Migration and asylum are among the most contentious and emotionally charged of policy areas across Europe, but how can governments bring about a more pragmatic debate over asylum policy? Andrea Römmele and Henrik Schober argue that there is currently a ‘communication gap’ between governments and their citizens over the issue. Drawing on political communication literature, they propose a model for improving the public debate on asylum across Europe.
When the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, critics drew attention to its problematic migration policy. How could such a virtuous honour be awarded to an organisation that looks the other way for as long as possible when refugee disasters happen in the Mediterranean and elsewhere?
As important as this argument might have been in terms of the EU’s ethics and morals, it had little influence on the debate on asylum policy. In a way, this is a key characteristic of the public discourse about refugees, asylum, migration and integration. The discourse becomes highly emotional, triggering equally emotional responses. This leaves little room for the substantive arguments and clear political messages that are needed.
Two categories of asylum seekers
In principle, these issues affect every one of us. As a global community and as citizens of our countries, we directly face challenges connected to migration and asylum policy. However, the public discourse does not always fully grasp the complexity of the issue, tending instead to put most refugees into one of two categories.
On the one hand refugees may be seen as ailing and needy on the basis that they are fleeing from conflict and prosecution in their own countries. People in this category are generally deemed worthy of being given protection, and there is often an assumption that they should return to their country of origin once the situation has improved (which is, by the way, what most of them want in any case). The second category views refugees as people who are suffering from social and economic pressure and are in the process of looking for a better life. They are typically seen as an unaffordable burden for the welfare system.
Such a simplistic twofold differentiation between hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum is of course impossible in practice. But this obvious and inconvenient truth has largely been ignored. Distinctions continue to be made on the basis of superficial criteria such as country of origin, while debates over the two categories lack depth, understanding and awareness for the many connections among them.
Can refugees ease demographic pressure?
A third debate exists which, though potentially having a huge impact on migration and asylum policy, is also conducted more or less separately. This debate goes under the label of ‘demographic change’. There is great need for skilled workers who can cover shortages in the workforce in many different fields. From time to time, a link to migration policy is established in this context, although it is only rarely linked to concrete asylum and refugee matters, despite evidence that many refugees might offer skills and knowledge which are very much required to keep social services and private enterprises running.
As a case in point, a New York Times opinion piece by David Laitin and Marc Jahr recently suggested that Syrian refugees should be relocated to Detroit. The city is facing enormous social and economic pressure, struggling with an inability to meet its citizens’ basic needs. Of course, the idea is highly controversial, with individuals rightly wary of the risks of population engineering, not to mention the need to assess the situations of both a host city and refugees. The general idea behind the suggestion, however, is deserving of attention as it serves to highlight the fact that refugees can often contribute to the social and economic development of an area rather than simply burdening its welfare system.
Unfortunately, progressive interventions are the exception rather than the rule. The southern borders of the United States are sealed off to prevent migrants from Latin America, and politicians have adopted tough stances which are frequently shaped by public opinion and campaign strategy rather than facts and thorough analysis. Again, the question at hand is how an emotionally charged topic can be communicated in a more sensitive and conscious way. Some useful approaches can be derived from political communication science in this context.
The five stages of discourse
Political communication is particularly relevant during times of election campaigns. However, in the extensive and more differentiated media democracy that exists in many European countries today, topics may be put on the agenda and cause public debate at any given moment – even without the intention of politicians and opinion leaders. The public can voice their concerns and demand answers more actively and forcefully than in the past – not least through petitioning and holding referenda. The policy process has thus largely opened up to public discourse.
Communication research identifies five stages of a discourse in regards to the policy process and the emergence of a topic of public interest: problem identification; agenda-setting; decision making; implementation; and evaluation. Once completed, the cycle repeats itself over and over again, and knowledge derived in one cycle may instigate another.
