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New Report Examines How Immigration Narratives Take Hold and Spread
Press Release
Wednesday, October 20, 2021

New Report Examines How Immigration Narratives Take Hold and Spread

WASHINGTON — International migration has more than tripled worldwide since 1960, with many countries previously unaccustomed to large-scale immigration now hosting sizeable foreign-born populations. As societies respond to social and demographic changes, narratives about immigration, meaning the collective stories that are told about migration and immigrants, are key to understanding public opinion and how policy choices are formed. Yet little is known about how narratives, positive and negative alike, become more powerful in certain contexts and lie dormant in others.

A new study by the Migration Policy Institute, Metropolitan Group, the RAND Corporation and the National Immigration Forum, How We Talk about Migration: The Link between Migration Narratives, Policy and Power, examines how narratives take hold and are spread, especially in times of crisis. The report draws from case studies of five countries with differing political and cultural contexts—Colombia, Lebanon, Morocco, Sweden and the United States—all of which have seen an increase in migration and have experienced significant public debate over immigration policy in recent years.

The report’s authors, Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, Haim Malka and Shelly Culbertson, find several commonalities across the countries examined. For example, they note that both positive and negative narratives tend to rely on moral frameworks as a justification—for instance, calling for generosity or compassion toward refugees because of humanitarian values, or arguing for penalties for irregular migrants because of a commitment to law and order. Yet negative narratives tend to be particularly sticky, they find, even when they are not rooted in evidence.

Among other trends identified:

  • Many positive migration narratives invoke feelings of national pride rather than attempting to “sell” concrete benefits of migration. In many countries, top-down stories about migration tap into core notions of national identity and attempt to invoke pride, such as being a nation of immigrants (in the case of the United States) or being recognized for a diverse heritage (Morocco).
  • Elite, top-down messages about migration often clash with views on the ground. Many government leaders spread messages about the benefits of migration, but these do not always align with people’s lived experiences. And in many places, the public has a fundamental mistrust of government or perceives policymakers have failed to effectively manage migration challenges, which can also spark skepticism.
  • The most dominant threat narratives are driven by insecurity—whether related to economics, culture and identity, personal safety or national security. The stickiest negative narratives about migration are often interwoven with perceived threats to economic, physical or cultural security, even if these threats are not well supported by data. Migrants competing with citizens for jobs was a narrative theme found to some extent in all case-study countries, regardless of the health of their labor market.
  • There is often a tipping point when feelings of acceptance shift and feelings of insecurity begin to dominate. Welcoming stances toward migration are not always permanent. Even when they are rooted in core values, if countries have immigration levels perceived as too large or increasing too quickly, a tipping point may be reached where narratives of threat, loss and fairness gain power. Even in Sweden—a country with significant resources—the 2015 migration crisis left many feeling that too many asylum seekers had been accepted too quickly and that the capacity to admit newcomers had reached its limit.

“Looking ahead, these findings reveal a need to conduct in-depth fieldwork to further understand the most salient narratives, and what values are driving them, in order to contribute to policy discussions about the significant migration-related shifts occurring in these countries and globally,” the authors conclude.

You can read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/migration-narratives-policy-power.

And for MPI’s research on social cohesion and identity, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/topics/social-cohesion-identity.


The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.