International Migration: Tensions & Misrepresentations — A View from southern Africa

Courtesy of IRIN News

About 214 million people were living and working outside their home country in 2010, and international migration has continued to grow despite the global economic crisis, but in many countries negative attitudes towards migrants are also rising. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), focusing on the importance of communicating more effectively about migration in its World Migration Report 2011 [ bookstore/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=37&products_id=752&zenid=f838c3201667ef014e1754354073f6b5 ], released on 6 December, notes that such attitudes stem in part from misinformation and misperceptions about migration that have been fuelled by opportunistic politicians and poor media reporting.

“Few areas of public policy are subject to greater misrepresentation… yet more influenced by public opinion, than international migration,” write the report’s authors. “Accurately informing relevant stakeholders and the wider public about migration may be the single most important policy tool in all societies faced with increasing diversity.”

During periods of economic recession, national debates on migration issues are often politicized, and evidence of the economic benefits that migration can bring is ignored in favour of assumptions that migrants are fuelling unemployment and draining public resources.

People in migrant-receiving countries tend to significantly overestimate the size of their country’s migrant population, and often blame them for social ills ranging from crime to unemployment. A 2010 public opinion poll, cited in the report, found that 57 percent of Americans felt immigration had a negative effect on the country. Another recent study of eight migrant-receiving countries found that an American perception of 39 percent of the US population being migrants differed significantly from the actual figure of 14 percent. Italians believed 25 percent of their population were migrants, more than three times the actual number.

With more and more migrants heading to rapidly developing nations in their own regions, such views are not limited to the developed world. A 2006 survey of South African citizens found that 84 percent felt “too many” foreign nationals were being allowed into the country and 37 percent wanted a total ban on immigration.

Bernardo Mariano-Joaquim, IOM’s regional representative for southern Africa, commented that not enough had been done in South Africa, the region’s largest recipient of migrants, to highlight the positive effects of migration on the country’s economic development.

“In the Mpumalanga region, strong development has been thanks to Mozambican visitors and migrants, who come and purchase good and services and work on the farms,” he told IRIN, adding that even in countries with high rates of unemployment like South Africa, certain jobs, particularly of a seasonal nature, are more attractive to migrants than to locals.

Southern Africa has a long tradition of intra-regional migration, with South Africa’s mining sector attracting workers from neighbouring Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and Botswana. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, however, the country’s booming economy and progressive refugee legislation have attracted much larger numbers of economic migrants and asylum seekers from all over the continent.

The influx has led to rising tensions, especially in townships where migrants have started businesses and are perceived to be faring better than the locals. In May 2008, hostilities erupted in widespread xenophobic violence [ ] that left 60 people dead and displaced about 100,000 others. Commentators have since accused the government of not doing enough to prevent continuing sporadic attacks on foreigners [ ].

The IOM report asserts that such episodes could be avoided by “a fundamental shift in the way we communicate about migration” so as to foster more informed debate and “prevent migration from being used as a platform for other political, social and economic issues”.

Mariano-Joaquim notes that in South Africa, as in many migrant-receiving countries, politicians tend to use anti-migrant rhetoric to gain votes and also to make migrants the scapegoats for much wider socio-economic problems.

With their focus on the sensational and the dramatic, local media portrayals of migrants have not helped. “We need more balance,” he said. “There are South African business people who are becoming richer thanks to migrant workers; there are migrant workers who have started from nothing employing South Africans.”

The IOM report makes the point that “distorted communication about migration can trigger a vicious cycle that leads to misinformation being perpetuated through government policy, the mass media, the public at large and… can, in turn, skew discourse at all levels.”

The way forward, according to Mariano-Joaquim, includes de-politicizing debates around migration. “If you looked at migration through the lens of economic development, policies would be completely different,” he said, citing the example of Canada and Switzerland, where annual quotas are set for migrant labour depending on the country’s needs.

He also called for discussions about migration to include migrants themselves, and for the perspectives of migrant-sending as well as receiving countries to be considered in formulating migration policies.

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