It is therefore important to communicate the topic in a coherent narrative as early as the first phase. This form of embedding is called “framing”. A frame is the context or narrative in which the content and direction of an issue is rooted and put across. Frames usually exist on both sides of the debate. A prominent example is the US-abortion debate. ‘Pro-life’ activists argue in favour of the protection of the life of the unborn child, while ‘pro-choice’ advocates argue in favour of self-determination and the freedom of choice of each individual. Both messages are powerful and effective – intuitively, no one opposes a plea for either life or freedom.
A second aspect of successful political communication is timing. Often the issue and its challenges have been well known for many years, yet they have not managed to prompt a greater public debate. These attention cycles are to some extent brought about by external factors. Nonetheless, they can be influenced, in part, through communication management, which may activate public awareness.
Thirdly, it is crucial to discuss the topic at hand in an objective and open manner. The conflicts arising currently around the issue of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have shown what happens if, first, the public is excluded from the debate and, second, those who are responsible for the negotiation avoid a public discourse by every conceivable means.
The very same situation occurred during the Eurozone crisis and the implementation of the euro rescue package. The relevant discourse failed to make the issue comprehensible for the public and led, consequently, to indifference and frustration, or even radicalisation. Citizens, politicians, the media and many other actors have similarly called for better communication and explanation of the agreements reached and decisions made. Particularly when it comes to morally charged topics, however, the aspect of thoroughly communicating and explaining one’s stances and convictions has occasionally been overlooked.
More than one issue, more than one level
Currently, migration policy clearly faces a communicational gap because, on the one hand, the topic is highly emotional, as citizens’ readiness to help illustrates. On the other hand, though, it seems that the public debate has reached an impasse and many arguments of those who promote action are not heard.
There are two frames that are used to present the topic as one which politics and society can and should care about: the social frame argues on the basis of the necessity to provide aid; and the economic frame sees immigration as a contribution to economic growth and social security.
Both frames and their related arguments make valid points, and it seems reasonable to suggest that both are looked at together. Furthermore, politically speaking, they are clearly combined. From a communicational point of view, however, this connection does not function easily. The message sent to the public claims that those coming to a country should be taken in because they are utterly destitute and helpful for the economy. While this may well be true, it appears to be a contradiction and does not mesh together effectively into a single message. The two frames are much too different, as is the timing for public debate on both aspects. Both frames require a specific narrative and need to reach the target group in their own way.
Separate the frames
Therefore, the way out of this communicational dilemma is the separation of the two frames “refugees/emergency assistance” and “growth/demographic change”. This is far from straightforward. Moreover, it is further aggravated by the fact that the academic world has very little empirically grounded and assured knowledge in the field. Most surveys do not pay attention to differentiations among migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Too often, surveys simply ask about attitudes towards “foreigners”. After all, in order to design a suitable frame it is essential to know what the public thinks about each of these distinct groups.
The humanitarian frame and the economic frame have to be developed in close collaboration, while maintaining separation from each other. It is a sizeable challenge for all stakeholders involved to tackle both frames and develop separate messages, timelines and means of communication, while at the same time paying attention to their many links and shared features.
Ideally this would have happened much earlier in the process. Nonetheless, political communication is necessary during all phases of the policy cycle and helps to impart key arguments to the public. Hence, it is never too late to start. The current method of handling the issue does not do any justice to either group involved, and a progressive society must think of ways to better handle a topic so pressing and so important without giving in to simplistic and populist arguments.
Framing the debate adequately is, of course, only one step that needs to be taken. In the end it is the concrete policies that matter most. However, finding the best policies starts with framing and communicating thoroughly and consciously, with special regard to the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers themselves, and acknowledging that the issue is too complex for simple solutions. This, perhaps, is how one eventually earns a Nobel Peace Prize.
Note: This article was first published in German on Mediendienst-Integration and at the blog of the Hertie School of Governance. It gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Andrea Römmele – Hertie School of Governance
Andrea Römmele is Professor for Communication in Politics and Civil Society at the Hertie School of Governance. Her research interests are in the field of comparative political communication, political parties and public affairs.
Henrik Schober – Hertie School of Governance
Henrik Schober is editorial manager of the Zeitschrift für Politikberatung and Research Associate to Andrea Römmele.