Beyond ‘Saving Lives’: The Hidden Agenda of Migrant Information Campaigns
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
‘Saving lives’: the official but ineffective humanitarian rationale for information campaigns.
For the last 30 years, Western countries have been implementing information campaigns to supposedly ‘save lives’ by intervening in migration flows before they begin (Carling & Hernández-Carretero, 2011). Information campaigns are attractive to policymakers because they are cheap, generate little negative press, and are often endorsed by humanitarian organisations. Unlike other migration policy instruments, they work by spreading information and ideas to alter behaviours. They usually cover four aspects of irregular migration: the dangers of the journey, the difficulties of living undocumented, the immigration policies in the host country, and the risks of relying on smugglers and traffickers (Optekamp, 2016). Official guidelines state that information campaigns should provide objective and neutral information and should not ‘actively dissuade migration’, but instead help migrants make better informed decisions and take less risks, therefore reducing their vulnerability (Bakers & Massey, 2009, p.3).
Aware Migrants campaign
This is premised on the false assumption that migrants are unaware of the risks and hardships of migration. It completely dismisses research evidence that shows that migrants are in fact well-informed of the dangers, but decide to leave anyway (Alpes & Sørenson, 2015). This simplistic stance that information prevents risk-taking behaviours disregards the multiple of factors playing into migrants’ decisions to leave, like rejoining family and friends in the host country. And, most importantly, it overlooks the fact that life-threatening factors such as conflict, persecution, repressive governments, and human rights abuses may be forcing people to leave their lives behind, and that no amount of information will change the need to leave such a situation. If someone faces threats to their safety, they will surely consider inaction a greater risk than those mentioned in information campaigns (Townsend & Oomen, 2015). That information campaigns are based on flawed assumptions about migrants’ decision-making processes confirms what existing research has found: campaigns are unlikely to succeed in providing new information and in preventing deaths.
It is also worth noting that, in practice, the information provided in campaigns is often much less balanced and neutral that officially suggested. For example, the ‘Aware Migrants’ campaign launched in 2016 by the Italian government incorporates testimonials of migrants recounting tragic memories of the abuse they endured on their journey. All the stories presented are of despair, shock, sorrow, and anger, and often end with warnings to ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ that migration is a ‘road with no return’ that should not be attempted (Musarò, 2019, p.633). Similarly, it has recently emerged that the UK Home Office created a website for a fake organisation called 'On The Move', complete with a logo and glossy branding, claiming to ‘provide migrants in transit with free, reliable and important information’. In reality, the website targets asylum seekers with misleading claims and warns them ‘we will return you’. It invites prospective migrants to email On The Move with questions, without them knowing that they are contacting the British government, and therefore putting themselves at further risk (Dearden, 2021).
‘On The Move’ website
Consisting mostly of fearful imagery, cautionary narratives, and sensationalized representations that warn of the ‘nightmare’ that migration can become, these campaigns are far from objective and balanced. Depicting migration as inevitable failure and exploitation, they are rarely complemented with more positive messages, the possibility of ‘making it’, information on safe and legal routes, or with discussions of the diversity of migratory experiences (Pécoud, 2010). Instead, they aim to elicit feelings of anxiety, tragedy, and sadness among potential migrants, so that they reconsider their departure (Musarò, 2019). The reality is that migrants are unlikely to trust such a negative and decontextualized portrayal of migration, and, as a result, it is doubtful that these campaigns will have the intended policy result of ‘saving lives’ by making migrants reconsider their departure.
There emerges an inconsistency between authorities wanting to implement evidence-based policies, while at the same time no sound evidence existing concerning the efficacy of migrant information campaigns in providing new, lifesaving information to migrants (Browne, 2015). Yet, they remain an important policy instrument among Western states (Weiss & Tschirhart, 1994). If there is little evidence that they work, then why do states insist on developing these migrant information campaigns? Are they simply an inefficient humanitarian tool? What function do information campaigns perform beyond what is officially communicated?
Aware Migrants campaign
Deterring migrants: the undisclosed instrumental function of information campaigns
By portraying migration negatively and in fear mongering ways, information campaigns instill emotions of fear and encourage a change in perception of migration not as an opportunity but as a source of danger (Nieuwenhuys & Pécoud, 2007). By portraying migration in such a negative light, information campaigns therefore deter prospective migrants from leaving in the first instance, despite them perhaps facing desperate situations and qualifying for an asylum claim that could grant them protection in the host country. If this deterrence works, it constitutes the opposite of the humanitarian goal of protecting migrants advanced by campaign producers and may even constitute a subtle impediment to the fundamental right to asylum. Although deterrence is not a goal explicitly formulated by the actors involved in producing them, information campaigns therefore perform the instrumental function of reducing emigration before migrants reach the border (Musarò, 2019).
In doing so, rather than mobilizing ‘hard’ tools such as military equipment, fences, weapons and drones, information campaigns deploy the ‘soft’ tool of strategically crafted, targeted, and distributed messages about the dangers of migration through images, narratives, videos, and slogans (Williams, 2020). Disguising objectives of deterrence under demonstrations of care and concern for the safety of migrants also enables information campaigns to be funded by humanitarian and development budgets and supported by humanitarian actors such as the IOM (Optekamp, 2016). Moving away from the classical ‘law and order’, top-down surveillance of migrants, they also involve partnerships with celebrities like Youssou N’Dour and local media (Pécoud, 2010). By spreading negative imageries of what migration entails in the spaces where aspiring migrants live and socialize using actors that migrants are more likely to trust than governments, information campaigns attempt to subtly shape migrants’ perceptions and influence them towards a ‘culture of immobility’ (Pécoud, 2010). Regardless of whether this is effective, this exercise of power through emotional persuasion represents a new instrument of governance, an addition to the traditional exercise of power through force.
