Bridging the Gap: Popular Discourse on Refugees and Immigration

This comment aims to draw attention to the importance and danger of popular attitudes towards refugees’ rights and immigration in general.

When we are talking about improving the situation of refugees, lobbying efforts designed to change inhumane policies are undoubtedly indispensable. However, I would argue that this approach has its limitations. It should be just as obvious that contributing to a popular consensus more mindful of refugees’ rights must remain one of the main objectives of every movement trying to improve the circumstances refugees live in. We can therefore assume that, in order to be successful, any campaign aiming to strengthen refugees’ rights requires a certain level of support among wider parts of the population of the so-called receiving countries. As a result, the attitude of those who do not consider themselves to be immediately affected by the situation of refugees should be seen as a critical factor for achieving our goals.

Last week, British think tank British Future published its manual ‘How To Talk About Immigration’. The policy suggestions offered by the authors certainly require further scrutiny (see also the comment by Don Flynn of the Migrants’ Rights Network), but the publication emphasises the importance of public consent in the debate on immigration in the British context. Only a month ago, Richard Seymour asserted in the Guardian that ‘mass, popular racism’ should be understood as a major force affecting attitudes towards this issue. While some of Seymour’s arguments – just like those offered by Sunder Katwala, one of the co-authors of the British Future report, in his response – should be taken with a grain of salt, the important aspect here is the role played by economic and social policies in forming popular attitudes towards refugees.


A glance at the comments section below Seymour’s and Katwala’s articles takes us to the heart of the issue: denouncing prevalent discourse on refugees is often perceived as a form of moral lecturing; criticising the treatment of asylum seekers, for example, is frequently seen as self-congratulatory posturing by liberal hypocrites far removed from the problems of ‘real people’. There is a simple reason for this, of course: attitudes towards refugees, perhaps more obviously so than towards ‘other’ immigrants, are inevitably of a moral nature. (In fact, this understanding is quietly reaffirmed whenever asylum seekers are accused of having come to Europe ‘merely for economic reasons’.)

It will always be tempting to explain in economic terms the short- and long-term benefits of immigration; due the moral nature of the subject matter, however, such an approach can only be self-defeating. At the same time, we must strive to be convincing even to those who might be susceptible only to economic arguments (if they can be won over at all). The task we are facing, then, is to bridge this gap instead of merely preaching to the converted. In my view, this issue is of fundamental importance for influencing the public discourse on refugees and their legal situation.

– Sebastian