How Do We Change the Debate on Migration and Diversity?


When we see politicians on the TV or read the front pages, it's often difficult not to think the world is becoming increasingly divided. The impacts of economic insecurity, the refugee crisis, climate change and terrorism are on our screens every day, and we see more and more blame for these global challenges attributed to social groups perceived as different, in particular, migrants. Hostile narratives have become the norm, and this just doesn't fly with us!

Last month we launched our One Sweet World campaign across Europe, which aims to bring people together at a time of increasing division and contribute towards creating a new public narrative that promotes unity and compassion.

As part of the campaign we really wanted to understand why this 'hostile narrative' is so prominent in what we see and hear, and what organisations are doing to counter it. So we asked our friends at Coventry University's Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) to delve into these questions around Europe. Here's what they found! 

Attitudes to Migrants

Attitudes to migrants are, in reality, much more complex than just whether people are 'pro' or 'anti' immigration. There is an almost equal split between those who see migration as a threat and those who believe that it brings economic, social and cultural benefits, which about a quarter of the population in each camp. Everyone else sits somewhere in the 'anxious middle', who are not overly hostile towards migrants themselves, but do have concerns around social, economic or cultural change.


The report suggests that migration is a 'touchstone' issue that taps into people's deepest fears and anxieties.' In other words, an issue that sparks feelings about many other issues.

Fears and anxieties about migration and diversity seem to reflect, and feed off, a range of issues that have little or nothing to do with migration itself. From unemployment and precarious job roles, to poor housing and threats from numerous and often ill-defined enemies


So, if only a quarter of the population sees migration as a threat, how can it be that it's often the main message we hear?

Narratives Matter

The messages that our politicians and media use really do matter. Not only do they set the boundaries of what's acceptable to talk about and how it is acceptable to act, they also influence who does and doesn't have a voice - some voices are able to shout loud, but others go unheard.

Economic insecurity, the refugee crisis, climate change and terrorism can make the world feel like an insecure place, and migration has often been pointed to as a key issue in addressing these insecurities, whether it's reducing pressure on public services, the labour market, or countering terrorism.

Rather than reassure their populations, many European politicians from across the spectrum have increasingly emphasised or reinforced anti-immigrant views to secure political support:

  • By linking migration with economic concerns and positioning migrants and citizens as being in competition with one another. This is often linked with a sense of being 'left behind' by the country's political and economic elites.
  • By talking about migration - and migrants - in terms of cultural difference and the threat posed by diversity. This has been associated with calls for certain groups - most notably Muslims - to be observed, controlled and, at times, removed from society as seen in the debate on the 'Burkini' and images of Muslim women being forced to undress on French beaches.

The report suggests that negative political and media debates on migration and diversity undermine the integration of those who are newly arrived, but also do far more than that. They also threaten relationships within and between long-established communities, undermining a common sense of identity and solidarity.

What Does It Mean and What Needs to Change?

The report notes that hostile narratives aren't inevitable, and in some countries where the dominant narrative has been more positive, it has impacted positively on the way people view and interact with those from different backgrounds.

"In Germany and Sweden for example, political leaders have challenges the voices of populists and scaremongers and created political counter-narratives which typically seek to rejuvenate a sense of national identity and duty that is related to past experiences of migration."

Political leadership is therefore important and can help shape attitudes, and whether migration and diversity are labelled as problems to address or opportunities to celebrate, matters. At the same time, the report documents a wide variety of grassroots movements which have emerged that explicitly aim to produce a new narrative on migration and diversity and the potential for people power to drive change is huge.

We'll leave you with the reports' conclusion - these narratives matter, but change is possible and is happening!

The narratives of fear and hate which have increasingly dominated political and media responses to migration and diversity create division, undermine solidarity and set communities against one another. But across Europe, people are coming together to challenge these narratives and develop new ways of thinking about - and behaving towards - migration and diversity. They offer hope that it is possible to mobilise people power and create a new narratives on migration and diversity that moves beyond fear and hate.


If you'd like to check out the full report, click here! And to find out more about our One Sweet World campaign, along with our wonderful partners, click here.