Aware Migrants campaign
While they have little prospect of achieving their informational purpose and there is limited evidence of their deterrence effectiveness, information campaigns can yield political advantages and symbolic value to governments. At the heart of migration control lies a significant dilemma for governments: they must be seen to be in control of their borders, yet direct and hostile actions such as physical confrontations between migrants and border patrols do not depict them positively to significant sections of the public and attracts negative media attention (Oeppen, 2016). In comparison, information campaigns are ‘politically palatable’ policy instruments, enabling governments to be seen favourably as they address both pro-immigration parties’ humanitarian concerns and anti-immigration parties’ security concerns (Optekamp, 2016, p.49).
On the one hand, rallying NGOs and humanitarian agencies in their purported humanitarian mission enables those who implement information campaigns to be framed as benevolent and protective, as well as concerned and caring for migrants’ safety (Optekamp, 2016). It is difficult to argue against the idea that information campaigns are doing migrants a favor by keeping them away from smugglers and preventing them from risking their life on the journey. Because it is arguably hard to say that they are ‘bad’ or take up unnecessary resources, they help governments be seen favorably by those who support migration (Carling & Hernández‐Carretero, 2011).
On the other hand, by publicly cautioning aspiring migrants of the dangers of migration, information campaigns fulfill the need of policymakers to be ‘seen to be doing something’ to reduce irregular migration numbers without putting in place substantive or costly changes (Oeppen, 2016, p.9). For governments, information campaigns represent an easier strategy than diminishing structural inequalities or tackling root causes and can therefore help them be seen favorably by those against migration who view it as a security threat (Optekamp, 2016). By playing on the ambivalent and dual narrative of security and care, information campaigns make for a compelling and federating policy that speaks to different audiences, helping to gain citizens’ support and the cooperation of different actors in the migration field. With its rhetoric flexibility, information campaigns ensure adhesion on a polarized issue. This raises the question of who the actual intended audience of information campaigns is: prospective migrants or domestic audiences?
In addition to helping governments be ‘seen to be doing something’, information campaigns symbolically displace responsibility for the risk of migrant deaths and injuries from their restrictive immigration regimes to traffickers and migrants themselves (Oeppen, 2016). Campaigns for instance obscure that the risks of the Mediterranean Sea journey have increased because of migrants having to evade detection by border police, instead implicitly blaming migrants for their risky behaviours. Recognizing that migration regimes leave few safe routes for people to cross borders, and that they thereby force migrants to take greater risks, would not be in policymakers’ interest, particularly if they hope to gain public support through the campaigns. It is much easier and less political painful to ‘blame the victim’ for their own injuries and fatalities (Weiss & Tschirhart, 1994), and it helps government deflect criticism of their own failures by scapegoating migrants and smugglers. The seemingly neutral, or humanitarian, nature of information campaigns makes it even harder to render migration abuses visible and the subject of discussion.
Australia’s campaign for Operation Sovereign Borders
Producing tragic images alongside obscuring the causes of migration and shifting the blame for risks unto migrants themselves means information campaigns portray migrants in ways that play into stereotyped and sensationalized narratives (Musarò, 2019). In assuming migrants are naïve and ignorant individuals needing to be informed, information campaigns negate their agency in elaborating coherent and informed migratory strategies (Pécoud, 2010). This portrays them as vulnerable, desperate, and passive victims, who, despite being warned of the risks, decide to leave. Additionally, by presenting facts about migration without giving a historical or political framework, information campaigns present irregular migration as a tragic ‘game of fate’ (Musarò & Parmiggiani, 2017). Whilst in reality a large portion of irregular migrants in Western countries are visa overstayers, by depicting them in this way, information campaigns give a sense that migrants only enter illegally via the sea or illegal passageways (Kosnick, 2014). This reinforces the mainstream media imagery of ‘being swarmed’ by ‘threats’ to the nation and contributes to silently legitimizing the difference between ‘us’, host country citizens, and ‘them’, migrants (Musarò, 2019).
By portraying migrants as threats, it is clear that information campaigns legitimise and garner public support for stepping up the fight against irregular migration by providing a justification for further restrictive immigration policies and the deployment of new border control technologies (Heller, 2014). In this sense, the spectacle of migrants’ suffering is not used to denounce the exclusionary migration system producing it in the first instance, but instead to cover it with a humanitarian varnish and makes it appear as necessary and desirable. At best, information campaigns, in legitimizing a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, give fuel to the xenophobic sentiments characterizing much of the public debate and media coverage of irregular migration (Schloenhardt & Philipson, 2013).
While, at first a glance and on paper, information campaigns seem to be a straightforward informational tool helping aspiring migrants understand the challenges awaiting them in migrating, it is worth remembering that ‘there is no such thing as an intrinsically innocent instrument of government’ (Hood, 1986, p.140 as cited in Weiss & Tchirhart, 1994, p.90). Taking a closer look at the inaccurate arguments put forward to justify the implementation of information campaigns raises questions as to their true and undisclosed purpose beyond that of saving lives through information provision. Weiss and Tschirhart’s (1994, p.110) argument that to ‘inform, educate, and persuade is, from another point of view, to distract, deceive, and manipulate’ holds true in the case of information campaigns.
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About the Author
Juliette recently completed her Migration Studies Masters at the University of Sussex. Prior to that, she spent her Sociology with Psychology undergraduate placement year working with refugees at Action Emploi Réfugiés, where she became interested in the impact that media representations have on our perceptions of refugees. Passionate about forging a new way forward in the way we view and respond to refugees, she now works on the Social Media team for Conversation Over Borders.