Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

War on words – what ‘globalists’ got wrong on migration

Written by Marta Foresti

Clandestine Channel Threat Commander. No, it is not a new superhero or character of an epic war movie. It is the newly appointed UK military official tasked to defend UK borders from invaders across the Channel.

Words matter and these terms have clearly been chosen with the purpose of fuelling fear, a handy commodity to deflect public opinion in a global pandemic.

While the number of people crossing the Channel has recently increased, it remains low and manageable compared to other countries in Europe and beyond, demonstrating how much of an overreaction this is. But relying on numbers is part of the problem we, the globalists, have created.

So how did we get to having a Clandestine Commander protecting our way of life and BBC reporters broadcasting from speedboats while pursuing migrants in dinghies — as if filming wildlife for a nature documentary?

We globalists got the message wrong

Just like Remainers in the Brexit referendum, the ‘pro-migration’ globalists failed to understand how ‘the people’ felt. We relied on evidence-based arguments on the benefits of migration, failing to see that not everyone could experience them.

Instead, we now know that we should have reached people’s hearts and emotions by communicating value-based messages. Failing to do so meant that we allowed ‘nationalists’ to tap into people’s genuine feelings of fear, uncertainty and anger.

Yet this is only one of the mistakes we made.

We failed to grasp the use of facts and evidence in the debate. Specifically, we underestimated the role of doubt and confusion.

A new BBC podcast ‘How They Made Us Doubt Everything’ discusses how powerful global interests made us doubt the connection between smoking and cancer, and then used the same tactics around climate change. Evidence played a key part: the tobacco and oil industries welcomed and funded research into the the cause of cancer and climate change.

But evidence is of course often inconclusive. Where there is data, there is always some degree of uncertainty. This was used as a basis to mount well-funded and sophisticated campaigns to instil doubt in public opinions.

This is true of migration too.

There are at least three ways in which evidence, facts and theory have been successfully manipulated to create doubt, uncertainty and fear

1. Numbers: I cannot recall how many meetings I attended since 2015 aimed at accurately estimating displaced people in the world. The focus has now shifted to the vast number of people likely to move due to climate change. These very numbers, and the urgency they create, are easily manipulated into a narrative of invasion and siege. Yes, the number of people crossing the channel, crossing the Mediterranean and even global numbers on migration are small, but we cannot have it both ways. The public now feels that a large number of people will attempt to move ‘illegally’, for a number of (very good) reasons. So, 1-0 to the nationalists.

2. Narrative: a lot of research looking at drivers of migration has created two clashing narratives. One about aspirations and opportunities and another about safety and protection. The common thread is one of vulnerability, desperation and loss of agency. Unsurprisingly, it is hard to persuade the public that the same refugees and other migrants in need of protection, solidarity and support through tax-payer money, are also the heroes saving lives during a pandemic, the phenomenal entrepreneurs that created America, and the young Dreamers who are its future. Attempts to differentiate between those moving out of choice or necessity have also fuelled confusing subjective debates around who deserves solidarity vs. those who just want a 'better life', creating a contrasting story of good and bad migration. So, 2-0 to the nationalists.

3. Identity: the last, and in my mind the biggest, problem. Who is a migrant? Not me or you. So much effort has gone into terminology and definitions. A migrant is certainly not a refugee, for example. Alongside being factually incorrect, it also creates a false sense of clarity that by giving protection to those ‘genuinely’ entitled, we will win the hearts and minds of the public. Yet again we have created confusing, unhelpful dividing lines amongst us globalists that have played into the hands of nationalists. Since they are not like you and me, migrants are seen as invaders, carrying disease, values, religions and habits unlike ours. We failed to explain that migrants are us, that their destiny and future is ours too. Instead, we created a category of ‘helpless’ humans. Game point to the nationalists.

We must now up our game and change tactics. What matters is not whether evidence is good or bad, but who produces it and how it is used.

There is one silver lining: public attitudes towards migration are not as polarised or negative as most people believe

In fact, most countries' populations do not hold strong positive or negative views on migration. If we turn attention from ‘them’ to all of ‘us’, from solidarity with others to our collective future, there is an audience willing to listen and engage.

It is on us to come up with ways of doing migration differently. In this piece for the Future Development Blog at Brookings I offer some ideas on how to do this in the post Covid-19 ‘new normal’, and in this ODI blog I specifically propose what to do in relation to migrant essential workers in the recovery. Care to join forces?