Our March WebDebate explored conflicting narratives on immigration and delved into the challenges and opportunities of intercultural relations in the context of diplomatic practice. We were joined by Ms Ifigenia Georgiadou (Hellenic Culture Centre, Greece), Dr Atef Ahmed (Freelancer Educational Consultant, Egypt), and Dr Biljana Scott (Senior Fellow, DiploFoundation). The WebDebate was moderated by Dr Katharina Höne (DiploFoundation).
Georgiadou began by stating that immigrants and refugees leave their countries because of economic, environmental, or political crises. Europe, one of the chosen destinations, is a multinational society with a variety of ethnic groups, cultural groups, and a wide range of cultural expressions. European countries are attractive countries because of their economic wealth and because migrants from former colonies seek refuge in their towns and cities because they speak the language spoken there. However, not all European countries have the same policy towards immigration and especially towards refugees, as the so-called refugee crisis in 2015 clearly showed.
Immigration is a challenge for Western countries. Both migrants and locals feel that their identity is at risk. Host countries face unbalanced situations in the labour market, health system, education system, etc., but migrants are more at risk as they seek justice and livelihoods, and a chance to live peacefully. Georgiadou underlined that financial resources and the political will to apply migration policies are needed, as well as education to teach intercultural skills.
Intercultural skills that everyone should develop include respect for oneself and for others; a sense of social justice and social responsibility; openness and curiosity towards diversity; tolerance of ambiguity; knowledge of culture, politics, and history; knowledge of human rights; knowledge of stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory practices; knowledge of cultural differences in communication; empathy; solidarity; critical thinking to check our own stereotypes; active listening; and how to deal constructively with conflicts.She referred to different training opportunities for intercultural training.
The changed perception of immigration
Ahmed stressed that immigration is a very old and natural phenomenon. It is the perception of immigration that has changed. It is no longer regarded as a humanistic social phenomenon that contributes to the transfer of cultures and the contact of peoples, but as a phenomenon that contributes to the transfer of violence, terrorism, destruction, and some would even say to the clash of peoples. Ahmed noted that it is understandable why many European countries are trying to address this phenomenon by adopting a security approach, applying preventive laws to protect their national security. He contrasted this with the right of every human to be secure and live a better life. In his view, media and European political parties have a very important role to play in depicting unorganised immigration as a threat to European countries. While host countries deal with risks in regard to terrorism, employment, culture, language, and religion, the image of immigrants as threats to the national security of European countries must be reversed. Ahmed underlined that the most important thing is to understand another human being by gaining insight into the conditions that made them who they are.
Conflicting narratives and logical fallacies
Scott underlined that immigration should be rehumanised. We need to refocus on the fact that immigration is about the human being in distress. For Scott, immigration covers the whole arc from the crisis points which lead to immigration, the transits of migrants and their terrible journeys, the difficulties at borders where walls and fences have been put up or where they are forbidden to disembark, the trials and tribulations of detention centres, and the inhuman treatment in zero-tolerance policy. Immigration also captures problems beyond entering and integrating into the host country, such as dreamers being sent back to their countries of origin (e.g. Windrush generation), people being deprived of their citizenship (e.g. the Rohingya), and the problem of whether citizens should be allowed to return to their country of birth and citizenship (British women involved with ISIS).
We seem to have an ambivalent attitude or perhaps a polarised attitude towards the problem of immigration, Scott stated. On one hand there is a narrative of humanising, including, caring, assuming responsibility, expanding the moral circle, and talking about immigrants as one of us, people we owe something to. On the other hand, an alternative narrative, equally prevalent and on the ascendant in populist countries, dehumanises immigrants by depicting them as the other, excluding them, barring them, denying them even human status. The two conflicting narratives – the tender versus the tough, Aylan Kurdi versus the snake – have always characterised human beings and they characterise the current debate on immigration equally well.
Scott researches how language frames the discourse on immigration, in particular logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are arguments which are misleading because they’re not fully rational, but which are effective because they’re emotionally persuasive. They are appeals to emotions such as compassion or fear. They can include slippery slope arguments, metaphors speaking through allegories and symbols, and appeals to essentialism (the idea that every culture has an essential defining quality and that every human being has an essential identifiable identity). Logical fallacies speak to our emotions, our fears, our sense of self and who are we in contrast and in comparison to others. Logical fallacies are shorthand and easy; they mean that we don’t have to think for ourselves as they’re recognised by others as valid arguments. To escape the grip of these logical fallacies, we must change the way we frame the story.
Changing the negative attitude towards migration
Georgiadou stated that politicians and diplomats should have the courage to push for different policies than those already in place. She emphasized the role of intercultural education in changing the negative attitude towards migration, underlining that intercultural education is important for all members of today’s multicultural societies.
Ahmed underlined that host countries should co-operate with central statistical offices of immigrants’ home countries to obtain data and knowledge about immigrants. Diplomats should co-operate with religious entities, because human values – empathy, tolerance, equality, justice, prosperity, mercy, charity, etc. – come from religions. Art also has a role in forming citizens’ perceptions of immigrants. Political media and political parties use false stories about immigration to influence elections and for other political interests, which is why unbiased media is needed.
The difference between (economic) migrants and refugees
The online audience asked our speakers to clarify the conceptual relationship between migrants and refugees. Georgiadou voiced her opinion that there isn’t a huge difference between them. They all come from countries that face different socioeconomic, political, and environmental problems. Refugees arrive in a harder, more traumatic manner from their home country to the host country. They also have different aims, as they don’t want to stay in the country they first arrived in. In Scott’s opinion, immigration covers both voluntary and involuntary immigration. However, there is the risk that refugees become second-order immigrants as opposed to economic migrants. This is problematic. Refugees have skills, talents, and a lot to offer to the host state and we have to do everything we can not to differentiate between first-order and second-order style of immigrants.
Other questions from the online audience focused on ways of fostering integration. Georgiadou voiced her opinion that integration should be fostered by politicians through specific policies. Scott’s opinion is that integration is fostered by learning the host language, not establishing ghettos, and understanding the role of religion. She also underlined that there is much to be learnt and improved on, on that front, which is why countries should engage in an exchange of experiences.
What can diplomats do to humanise immigration?
Lastly, our speakers addressed the role of diplomats in ‘humanising migration’.
Georgiadou stated that diplomats should strive to work in such a way that their profession eventually becomes obsolete. They should try to stop wars and stop seeing other countries as former European colonies.
As stopping immigration or illegal immigration is impossible, Ahmed recommended that diplomats develop new policies for immigration. However, these policies must establish a balance between welcoming immigrants and protecting national security. Secondly, diplomats should co-operate with immigrants’ countries of origin, and help those countries in development, in teaching global education, in making them stable.
Scott noted that there are areas of diplomacy where a lot is already being done to humanise immigration: cultural diplomacy, public diplomacy, humanitarian diplomacy, second-track diplomacy. She also pointed out that the laws on immigration are changing under the pressure to humanise immigration. Scott wondered whether humanising immigration is a concern for mainstream diplomacy. She concluded by posing the concept of migration diplomacy as a central way of framing the relationship between diplomacy and immigration. In addition, Scott addresses some of the questions raised during the debate in her follow-up blog post.