Asylum policy has stirred an emotional public debate

In the current impasse, academia can illuminate and improve the discussion and policies alike. Andrea Römmele and Henrik Schober explain how.

When the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, critics drew attention to its problematic migration policy. How could such a virtuous honor be awarded to an organization that looks the other way for as long as possible when refugee disasters happen in the Mediterranean See and elsewhere? As important as this argument might have been in terms of the EU’s ethics and morals, it had little influence on the debate on asylum policy. In a way, this is a key characteristic of the public discourse about refugees, asylum, migration and integration. The discourse gets very emotional, triggering equally emotional responses. This leaves little room for the substantive arguments and clear political messages that are needed.

Two categories of asylum seekers

In principle, these issues affect every single one of us. As a global community and as citizens of our countries, we are immediately facing challenges connected to migration and asylum policy. However, the public discourse does not fully grasp the complexity of the issue but puts most refugees in one of two categories: They are either ailing and needy because they flee from conflict and prosecution in their own countries. People in this category shall be given protection, and they are supposed to return to their country of origin once the situation is improving (which is, by the way, what most of them want anyway). The second category sees refugees as people, who are suffering from social and economic pressure and look for a better life. They are seen as a burden for the welfare system that cannot be afforded. Such a simplistic twofold differentiation between hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum is of course impossible. This obvious but inconvenient truth has been ignored almost completely, though. Distinctions are being made based on superficial criteria such as the country of origin, and debates about the two categories lack depth, understanding and awareness for the many connections among them.

Can refugees ease the demographic pressure?

Then there is a third debate taking place which, again, might have huge impact on migration and asylum policy but which is conducted more or less separately. This debate goes by the label of “demographic change”. There is great need for skilled workers who can cover shortages in the workforce in many different fields. From time to time, a link to migration policy is established in this context but hardly ever is it linked to concrete asylum and refugee matters although there is evidence that many refugees might offer skills and knowledge which are very much needed to keep social services and private enterprises running.

As a case in point, David Laitin and Marc Jahr recently suggested to place Syrian refugees in Detroit. The city is facing an enormous social and economic pressure and struggles with the inability to meet its citizen’s needs. This is highly controversial as critics rightly warn about the risks of population engineering. Also, one would have to be very careful in assessing the situations of both the city and the refugees. The general idea behind this suggestion, however, deserves attention: In many cases refugees can contribute to the social and economic development of a city / a region / a country rather than burdening its welfare system.

Unfortunately, progressive interventions are the exception rather than the rule. Also in the United States borders in the south are sealed off in order to fence off migrants from Latin America, and politicians take tough stances which are oftentimes shaped by public opinion and campaign strategy rather than facts and thorough analysis. Again, the question at hand is how an emotionally charged topic could be communicated in a more sensitive and conscious way. Some useful approaches can be derived from political communication science.

The five stages of discourse

Political communication is particularly relevant during times of election campaigns. However, in the extensive and more differentiated media democracy we are witnessing today topics may be put on the agenda and cause public debate at any given moment – even without the intention of politicians and opinion leaders. The public can voice their concerns and demand answers more actively and forceful – not least through petitioning and holding referenda. This way the policy process has completely opened for public discourse.

Communication research differentiates five stages of a discourse in regards to the policy process and the emergence of a topic of public interest.

  • problem identification
  • agenda-setting
  • decision making
  • implementation
  • and evaluation

Once completed, the cycle repeats itself over and over again, and knowledge derived in one cycle may instigate another.

Framing, timing and good arguments

It is, thus, important to already communicate the topic in a coherent narrative as early as the first phase. This form of embedding is called “framing”. A frame is the context or narrative in which the content and direction of an issue is rooted and put across. Frames usually exist on both sides of the debate. A prominent example is the US-abortion debate. “Pro-life” activists argue in favor of the protection of the life of the unborn child, while “pro-choice” advocates argue in favor of self-determination and the freedom of choice of each individual. Both messages are very powerful and effective – intuitively, no one opposes a plea for either life or freedom.

A second aspect of successful political communication is the right timing. Often the issue and its challenges are well known for many years, yet they have not managed to start a greater public debate. These attention cycles are to some extent brought about by external factors. Nonetheless, they can be influenced, in part, through communication management which may activate public awareness.

Thirdly, it is crucial to discuss the topic at hand in an objective and open manner. The conflicts arising currently around the issue of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have shown what happens if, first, the public is excluded from the debate and, second, those who are responsible for the negotiation avoid a public discourse by every conceivable means. The very same occurred during the euro crisis and the implementation of the euro rescue package. The discourse failed to make it comprehensible for the public and led, consequently, to indifference and frustration, or even radicalization. Citizens, politicians, the media and many more have similarly called for better communication and explanation of the agreements reached and decisions made.

Especially, when it comes to morally charged topics, however, the aspect of thoroughly communicating and explaining one’s stances and convictions has been forgotten now and then.

More than one issue, more than one level

Currently, migration policy clearly faces a communicational gap because, on the one hand, the topic is highly emotional as the citizens’ readiness to help illustrates. On the other hand, though, it seems that the public debate has reached an impasse and many arguments of those who promote action are not heard.

There are two frames that are used to present the topic as one which politics and society can and should care about:

the social frame argues on the basis of the necessity to provide aid,

and the economic frame sees immigration as a contribution to economic growth and social security.

Both frames and their related arguments make valid points, and it seems reasonable to suggest that both are looked at together. Furthermore, politically speaking, they are inseparably combined. From a communicational point of view, however, this connection does not work that easily. The message sent to the public claims that those coming to a country should be taken in because they are utterly destitute AND helpful for the economy. Even though this might be true is seems to be a contradiction and does not go together very well in one single message. The two frames are too different and so is the timing for public debate on both aspects. Both frames require a specific narrative and need to reach the target group in their own way.

Separate the frames

Therefore, the way out of this communicational dilemma is the separation of the two frames “refugees/emergency assistance” and “growth/demographic change”. This isn’t easy, neither from a political nor communicational viewpoint. Moreover, it is further aggravated by the fact that, for example, the academic world has very little empirically grounded and assured knowledge in the field. Most surveys do not pay attention to differentiations among migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Too often, surveys simply ask about attitudes towards “foreigners”. After all, in order to design a suitable frame it would be essential to know what the public thinks about each of those distinct groups.

The humanitarian frame and the economic frame have to be developed in close collaboration but still separate from each other. It is a huge challenge for all stakeholders involved to tackle both frames and develop separate messages, timelines and means of communication while at the same time paying attention to their many links and shared features. Ideally this would have happened much earlier in the process. Nonetheless, political communication is necessary during all phases of the policy cycle and helps to impart the arguments to the public. Hence, it is never too late to start. The current way of handling does not do any justice to either group involved, and a progressive society must think of ways to better handle an issue so pressing and so important and not give in to simplistic and populist arguments.

Framing the debate adequately is, of course, only one step that needs to be taken. In the end it is the concrete policies that matter most. However, finding the best policies starts with framing and communicating thoroughly and consciously, with special regard to the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers themselves, and acknowledging that the issue is too complex for simple solutions. This is how you eventually earn yourself a Nobel Peace Prize.

This text was first published in German on Mediendienst-Integration.

More about the authors

  • Andrea Römmele , Professor for Communication in Politics and Civil Society