The migrant crisis has brought much dissatisfaction amongst European citizens, and political pressures on their governments. As the EU struggles to handle the migrant crisis, Western and European media, as well as public discourse, are locked in a dead end between competing narratives of whether the migrants are guilty of the EU’s current detriment.
For many months now, not a day went by without mentioning the “European migrant crisis”. This is misleading for two reasons: it implies that migration is a crisis and it’s a new threat to societies. In fact, humans have migrated for as long as they have existed, and with evidence of very positive consequences. Additionally, only a fraction of the “crisis” is “European” since developing countries continue to host more than 80 % of all refugees.
There are at least three different camps within the migration crisis debate. On one side, all countries in Europe have seen a growth in groups advocating for a stop to immigration out of fear for their jobs and culture. Their image of an immigrant/asylum seeker/refugee/foreigner is that of an evil intruder, coming to their home with the sole purpose of destroying what they know and love.
Opposing them is a group of NGOs, volunteers and individuals who fervently campaign for compassion with the new arrivals. These dedicated people give to charities, volunteer in camps and share calls to action for donations and petitions. In many of their statements, migrants are presented as desperate and in need of help.
The third strand of discourse is certainly less prominent: an academic discussion of the consequences and opportunities of large-scale migration. They mostly point towards the statistical correlation of immigration and GDP-growth as well as job creation. They showed that if migrants are allowed to work, they fill important niches in the local economy and pay more taxes than they receive in benefits. Based on this logic, academics see migrants as economically beneficial to their host countries in the long run.
New arrivals in Europe themselves are a voice in this debate only in so far as those three dominant groups let them step forward. The second strand of discourse frequently employs “stories of refugees” to underline their point that these are innocent human beings whom we should welcome. The anti-immigration groups hardly engage with them at all. This debate has no independent room for them to express views not coloured by either of these discourses.
I am perfectly aware that this taxonomy is a simplification of the European migrant crisis discourse. However, my point is precisely that the discussion suffers from gross simplifications. I ask the readers, do you fit into any of these categories? Or, do any of these categories trouble you? Could it be that large groups of humans simply do not fit into such neat boxes?
My point is that the three strands of discourse have locked themselves into mutually exclusive conceptions of “refugees”, “migration” and how we should deal with the perceived problem, to the extent that all of them find themselves at a dead. The anti-immigration bands insist on strictly limiting or stopping migration, the pro-immigration groups will not accept anything short of open borders, and the academics are eager to prove their numbers right. All of these promoted policies are based on a simplified and distorted construction of the individuals coming to Europe, as well as of the options available to decision-makers. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
To get to the truth in the middle, the three debates would have to engage more seriously with one another, share ideas and concerns and strip them of their populist, emotionally-laden or outright false parts. There is a tendency, notably among the first two groups, to simply reject the other side’s ideas as bigotry. This sort of debate will not lead to good solutions at a policy level, thus to more misery for the asylum seekers in question, to polarisation and mutual attacks. It is time to turn around at the dead end, walk back to the facts and start an honest deliberation of how to find a balanced approach to the European migrant crisis.