The War of Perception:
Confronted by the Refugee Crisis

by Emily ter Steeg

This is not a refugee crisis, it is a political crisis.

Paris - At this moment the average European citizen deems migration a bigger threat than terrorism: the predominant feeling is that migrants are stealing our jobs, threatening our cultural identity and increasing the chances of a terrorist attack. Migration has always happened, so why has it been framed as the greatest threat of the 21st century?

Former Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Emma Bonino points at politicians: “why are they always surprised?” And indeed, we should wonder why still no effective migration policy has been developed for the European Union?


Predicting the migration crisis

If politicians had only taken a brief glance at the historic facts and the reality of today they would have not been so surprised. First of all, the demographic numbers were and continue to be clear indicators. For example, in Niger the median age is 14.8 with an average fertility rate of 7.6: where will this young, ambitious population try to go? Secondly, the consequences of climate change have been predicted decades ago.

In Africa and the Middle East, global warming rapidly increases the frequency of natural disasters like flooding and drought, fuelling poverty and conflict. And thirdly, the escalation of (political) conflicts in Africa and the Middle East region was highly likely: pressure had steadily built up for years. Western governments were well aware of bad governance in countries like Syria, so did they simply expect populations to endure suppression? In the end, we need to ask ourselves the following question: were politicians truly overwhelmed by the ‘refugee crisis’ or did they simply fail to find democratic support for an effective migration policy?

The war of perception and populist politics

Populists are winning the war of perception in Western democracies: migration is perceived as a threat rather than an economic opportunity or a moral obligation. Why have elected leaders failed to explain the importance of the pressing nature of the migration crisis and convinced a majority of the electorate to welcome newcomers? Some point at the spoiled nature of our generation, which has never experienced war: a unique and under-appreciated privilege in the history of mankind. Europeans have forgotten their history and the reason why the European Union was founded in the first place. The privilege of peace has led us to neglect the democratic system.

Parliaments used to be places where representatives sought to reach a consensus to safeguard peace amongst the people. Nowadays, parliaments often seem to be political arenas used for charismatic power play and the personal gain of votes (especially during election cycles). It does not seem to matter to politicians that this development goes hand in hand with increased polarization and ever-greater division among the population.

Angela Merkel positioned herself as a martyr for the refugees but is now crawling back as she faces the upcoming elections next month. Perhaps asylum should not be a political matter but we cannot deny it has become a political issue today. To put it simply: people are afraid and populists do not hesitate to fuel their fear, subsequently using it to expand their fan-base. 

Reality check: there is no easy way out

The biggest challenges of today related to the ‘migration crisis’ are a loss of jobs, the absence of a constructive dialogue and harmonious integration. The loss of jobs is a reality that must be dealt with regardless of migration. Technology will rapidly cause  jobs to disappear in almost every sector: people need to realize they are mainly competing with robots and algorithms. NOT migrants. Secondly, polarization and categorization are sabotaging a constructive dialogue.

Everyone seems to be very comfortable residing in a bubble of like-minded souls and casually labels people outside their bubble ‘racists, fascists, xenophobes and/or sexists’ but the uproar following the American elections has once again demonstrated the need to burst this bubble. Finally, there is the vicious circle of anti-migration policy that is causing a lack of integration.

Some people are against migration and do not want their political representatives to increase the migration budget because migrants are not ‘integrating.’ However, it is the consequent lack of funding required to achieve  harmonious integration that leads to “bad” integration. Moreover, a hostile attitude towards migrants does not help the matter  either.

Research  from Oxford suggests nearly half the jobs in the US are at risk of disappearing due to automation by 2040 

Research from Oxford suggests nearly half the jobs in the US are at risk of disappearing due to automation by 2040 

Let’s stop being surprised. Let’s instead confront reality.
It is coming for us either way.

The solution starts with you

So how can leaders convince the electorate to support the implementation of an effective solution to deal with the inevitable truth of migration? Politicians and aspiring politicians need to take responsibility. A dialogue must be facilitated to increase mutual understanding and promote mobility and exchange. More people must participate in the political process in a constructive manner to bring the collective back to the centre.

More than anything, the millennials, including myself, who claim to be the victims of the conservative older population need to engage in the discussion: they are also victims of their own passive attitude. Emma Bonino suggested ‘One day without migrants’ and ‘One day without Schengen’ as movie concepts trying to explain how much we depend on migration when it comes to our  wealth and general wellbeing. The vicious cycle of “bad” integration needs to be broken to move towards a harmonious, multicultural society that is appreciated by the entire population.
This will also require the reform of social welfare systems.

Technology and globalization will continue to centralize wealth leading to an untenable situation. Reform should result in increased sharing of the benefits of modernization, thereby decreasing frustration and fear amongst the working class. When it comes to migration as well as all political matters, we need to take an approach that is guided by intelligence and empathy.

Let’s stop being surprised. Let’s instead confront reality.  
It is coming for us either way.