With the rise of right-wing populism and hate speech against migrants across much of the Western world, social-media networks have in some cases provided platforms for the spread of negative views of migrants, resulting in the growth of the fear of, and lack of trust in, migrants the world over.
Migrants’ rights and freedoms have been critically affected as a result, driving countries such as France and Germany to adopt bills against online hate speech. The French parliament approved a measure designed to curb hate speech online earlier this month, for example, a provision that is part of a larger Internet regulation bill giving social-media networks a deadline of 24 hours to remove reported hate speech or face fines of up to 1.25 million euros.
Germany adopted a law in January requiring illegal material, under a definition according to the German government, to be removed from platforms within a 24-hour deadline. The German law puts the penalty at 50 million euros if the hateful content is not removed.
Against this background, on 4-5 July a workshop on “Narratives on Migration: Towards Evidence-Based Communication” was held in Rabat, Morocco, as part of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) in its 12th edition under the presidency of Morocco and Ecuador.
The workshop focused on sharing the experiences of governments and stakeholders in communicating about migration, migration policies and connections with sustainable development. It also attempted to delve into the antagonistic discourse on migration in order to change negative public perceptions.
Main questions raised at the workshop looked at factors affecting public opinion about migration, the channels of communication used by governments to shape migration speech, and the interaction of these with new and traditional media platforms.
In order to reduce anti-migration sentiments, a balanced approach on migration speech should be adopted, participants at the workshop recommended. While the media should discuss migration issues objectively, migrants’ contributions to sustainable development should be highlighted.
There are over 250 million migrants on a global scale today, the majority of whom are students and workers. There is also an increasing flow of migrants, not only to developed countries but also to poorer and emerging ones. Thousands of residents of Venezuela are now migrating to other Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Ecuador, on a daily basis, for example. Many Syrians who fled their country after 2011 have taken refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Migration between African countries has also registered a record high. In Kenya, there are some 700,000 Somalian migrants, for example. A recent Harvard University study in the US has also concluded that the figures announced by the US and some European countries about the number of migrants they host are not accurate.
Speaking at the Rabat workshop, Philippines representative Sarah Arriola, her country’s undersecretary of migrant workers’ affairs, said that even though social-media networks were often used to encourage anti-migration sentiments, they could also be a means for governments to defend migrants.
Facebook, Arriola said, was here to stay, and governments could utilise it for the good of people residing in other countries. However, developing migration policies could be a complicated process due to the key role public opinion plays, particularly when in the last few years hate speech against migrants has been on the rise, participants at the workshop said.
They said the coming years could witness governments facing multiple challenges to contain possible sources of social tensions regarding migrants.
In December 2018, the Marrakesh Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was adopted by 150 countries at a UN intercontinental conference in Marrakesh, with its guiding principle being providing “access to objective, evidence-based, and clear information about the benefits and challenges of migration, with a view to dispelling misleading narratives that generate negative perceptions of migrants.”
There is still a negative stereotyping of migrants in many parts of the world, but this is at odds with the reality that many countries are searching for workers with skills and qualifications, making it logical to call upon migrating workers.
Governments should set the tone for public discussions on migration and migrants and overcome the obstacles that may be posed by new and traditional media that have the power to form speech on migration, the participants at the Rabat workshop said.
“Traditional and social media are a powerful force in shaping migration narratives that may not always be based on facts. Social media tend to have an ‘echo chamber’ effect, whereby people receive (false) information that reinforces their existing views and beliefs and are thus prone to driving polarisation,” the workshop participants said.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Rabat are also “working towards the establishment of the African Observatory on Migration to help inform safe, orderly and regular migration policies to reflect the reality of African migration, far from stereotypes and alarmist rhetoric,” the GFMD said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Understanding migration