Restrictive migration policies and the role of the media: the impact on undocumented migrants

6 December 2011

“Immigration remains high on the political agenda at both EU and national level, bringing with it opportunities in both economic and human terms,” said Diane Schmitt, head of unit for immigration and integration at the European Commission.

“Some sectors are beset by labour shortages and skilled people are hard to find. Reducing unemployment among people who are already here – and particularly among EU nationals – must be the top priority, but migration is also part of the labour shortage solution,” Schmitt insisted.

“Media coverage of the issue is often simplistic and alarmist, so there’s a need for accurate reporting,” she said.

Many migrants to Europe are vulnerable – they are often at their employers’ mercy, for example. Existing measures aimed at tackling irregular migration – like the Employer Sanctions Directive and the Returns Directive – can benefit migrants by combating xenophobia, Schmitt said.

Consolidating the rights of migrants and discouraging employers from hiring irregular people would help to discourage irregular migration in the first place, she added.

“The crisis means that the current climate in the EU is not in favour of migration in general,” said Hungarian Socialist MEP Kinga Göncz.

“The media plays on fears of migration but also sheds light on the human aspect,” she added.

“I’m depressed by the issue. We can’t have an unlimited free-for-all, but we’re being thoroughly dishonest in this debate. Europe is shooting itself in the foot,” said UK Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim.

“Extremist views are being fed by policymakers’ lack of backbone, leading to the rise of the far right,” Karim lamented.

“Europe’s population is ageing and we need labour migration. Without proper rules in place, we’ll see rising illegal migration, because the economic demand for migrants is there,” Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini, a member of the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament.

Migration to Europe is likely to increase in future, and improving the image of migrants will be essential if integration policies are to succeed, said Anke Schuster, project development and liaison officer in the Brussels office of the International Organisation for Migration.

“Ethnically-diverse societies tend to be the best economic performers. So why such negative views of migration? Because we’re seeing misinformation and growing visibility of migrants as the phenomenon increases,” Schuster explained.

“There’s a lot of good English-language journalism about migration out there. The problem is that’s just one side of the spectrum. Then there’s the UK tabloid press, which is almost a satire. It’s just made-up xenophobia,” said Don Flynn of the Migrant Rights Network and the European Network against Racism.

“Being an immigrant isn’t a crime. A crime is transgressing regulations. That’s the problem: the term is often associated with crime or even hardcore criminal activity. Actually, so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ are actually society’s most law-abiding, because they’ve got the most to lose from contact with the authorities,” he added.

“The media is a tool. Work with the media in a professional manner. You need quality people from civil society to work with the media, otherwise they will use us. Identify partners and compromise if you must, but choose who you work with,” advised Mbela Nzuzi, a TV journalist and a representative of the Refugee Women’s Organisation in Romania

Educate the public about the terms used in the debate. “But don’t change your terms according to your audience. That’s confusing,” Nzuzi added.

Bruno Waterfield, the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, said it was acceptable for journalists to use the term ‘illegal immigrant’ because it reflected the reality of their lives: their existence in their country of residence had been made illegal and so they were treated as such.

“Don’t blame the media for the discourse of populist politicians. It’s their duty to report what’s being said. That content isn’t the journalists’ fault,” said Marc Janssen, president of the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (Belgium).

All attempts by governments to criminalise ‘irregular migrant’ status must be rejected, argued Antonio Vitorino, a former European commissioner for justice and home affairs.

“The first job for NGOs should be to clarify the reality. Most EU citizens have the wrong idea about how many migrants there are in their country. They think there are far more than there really are,” Vitorino said.

He urged activists to distinguish between legal and illegal migrants: a distinction which citizens themselves did not always make. “Migrants keep on arriving but they keep finding jobs too,” he said.

“The crisis has had a negative impact on public opinion towards migration,” Vitorino said, urging activists to dismantle inaccurate arguments against migration, including the notions that migrants are “benefit tourists” and take jobs that otherwise would have gone to native citizens.