Put migrants at the center to shape rights-based narratives about migration
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Portrait photos of Anna Coulibaly, Luis Fernando Gómez Gutiérrez, Christina Pope, Lorenzo Vargas, and Clarice Canonizado

Put migrants at the center to shape rights-based narratives about migration

To enable migrants to be seen and heard, we must ensure that they are at the center of our conversations, urged panelists from Asia, Europe, North America, and Latin America at WACC’s most recent Conversation CircleUnheard Migrant Voices: Why Promoting Rights-Based Narratives on Migration is More Critical Than Ever.”

Despite repeated studies showing the benefits of migration for host societies, politicians and communication platforms fuel narratives of fear, mistrust, and crisis in many countries — with major consequences in terms of policies, Lorenzo Vargas, WACC Communication for Social Change expert, said in his introduction.

He stressed that, in a context of ever-increasing migration, it is important to look at how narratives about migration are being shaped and what we can do to “hack” these narratives and ensure that migrant voices are heard.

Community sponsorship as narrative-changer in Europe

In Europe, proposals of a new pact on asylum and migration are fostering a narrative of migration as a national security threat, according to Anna Coulibaly of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) Europe, which supports the SHARE Network to welcome refugees and migrants across the region.

In the dominant public narrative in Europe, “newcomers are seen as burden rather than a resource” and as passive recipients, she said, a perspective that takes away the agency of people on the move.

Coulibaly explained how the SHARE Network is creating positive narratives through community sponsorship programs that bring together groups of volunteers to welcome refugee families to a community. Through training and the experience of integration, volunteers become agents of change to counter hostile views, and newcomers are empowered as people with agency.

“These programs can have a transformative impact on the hosting community, not only the sponsor group but also on the wider community,” she said.

Migrant voices through hospitality stories in Latin America

The reality of forced migration, with increasing and increasingly complex violence, defines the context in his region, said Luis Fernando Gómez Gutiérrez of the Jesuit Network with Migrants in Latin America.

He reported that radio discussions allowed the Network to identify that forced migration, with its difficulties and complexities, is being talked about, but with a negative narrative linking crime and migration. There is much bias and incomplete information so that the whole story is not being told, Gutiérrez added. “We need a humanizing perspective based on human rights.”

The Network has a deliberate intention to communicate the lived experience of people forced to migrate through the lens of hospitality — stories that transform narratives by helping the listener feel what has been experienced, think about the implications, and take action with recognition of a shared humanity. This will soon take the form of a global campaign called Hope Is the Way, he said.

Prioritizing migrant leadership in the United States

Narratives around migration in the United States reflect complex and conflicting views, said Christina Pope of Welcoming America, which leads a movement of communities creating a culture of welcome of migrants throughout the country.

On the one hand, she noted, is negative discourse about “unmanageable chaos” related to migration — irregular entry at the southern border, a broken immigration system — as well as fear-based narratives such as migrants stealing jobs. This contrasts with positive views of the USA as a “nation of immigrants,” with increasing identification as “welcoming communities.”

Welcoming America has created various tools to help communities become inclusive of newcomers and ensure that migrants have the chance to speak for themselves and shape public narratives. Pope pointed to how the U.S. Welcoming Standard, a multisector roadmap for migrant inclusion, is changing the narrative in day-to-day action at the local level.

“There is a long way to go, but I also see a lot of hope.”

Putting migrant voices at the core in Asia Pacific

Dominant narratives in her region focus on migrants as security threats and job stealers, Clarice Canonizado of the Asia Pacific Mission for Migrants (APMM), a long-standing WACC partner, said.

“These narratives stem from the fact that migration stems from crisis,” itself resulting from the neoliberal economic system, she noted. Negative perceptions that States have fostered, laden with racism and discrimination, shape policy and public attitudes and affect migrants’ lives and ability to exercise their human rights.

Canonizado highlighted as well how seemingly positive narratives can become toxic. She said governments in the region often refer to migrant workers as “life savers” or “modern-day heroes,” who are supporting their families and economies back home through remittances. But this discourse “is sort of a scapegoat mechanism to mask the intensity of the social economic crisis” in origin countries.

APMM and partners strive to put the voices of migrants at the center of their work. Research and education initiatives, capacity-building workshops, advocacy, radio programs — all activities are rooted in participatory conversations where migrants can speak and share their concerns.

Media as co-shapers of migration narratives

The panelists noted how media are important co-shapers of public perceptions about migration.

Canonizado said that media play a big role in propagating narratives, for example by reinforcing a toxic positive narrative of migrants as hardworking people without acknowledging the economic forces driving people’s choice to work abroad. “Media need to move forward from just echoing what the government and ruling elite are saying about migrants.”

Newcomers aren’t the ones writing stories in traditional media, Coulibaly said, rather “stories are written about them.” While local traditional media can have a positive impact, she pointed to social media as being more democratic, a space where “everyone can be seen and heard.”

Canonizado agreed, saying that social media gives migrants more opportunity to share their stories and talk directly to a broader audience in real-time conversations. “[It’s] a much more democratic and powerful tool that can help in propagating counter narratives.”

Journalists need to be close to the actual migration contexts and encounter people who have lived experience of migration, Gutiérrez said. “It’s important to be there, to see, observe. If [you’re] far away from context, [you] don’t get the whole picture.”

Pope stressed the need to foster more diversity in journalism by resourcing training for migrant journalists and supporting migrant-led media outfits.

She also noted how initiatives to change narratives can make effective use of both traditional and social media, giving the example of Welcome America’s annual Welcoming Week that uses legacy and social media to lift up stories around the world of “migrant and non-migrant people working together to improve life in the place that they live together.”

Nothing about us without us

The panelists stressed that promoting rights-based narratives about migration means putting migrants at the center of conversations and communities and all action for social change.

“We need to learn from within communities of people who were forced to migrate. These people have profound injuries, but they also hold the key to the solution of this crisis,” Gutiérrez said.

Fostering the meaningful participation of migrants and refugees requires a shift in perspective, Coulibaly stressed, to seeing newcomers as “active agents of change and actors in integration and inclusion.”

She noted that civil society organizations have to start with themselves, by employing people with migrant experience, making space for migrant-led organizations, and hearing their voices.

Pope also emphasized the need to “resource and prioritize migrant leadership” at the local level, with a multisector approach that “calls people in and looks for new actors that can be part of the solutions.”

“[Migrants] should be the first ones that we consult when talking about their issues and these structural problems,” Canonizado stated. This applies especially to global migration policy spaces like the United Nations and the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), she said.

“[Migrants] are capable of voicing their own demands and own struggles. It is important for us as advocates to always honor their voices, so their lived experiences come forward to those who need to hear them.”

“The experience of being heard is what is transformative,” Vargas concluded.

Panelists at the “Unheard Migrant Voices” Conversation Circle (clockwise from upper left): Anna Coulibaly (ICMC), Luis Fernando Gómez Gutiérrez (Jesuit Network with Migrants in Latin America), Christina Pope (Welcoming America), moderator Lorenzo Vargas (WACC), and Clarice Canonizado (APMM).

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