The European continent has historically been a place where people come and go, transiting the territory and its changing borders. Some historians of migration affirm that it is impossible to understand the history of Europe without reference to migration or mobility. Peter Gatrell’s Unsettling of Europe, for instance, argues that narratives of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery, the formation of the EU, the tensions of the Cold War, the decolonisation and collapse of Communism, must all be retold by placing migration and migrants at their heart.
Paris. Paris 05e. Arrondissement de Pantheon. Strassenszene – Deutsche Fotothek, Germany – In Copyright – Educational Use Permitted
But what do we understand by ‘migrant’? Even if this term is in constant evolution, and there is no consensus on a single definition, today it is usually understood as closely related to the concept of mobility.
According to the United Nations, international migrants are people who move away from their place of usual residence, irrespective of their reason for migration or legal status, while refugees are people who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalised violence or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and require international protection. However, the distinction between migrants and refugees is not always clear, as both most often move more or less forcedly due to multiple reasons, including political conflicts, wars or extreme poverty. Despite the legal definitions that aim to differentiate between being a refugee or a migrant, when we move to other spheres those differences become blurred. Moreover, in the public debate, the distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘genuine refugees’ sometimes is made to establish a hierarchical categorisation of deservingness, where some are more entitled to settle or gain access to certain rights than others. This is where the concept of forced mobility or forced migration becomes useful, as it includes both categories in a continuum of varying degrees of violence that motivate people to move to another country.
In Time-Lapse, we also frame the phenomenon of migration in a broad sense, including multidirectional movements (not only from the Global South to the Global North) that are motivated by several grounds (e.g. economic, political and environmental) over a more or less prolonged period of time, including temporary and long-term migrants.
Migrants and refugees have been central to key transformations in Europe. How do we explain this?
Who is European? Where is Europe located? What does Europe mean? These questions have underpinned several narratives related to migration, mobility and otherness. These narratives have often been built in relation to ‘the Other’. In short, in defining who we are we typically use this other as a mirror showing what we are not (or what we think we are not). But how do we build these narratives and what do we understand by them? Narratives aspire to describe reality with simple stories to make it more understandable. yet this is not done from a neutral perspective: mainstream narratives usually correspond to the interests of powerful actors and have a normative component, by proposing actions to achieve desired outcomes (Boswell et al, 2021). Here it is when the link between narratives and policies is established: we try to justify policies with simple and convincing messages (as narratives), and these messages in turn shape what we do (as policies).
In the current context of rising right-wing and populist movements, anti-immigration narratives play a key role and are often aimed at meeting divisive political interests.
Migrants are often represented as a threat to ‘European civilisation’, national security or to welfare states. Increasingly European countries such as Hungary, Poland and France have a large representation of far-right parties in their governments and/or institutions. These parties, and other similar political organisations, use narratives to justify the closing of borders with the pretext of protecting autochthonous citizens from a perceived feeling of ‘invasion’. In this scenario, the media also play a key role in amplifying exclusionary narratives from these actors and contribute to polarising public opinion, taking advantage of people’s discontent and setting the ground for a radical turn of the political agenda (Neidhardt and Butcher, 2020).
By Filip Mishevski on Unsplash
Yet, exclusionary narratives are not new, but rather are anchored in the past. A recent study on migration narratives in the UK and French contexts during the 1960s-1980s shows how in a period of increasing flows several narratives emerged to restrict migration. Some were more openly restrictive than others, but they all converged in meeting the objective of justifying the closure of borders. These narratives include those created from a humanitarian frame, for example, which were born with the intention of helping migrants escaping situations of inequality or labour exploitation and which were defended by left-wing parties. In practice, they ended up being just as restrictive as those more restrictive; this is because the solution for assuring decent working and living conditions for migrants who were already in Europe was intrinsically linked to the control of ‘illegal’ entries and the prevention of clandestine immigration.
Today, the humanitarian frame is still used to denounce the effects of exclusionary migration policies and to defend migrants’ rights. However, several authors point out that this frame may portray migrants as victims and passive objects with no decision-making capacity, as analysed in this paper.
Refugee camp in the outskirts of Athens, 2020
By Julie Ricard on Unsplash
In this sense, more awareness is needed to enable narratives that support migrants’ rights and make references to the structural factors that foster their situation of vulnerability, whilst also including their stories and voices.
This is the contextual background upon which we propose to analyse misinformation and disinformation about migration and forced mobility, and to question hostile narratives with contextual and empirical data. A long-term perspective of migration history and narratives is thus fundamental to understanding that current migration discourses are conditioned by fears and tropes from the past and which may sustain distorted messages.
Building on this analysis, the Time-Lapse migration project aims to shed light on such messages by exploring the different geographies of the dispute – borders, everyday life and identity – while also fostering a space for reflection and critical thinking on the phenomena of migration and mis/disinformation through the hosting of artistic exhibitions with first-person perspectives.
Elaboration of contents: Berta Güell, PhD in Sociology and researcher at Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and Elena Ananiadou, museologist at La Tempesta
Boswell, Christina, Saskia Smellie, Marcello Maneri, Andrea Pogliano, Blanca Garcés, Verónica Benet- Martínez, and Berta Güell. 2021. “The Emergence, Uses and Impacts of Narratives on Migration: State of the Art.” BRIDGES Working Papers 2. https://zenodo.org/record/5720313
Comte, Emmanuel. 2021. “Historical analysis on the evolution of migration and integration narratives: British-French narratives to restrict immigration from the Global South, 1960s-mid-1980s.” BRIDGES Working Papers 1. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.5704751
Gatrel, Peter. 2019. The Unsettling of Europe: How Migration reshaped a Continent. New York, NY: Basic Books.
International Organisation for Migration (IOM). 2019. “Glossary on migration.” IML Series No. 34. https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/iml_34_glossary.pdf
Neidhardt, Alberto-Horst and Butcher, Paul. 2020. Fear and lying in the EU: Fighting disinformation on migration with alternative narratives. Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS). https://www.epc.eu/en/Publications/Fear-and-lying-in-the-EU-Fighting-disinformation-on-migration-with-al~39a1e8
Zahra, Tara. 2022. “Migration, Mobility and the Making of a Global Europe.” Contemporary European History, 31(1), 142-154. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0960777321000758