Migration: seven dominant narratives shape a highly polarised public debate

Migration: seven dominant narratives shape a highly polarised public debate

On Thursday, May 23, NODES researchers and scientists presented the initial results from their work on migration narratives. This study, following those on climate change and COVID-19, is the third in the series “The Narratives that Shape Our World,” which addresses crucial issues for our democracies. 

NODES researchers analysed a broad corpus of data in four European languages (English, French, Spanish and Polish) and were able to create a map of seven dominant narratives associated with underlying values. 

  1. Tragedy. This narrative shows the long journeys of migrants and their difficult fates. The focus is often on the dire conditions in the country of origin or on the suffering migrants experience along the way or on the loss of life, particularly at sea. Migrants are defenceless, they are victims, they are in danger.
  2. Solidarity. This narrative is about integration in the destination country and the obligations its inhabitants have towards migrants. The narrative is about helping or criticising the lack of help, criticising intolerance, discrimination or fear mongering.
  3. Migrants are good for the economy. This narrative presents migrants as crucial to the local economy or demography. Migrants work hard, bring profits and develop the economy. Their import from abroad is assessed positively.
  4. Crisis and regulation. This narrative neutrally describes migration as a significant phenomenon. It either draws attention to the growing number of migrants and the related challenges, or it describes specific regulations that should be implemented. This narrative does not express positive or negative sentiment towards migrants.
  5. Under siege. This narrative portrays migrants as a threat attacking the host country from the outside. Migrants are aggressive, strong and dangerous. They are described as a wave or influx. The narrative often focuses on the border, describing the need to defend, strengthen and guard it. Sometimes, it criticises those who are perceived as too soft or naive, accusing them of downplaying the danger and creating a risk of migrants crossing the border. It also sometimes describes specific attempts to breach the border.
  6. Migrants do not integrate. This narrative portrays migrants as a threat attacking the host country from within. Migrants do not integrate into society, do not accept local values and lifestyles, and therefore pose a threat to citizens. They do not respect societal norms and commit many crimes the narrative particularly often draws attention to murders, rapes, robberies and property destruction. Sometimes, this narrative criticises multiculturalism and forced tolerance (woke culture), claiming that these are new forms of censorship that makes it difficult to tell the truth about migrants when there are already too many of them in the country.
  7. Migrants are stealing what’s ours. This narrative portrays migrants as taking a disproportionate and unfair share of limited resources. Migrants enjoy undeserved privileges and illegally use taxpayers’ money by collecting benefits. They’re taking jobs from residents. According to this narrative, the host country spends a lot of money on the maintenance and support of migrants. Instead, these resources should be spent on health care for citizens or to help local children.

In their conclusions, NODES researchers raised one major difference with climate change and COVID-19 debates, where many underlying values unite supporters of opposing narratives. As an example, both climate activists and denialists emphasise their commitment to tradition. Among the migration narratives, such value-based bridges are almost non-existent.  

To try and depolarise the debate, we must look elsewhere – for instance, by carefully examining the spatial and temporal perspectives of different narratives. If two opposing narratives about migrants agree only on the importance of locality and a long-term approach, then there is already some starting point for discussion.