What went wrong with refugee advocacy?

By Elizabeth Dickinson 28 November 2016

Posters and placards at a demonstration to welcome refugees in London. Photo by: David Holt / CC BY

For anyone working in migration or refugee advocacy, Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential campaign unfolded like a parade of abuses to denounce. In response to his promises to deport undocumented workers, vows to create a registry of Muslim immigration and pledge to halt refugee arrivals from Syria, aid groups blasted out positive messages. There were stories of immigrant success and sacrifice, hashtags such as #MigrantsWelcome, and social media campaigns proclaiming to “Stand with Refugees.”

Now, in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, advocacy groups are asking themselves where their messaging went wrong. All the stories and humanizing efforts failed to convince wide swathes of the U.S. public that refugees were worth embracing rather than scapegoating at the ballot box.

Those same strategies also backfired in the United Kingdom, where campaigners for leaving the European Union — a so-called Brexit — touted the need to have greater control of the borders. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s popularity has nosedived and popular opposition is growing in response to her welcoming stance toward refugees.

As migration advocacy groups digest these setbacks, the debriefing conversation is still unfolding, but a few consistent themes are emerging. Officials and analysts say they failed to acknowledge the short-term pain associated with migration, didn’t do enough to recognize economic difficulties and grievances among host populations, avoided discussing security and missed the opportunity to convince voters that stability abroad is key to stability at home.

Even constituents who support humanitarian work “have still felt left behind by global progress and the global system, and I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job at really helping people understand in very practical ways the seamless web of compassion that connects a homeless child in the U.S. with a hurting child somewhere in South Sudan,” Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer told Devex.

“I think our community has focused too much on telling stories and perhaps not going to that next level to help people really understand not only the moral importance and the humanitarian importance but the fact that a secure stable world is in all of our interests today.”

Relying on facts, ignoring sentiments

Facts are favorable toward welcoming migrants and refugees, and the advocacy community has leveraged them in recent years to make an economic, social and moral case for openness.

Economists generally agree that migration injects new economic vitality, filling key gaps in the labor force. Refugees could do the same, initial evidence shows. Invest 1 euro in refugees, and it will yield 2 euros within five years, a May 2016 report from the Tent Foundation found.

“The evidence is really clear: At worst, migration has a neutral effect on our economies, at best it has a positive effect,” said Khalid Koser, executive director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund.

Yet that argument didn’t seem to catch on with parts of the public, where many knew little about the crises that had sent refugees fleeing in places such as Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan. “It’s almost as if we live in a post-evidence world,” Koser told Devex on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils, where he chairs a group on migration.

Instead, initial public impressions were colored by the ad hoc, often chaotic response in European countries as refugees took a winding journey across the Mediterranean and into their borders. It’s not so much that people misunderstood the economic or moral cases for refugees, Koser argued; it’s that they felt the government wasn’t equipped to manage them.

“This isn’t a crisis of numbers, it’s a crisis of confidence: the public is losing confidence in the government to do anything about it. That’s the real fear,” he said. “Despite what happened in the U.S., I don’t think people are anti-refugees or even anti-migrants or anti-Muslim, they just think everything is out of control: that no one knows who’s coming, where are they going. Are they terrorists? Are they taking our jobs?”

To those questions, the advocacy community answered only with optimism.

Short-term pain

Migration may spur long-term economic growth, but in the immediate term, it’s often painful and expensive for host communities. This is particularly the case when arrivals come quickly and concentrate in certain areas, as they did into Europe last year. Central Americans fleeing violence at home likewise clustered in just a few places along the southern U.S. border.

Ola Henrikson, director-general at Sweden’s Ministry of Justice, recounted the particular strain his country had felt after being one of the first to signal an openness toward Syrian refugees. He said 1.5 percent of Sweden’s population are asylum-seekers and the vast majority of them came in four months. It has been at the scale that a country famous for welcoming refugees “can’t deal with integration immediately.”

Seeing that economic strain on the news — more demand on services, fewer jobs — was enough to play into rising anti-immigrant sentiment even in areas that hadn’t received a single refugee, as in many communities in the United States. How could a government give help to other countries’ citizens when so many at home were in need?

“We need to recognize that a lot of backlash against globalization is not so much that people don’t believe in open minds or open hearts; it’s that they haven’t seen the benefits of globalization,” said Keny-Guyer. “We have to push our own societies hard to recognize that and to respond to it and deal with it.”

Rather than acknowledging the challenges, advocates now admit they largely steered clear of discussing the burden and costs felt by local communities, focusing instead on the positive. Their reason for doing so was both clear and understandable: to avoid feeding the already growing frenzy of xenophobic speech.

Yet that fear of playing into the negative left other gaps, for example in acknowledging the real security challenge of screening individuals who are fleeing an active war zone. To avoid cementing a perception that all refugees are radicals, champions of migration declined to recognize that a few among them could be.

“The advocacy organizations are avoiding the reality,” said Koser. On security in particular, he said, “I blame academics and advocates here. Discussing the links between security and migrants is so sensitive, we’re so scared of feeding the media frenzy and public misperceptions that we don’t talk about it.”

A leadership vacuum

Advocates for refugees and migrants haven’t had much help in making their case to skeptical publics. With the notable exceptions of Merkel and Pope Francis, politicians have either avoided discussing migration or pushed for tighter borders. Now, development professionals are even more gloomy about the prospects of finding new political champions to their cause.

That puts the burden back on rights groups and aid workers to change minds at a time when public perceptions of migrants and refugees are headed for the poles: Either all should be welcomed or none. Either all refugees are dangerous or there’s not a single bad egg.

Koser said advocates could consider a more nuanced path forward by doing more to acknowledge the challenges of integration. That could mean pushing for greater poverty reduction and services in the very places most resistant to outside arrivals.

From his experience in Sweden, Henrikson said focusing on the practicalities of migration is the priority. Getting into the labor market and learning the language are the best ways refugees and migrants can start contributing to the economy — and thus start winning the battle for hearts and minds of the host population.

Whatever happens going forward, the messaging needs to change, said Keny-Guyer. “There is real recognition that this is a fragile time in history and those of us who believe in a better world have got to do a better job.”

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About the author

Dickenson beth full
Elizabeth Dickinson@dickinsonbeth

Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.


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