False Perceptions Underpin Anti-Migrant Sentiments By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 6, 2011 (IPS) – The rising tide of anti-migrant sentiment worldwide is caused primarily by the biased, polarised and negative debate on migration, according to a new study released here.

In its latest World Migration Report released Tuesday, the Geneva- based International Organization for Migration (IOM) said people in destination countries tend to significantly overestimate the size of the migrant population, sometimes by as much as 300 percent. 

As an example, the report points out that the actual percentage of migrants in Italy was around 7.0 percent in 2010. Yet polls showed that the population – rather erroneously – perceived this percentage to be around a staggering 25 percent. 

Similarly, in the United States, some public opinion polls showed that in 2010, the public believed the percentage of migrants in the population was at 39 percent, a far cry from an actual 14 percent. 

The report points out that "distorted communication about migration contributes to widespread anti-migrant sentiments, which have recently resurfaced in many parts of the world." 

Harmful stereotypes, discrimination and even xenophobia have reappeared in societies of destination, resulting in controversy on the value of multiculturalism. 

"It is all too evident that migration is often the catch-all issue that masks public fears and uncertainties relating to unemployment, housing and social cohesion in host countries," says IOM Director General William Lacy Swing. 

Migration, he said, can also be blamed for the loss of human capital and for economic dependency in countries of origin. 

"Accurately informing the wider public about migration may be the single most important policy tool in all societies faced with increasing diversity," said Swing, a former U.S ambassador who served in several African countries, including Nigeria, South Africa, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Joseph Chamie, director of research at the New York-based Center for Migration Studies, told IPS, "Certainly, accurate and relevant communication is always desirable and few would dispute the call by IOM for an open and constructive debate on international migration." 

However, he said, reputable media communication regarding international migration does not appear to be distorted nor does it appear to play a major role in the public's desire to see less immigration and the rejection of multiculturalism by many governments. 

"It is important to note that there is a surprising gap between government and public views on migration," he said. 

Most governments and business enterprises tend to be favourably disposed to immigration, while the general public remains reluctant to admit foreigners, especially those who differ greatly from the host communities, said Chamie, a former director of the U.N. Population Division. 

Whether in affluent countries in the West or less wealthy nations in the developing world, he argued, people are concerned about immigration. 

In addition to unemployment and economic uncertainties, people are worried about losing their traditional culture and national identities. They feel that their way of life is being badly affected and needs protection from the adverse effects of foreign influences, he added. 

Opinion polls regularly report that large majorities believe that there should be greater restriction of immigration and tighter control of their country's borders, said Chamie. 

In its report, IOM calls for "a fundamental shift in the way we communicate about migration, especially during economic downturns when political discourse, media reports and public opinion on the nature, purpose and socio-economic impact of migration tend to be negative". 

Yet the report does not call for an uncritical bias on migration issues. 

An open discussion about migration means understanding and directly addressing what drives people's fears and the negative attitudes as expressed in polls in order to reduce public hostility. 

The report also says that public attitudes towards migration continue to be strongly influenced by the socio-economic status, age and level of education of respondents and their level of interaction with migrants. 

In Germany, a 2009 poll showed that 65 percent of young people said they have more positive attitudes towards migration because they regularly interacted with migrants. 

"The perceived availability of jobs and prevalent perceptions that migrants take jobs away from nationals and/or place a strain on a country's resources also influence attitudes and poll results," the report said. 

However, it notes that opinion polls can be unreliable as their results may be based on false assumptions of what a migrant is or is not. 

It also underlines that surveys and media reports rarely pay attention to or echo the voice of employers, who remain key actors in today's global migration scene. 

The study suggests that questions relating to the changing compositions of our societies and cultural diversity can be addressed by integrating diversity into mainstream media and by encouraging migrants to use new social media tools to regularly engage with host and home societies. 

"Whilst honest and balanced media reporting is paramount to foster a more enlightened debate on migration, migrants must also find their voices to tell their own stories," Swing said. 

All too often perceived as passive, helpless and marginalised individuals, migrants would then be seen for what they are: shapers of their own destiny, said Swing, a former special representative of the U.N. secretary general for Western Sahara and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Chamie told IPS that in addition to the migration gap, law enforcement officials and policymakers as well as business leaders are viewed by the public as lax in implementing approved policies and enforcing existing laws relating to immigration. 

For many, simply the presence of tens of millions of unlawful residents in the labour force attests to such laxity. 

Moreover, various national leaders and party officials most recently in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have expressed serious doubts about the success of immigrant integration, especially among those who differ religiously and ethnically from their host communities. 

World leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and David Cameron of the UK, for example, have noted that attempts to build a multicultural society have failed, he added. 

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