Public and Political Discourses of Migration: International Perspectives

Public and Political Discourses of Migration: International Perspectives, Amanda Haynes, Martin J. Power, Eoin Devereux, Aileen Dillane and James Carr, volume editors (April 2016)

The Power, Discourse and Society Research Group at the University of Limerick have spent the last eighteen months working on the edited volume Public and Political Discourses of Migration: International Perspectives, which is publishing this month. For thousands of years, migrants have traversed the globe, often in large collectives. The manner in which such migrations have been discursively framed in more recent times, and how that framing impacts on individual and collective lived experience, whether through formal policies or through more vague and often hostile public attitudes, is a key concern in this volume. In this post, we want to highlight a number of key findings and discuss whether there are opportunities for resistance to the dominant discourses of migration.

The majority of the chapters in the collection rehearse a depressing tale of how state, media and other discourses serve to racialise, criminalise, stigmatise and ‘other’ migrants. In a populist media setting the framing of stories about migrants within a criminality, security or contaminant frame seems to have been exacerbated in recent years – a development which we feel has been aided and abetted by the shrinkage in media ownership and the renewed focus on the marketization of (populist) news. What then are the prospects for disrupting these discourses and popularising a new way of thinking about migration?

When we were finalising the volume, the plight of Syrian refugees dominated the media. Images of men, women and children throwing themselves in desperation at the borders of Fortress Europe entered our homes nightly, while political and public discourses describing migrants as a threat to our lifestyle and as criminal persisted. Volunteers in Germany, Turkey and France welcomed refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict and eventually politicians across Europe announced plans to accommodate thousands of newcomers. In that moment, discourses which prioritised individual safety over state security and border control had gained sufficient ground in the West to alter the political response to Syrian refugees in an unprecedented fashion. The positive public and political responses were made possible by a temporary victory in shaping public and political discourse surrounding the particular category of migrant, and for a while at least, anti-immigration scare-mongering was drowned out by public acceptance of the validity of a humanitarian response to people fleeing the war in Syria. The confluence of events which was required to produce this response, we argue, means that this popularisation of a humanitarian approach to refugees is unfortunately limited and passing. What we may carry forward from this however, is the understanding that the numbers of those who can be swayed are large enough to change policy. This is a very significant realisation.

Migration is an inherently political act and issue, being about seeking, granting and denying access to resources, opportunity and privilege. Our understandings of migration are hence heavily influenced by our own politics – our own approaches to ownership and redistribution. The fundamental value-systems ideology and beliefs on which they rest are not so easy to shape and influence. However, what the migration as a consequence of the Syrian conflict demonstrates is that between the poles of active left and right-wing actors, there is a very significant (possibly apathetic or inactive) middle mass – and they can be swayed and mobilised. We argue that this is the site and reason for resistance.

For both migrant and host country activists the role of the internet as a platform for resistance has developed since the 1990s. The internet can serve as a virtual public sphere allowing individuals and groups to campaign, to become empowered, and to raise their otherwise suppressed voices with minimal resource requirements. While we need to exercise caution over the sometimes extravagant claims made concerning the power of Citizen Journalism, the advent of social media does allow possibilities to challenge hegemonic discourses. Arguably even more challenging than the question of how to disseminate alternative framings of migration is the question of which alternative frameworks of understanding will effectively disrupt dominant discourses. One tactic is to focus on disassembling the myth of migration, via evidence-based interventions, and provide alternative frameworks of understanding which may be more effective in redirecting debate. We would argue that perhaps the starting point for a more constructive bi-partisan conversation on migration begins with the common consensus that significant, long-term migration is inevitable. The battleground then shifts from our borders to our streets, schools and homes, and to the question of how we will all live together.

In the context of a humanitarian crisis, this collection is a timely intervention, helping us to understand the content and dynamics of political and public discourse about migration. The collection is organised along thematic lines, beginning initially with two essays on ‘liminal beings’. This is followed by a couplet of sections which address particular racialized groups. The third section of the book expands the discussion to consider the significance of music, dance and art as discourse. The book’s final section contains a couplet of chapters examining majority population discourse, and online discourse. The collection concludes with a reflection on the possibility and challenges of mobilising discourse as resistance.

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