By Laura Thompson, Deputy Director General of the International Organization for Migration
Boeing, Steinway, Levi-Strauss and Heinz are all household names in the United States and beyond. Less well known is the fact that these successful companies were founded by German- American migrants. Today 46 million Americans claim German ancestry, making German-Americans, the largest single ethnic group in the United States.(1) This figure reminds us that not so long ago, millions of migrants left Europe in search of a better life. Today, Europe attracts migrants from all over the world.
However, far from celebrating the fact that people want to come to Europe, and other developed countries, we are witnessing a troubling rise in anti migrant sentiment. Not only are the contributions of immigrants often ignored, but the prevalent discourse around them is replete with myths and stereotypes which only feed a sentiment of opposition among the general public, hindering migrant integration and undermining social trust at the national and local levels. Migration is too often viewed as a problem and there is a risk that immigration policies in many countries will be shaped by fears and misconceptions rather than facts.
This article presents and dispels some of the most common myths associated with migration, outlines recent findings about public perceptions of migration globally, and suggests ways in which communication about migration can and should be improved for the benefit of migrants and non-migrants alike.
Misperceptions surrounding migration
Several studies suggest that there are many misperceptions about the impact of migration in origin and destination countries, which fuel negative sentiment about migration.
A common misperception is that there are too many immigrants. In some European countries, ordinary citizens estimate the number of immigrants at three times more than there really are. The 2014 Transatlantic Trends survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund showed that misinformation about basic migration facts is a significant determinant of anti-immigrant sentiment: in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Greece, among others, the proportion of people who agreed that there are too many immigrants in their countries fell sharply when people were told how many immigrants were actually residing there.
Another misperception is that the majority of migrants are desperate people who come from the poorest parts of the world. People are generally unaware of the fact that South–South migration (migration between developing countries) is just as great as migration between the global South and the global North (migration from developing to developed countries). About a fifth of all migrants move across richer countries. Also, a growing number of people are moving from the North to the South in search of work – for instance, Portuguese moving to Angola or Spanish moving to Argentina and other South American countries.
Too often migration is perceived as solely an immigration issue. Not many are aware that with some 5 million people, the British diaspora is the eighth largest in the world. The desire of British people to move abroad and become emigrants and the arrival of immigrants in the United Kingdom, for instance, are treated as completely different matters. The migration policy debate in Europe is almost entirely focused on immigration policy questions and neglects the implications of emigration.
Another common misperception is that developed countries do not need low-skilled migrants (Migration Policy Centre, 2014). In fact, non-specialized workers contribute to the functioning of the European economy by taking up jobs undesirable to natives, which in turn allows natives to take up higher skilled and more remunerative employment (OECD, 2008). There is also little evidence supporting the claim that migrants depress the wages of low-skilled workers; one study found that between 1990 and 2000, all European countries experienced a decrease in their average wages because of emigration, while immigration led to a positive effect on the average wages of native workers (Docquier et al., 2014).
That migrants take jobs away from nationals is another stereotype. Empirical evidence suggests that countries with high unemployment rates usually have lower – not higher – immigration rates, partly because migrants move where they are more likely to find jobs. Migrants usually take jobs that natives are unwilling or unable to do, thus complementing the local labour force rather than competing with it. Various studies estimate that labour shortages at various levels will be widespread across the developed and developing world in the near future (Hays, 2014; Boston Consulting Group, 2014; McKinsey Global Institute, 2012).
Too often migrants are perceived to represent a drain on the welfare system in destination countries, while research shows that migrants contribute to public finances more than they take out in public benefits and services in almost every European country (OECD, 2013). Migrants, particularly the highly skilled, often contribute more, on average, to countries of destination than natives do, because such countries have not had to bear the costs of training and educating migrants who arrive to work (IOM, 2011).
Contrary to fears that immigration depresses the innovation capacity of destination countries, migration has been shown to enhance innovation. Successful companies such as Google, Intel, PayPal, eBay and Yahoo! – to name a few – have all been co-founded by migrants. Immigrants are more than twice as likely as the native-born to found a company (Wadhwa et al., 2012). Highly skilled migrants and diversity in the workplace also positively affect work productivity recipient countries (Parrotta, 2014; Trax et al., 2012). Migration is a global reality affecting nearly all countries of the world. For people around the globe to benefit from migration, there is a dire need to promote a debate in which the contribution of migrants to home and host societies is acknowledged and myths are countered with accurate and truthful communication about basic migration facts.
Understanding public perceptions of immigration
The media has a key role to play in influencing attitudes to migration. Hardly a day goes by without migration hitting the headlines somewhere in the world. Too often, however, the media tends to focus on the negative aspects of migration. One recent study of 58,000 migration news stories conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford found that the most common word used to describe immigrants was “illegal”, even though by far the majority of migrants enter and reside legally. It was also found that the most common modifier of asylum-seekers was the word “failed”. It was also typical for journalists to use words such as “terrorist” when reporting on migration stories, stoking fears that migration could be linked to terrorism (Allen and Binder, 2013).
In World Migration Report 2011: Communicating Effectively about Migration, IOM reviewed the evidence regarding the media’s portrayal of migrants. Several studies show that the media tends to focus on illegality, crisis, controversy and government failure, and on more sensational stories, feeding misperceptions surrounding migration. In order to correct this negative portrayal of migration, it is first necessary to better understand how people around the world view migration and what factors, beyond media discourse, influence public opinion.
