics, Bamberg argues that the Commission has to abandon the crisis narrative and instead develop a more proactive and diversified communication strategy, which should include the following elements:

  • Consider issue salience: be aware of the impact of frequently communicating about migration on public opinion, political decision-making and on the rising influence of anti-immigration forces.
  • Employ different frames: abandon narratives that present refugees and migrants, and in particular their numbers, as an issue that can only be addressed exclusively in the framework of crisis management and security.
  • Rely on storytelling: find a healthier balance between hard data and human stories.
  • Target audience groups: focus on the so-called movable middle, which seems to be more open to positive messages about migration than previously assumed.
  • Deliver messages in a more relatable and digestible way: put a greater focus on making the style and tone of your communications more relatable, for instance by clarifying the impact of policies on individuals’ lives.
  • Put migration issues in the right context: stop linking migration issues to unrelated problems in other policy areas.

Read the full paper here
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