Communicating on migration

Policy Brief Series

Policy Brief


In Europe, media, policy and public debates about migration are highly polarised and harmful, leading to increasingly restrictive migration and asylum policies.

Against this background, engaging in discussion on this topic is very risky for European policymakers because their arguments, if not correctly handled, could – and often do – backfire.

What is needed, instead, is changing the discourse paradigm and shifting the debate by participating less and only when it is truly needed and really useful; increasing the honesty of the debate in order to produce policies that reflect the complex nature of the phenomenon; and improve the terminology, because words matter!

With these three policy briefs by Rob McNeil, FEPS and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung aim to provide concrete suggestions to lower the volume of the debate, reduce polarization and improve terminology.

Choose your battles

Media, policy and public debates about migration in European countries, and around the world, are often polarised and negative, contributing to demand for restrictive migration policies. Where organisations are keen to shift this paradigm, they commonly work to insert themselves and their more positive messages more firmly into public debates on migration.

This paper discusses whether this proactive engagement is more effective in shifting public debates than the counter-intuitive strategy of attempting to lower the volume of the debate through less participation. We consider these options by examining the question through the lenses of framing and agenda-setting theories.

This policy brief is also available in German.

A case for communicating honestly

Migration is commonly framed in policy and media debates as a crisis (or multiple crises) to be solved. In recent years, public concerns shaped by this crisis framing have increasingly driven European voters toward populist political parties who offer ostensibly “simple” answers such as numerical limitations on migration, migrant push-backs or mass deportations. These policies are harder to implement than to promise and, as a result, will tend to disappoint voters. They are unlikely to end public concerns about migration, nor resolve the migration challenges facing the states who put them into effect.

On the other side, advocates for more liberal policymaking commonly propose their own simplistic solutions, such as the expansion of safe and legal routes to reduce dangerous or irregular migration flows, despite little evidence that these approaches would be effective.

These approaches on both sides fuel polarisation, understate the complexity of migration, overstate the likely efficacy of the policy tools available to manage migration and ignore potentially difficult consequences. This paper explores the implications of this for policy debates and considers how to reduce polarization and work toward honest and realistic migration policymaking.

This policy brief is also available in German.

A case for communicating clearly

The words we use to discuss any issue have a bearing on how we understand it, and this is particularly true of migration debates, where the terms we use can be infuriatingly vague – creating generalised impressions of “who people are” that can be entirely misleading and lead to policy decisions that may be misguided, affect the rights and opportunities of individuals or even place lives at risk.

This paper argues that terminology matters in the policymaking process and that nuance and clarity are vitally important. It sets out suggested guidelines for policymakers and media dealing with the issue of migration.

This policy brief is also available in German.

Read Rob McNeil’s article ‘Is it time to turn down the volume on the migration debate?’ in The Progressive Post.

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