The forthcoming IOM report How the World Views Migration provides a rare insight into public attitudes towards migration around the world. Drawing on data from the Gallup World Poll, the report presents, for the first time, a global overview of what people worldwide think about migration based on surveys of 183,772 adults conducted in more than 140 countries between 2012 and 2014. Some of the report’s initial findings are reported here below.
First, public attitudes to migration across the globe are more varied than one might think, and are not predominantly negative as one might imagine. The study finds that more of the world is in favour of migration than against it. Worldwide, people are generally more likely to want immigration levels in their countries to either stay at their present levels (21.8 per cent) or to be increased (21.3 per cent), rather than to see immigration levels decrease (34.5 per cent).
People in Europe are the most negative towards immigration, although just slightly over the majority (52.1%) say immigration levels should be decreased. In North America – another main receiving region – only 39 per cent express this view. Opinions vary across Europe: the majority of adults in nearly all Northern European countries, apart from the United Kingdom, would like to see levels of immigration stay the same or increase. By contrast, residents in much of the Mediterranean region – an entry point to Europe for many irregular migrants – would like to see immigration levels decrease.
Residents in Latin America and the Caribbean generally want immigration levels to stay the same or increase, with some exceptions such as Costa Rica and Ecuador. Opinions vary widely in Asia. Some countries favour decreasing immigration, such as Israel (76%) and Pakistan (76%). Alternatively, the majority in countries like Japan and the Republic of Korea favour increasing or maintaining immigration levels. People in North African countries tend to be more likely to want immigration levels to decrease (Egypt, 72%; Libya, 54%). South Africa also shows over 50 per cent wanting decreased levels. However, in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which have the highest percentage of temporary migrant workers in their populations, relatively small percentages of people want to see immigration levels decrease, and a high percentage want to see levels increase or stay the same.
People’s perceptions of their country’s economic situation may be the strongest predictor of their attitudes towards immigration. Adults who believe economic conditions in their countries are “fair” or “poor” are almost twice as likely to say immigration levels should decrease as those who say conditions are “excellent” or “good”. Similarly, those who say conditions are getting worse are nearly twice as\ likely to favour decreased immigration as those who say economic conditions are getting better (48.0% versus 25.3%). The importance of economic factors may explain why attitudes to migration in the North of Europe, with the exception of the United Kingdom, seem to be much more favourable than in the South of Europe. The significant rise in the number of people trying to enter Europe in irregular ways over the last two years through the southern Mediterranean countries may also explain why attitudes in the South are more negative.
Improving communication about migration: A few steps towards a global action plan
Although the 2013 United Nations High-level Dialogue on Migration and Development stressed the need to improve the way in which we communicate about migration, no action plan was developed or agreed upon to guide policymakers around the world, as to how best to address this challenge. Here are some of the concrete steps that could be taken to develop a global action plan ensuring more effective communication about migration.
- Monitoring public opinion – creating a global migration barometer
Understanding the way the public perceives migration globally is fundamental if we want to develop effective campaigns addressing public attitudes to migration. As a result, a global survey of public opinion about migration on a regular basis is needed. This global survey could provide a barometer of the way in which public perceptions of migration change over time and vary across different countries and regions of the world.
- Gathering and using the evidence
At the same time, given the widespread misperceptions surrounding migration, it is essential to invest in gathering facts and figures about migration, as well as in analysing and using such evidence for policy purposes. Better awareness of migration-related facts and of the positive contributions of migrants will facilitate the implementation of integration\ measures and reduce the likelihood of extremism and xenophobia.
- Promoting information campaigns targeting destination countries
There is a long history of using information campaigns in the migration field. However, in most cases, such campaigns operate in countries of origin and target would-be migrants, warning them about the risks of irregular migration. A new type of information campaign is needed today targeting the general public in destination countries, using new means of communication such as social media to reach target audiences.
- Building a partnership with the media It is fundamental to work in partnership with the media to encourage a more balanced coverage of migration by supporting the information needs of journalists.
For this purpose, it is important to have a clear understanding of the type of information media needs and the format in which it is needed to facilitate its work. One attempt to do so is the work IOM is doing in developing a one-stop shop for journalists called the Migration Newsdesk, with the aim of providing a steady flow of unbiased information on migration for the media to use.
- Ensuring that migrant voices are heard
The voices of migrants are also an important element in ensuring a balanced perception of what migration really is and entails. IOM is developing an oral history project called The Migrant’s Path, which aims to capture the authentic voices of global migration for posterity.
One of our greatest challenges today is to ensure that evidence about the real impact of migration on sending and receiving countries reaches and is understood by the general public. This will be necessary if we are to maximize the benefits of migration while promoting a human-rights-based approach to it. Accurate and truthful information about immigration will also allow politicians to develop fact-based policies and legislative frameworks, which are more likely to respond to the needs of their citizens while promoting the protection and integration of migrants in host societies.
International organizations and non-governmental organizations as well as the media and politicians themselves have a fundamental role in this endeavour. This article has suggested several practical steps that go in the same direction. More work is, however, needed from all sides to understand what shapes individual perceptions of immigrants, to address people’s concerns about immigration, promote an informed debate on the matter, and to bring into it the voices of migrants themselves.
1 The Economist, “German Americans: The Silent Minority”, 7 February 2015.
Laura Thompson is the Deputy Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Reprinted with permission from Migration Policy Practice (vol. V, Number 1, February 2015–March 2015), pp. 4-8. See original text for references and illustrations.