Blogs 2018

The public understanding of migration

A variety of factors influence how people conceive of the issue

Prof. Dr. Steven Vertovec, geschäftsführender Direktor, Max-Planck-Institut zur Erforschung multireligiöser und multiethnischer Gesellschaften • December 2018

Blog also published by the Max Planck Society


The run-up to today’s signing of the UN-Migrationspakt has wrought a storm of diatribe. This is not surprising, given the hostile environment already created by the populist right over the last two years. Migration is a political football now being played like never before. Any large, policy-related declaration – even a non-binding one like the Migrationspakt – is bound to be kicked around as a kind of political maneuvering.

Beyond critically observing political games around migration discourse, we should have a look at the ways such discourses in fact register with the general public. This includes inquiring into the ways members of the public come to perceive and understand migration issues in the first place. It is clear that there are very different views and consequent attitudes on these topics. This is exhibited in polls and studies such as that by the Social Change Initiative, which indicates that in Germany the public is divided into at least five population segments on migration issues, almost evenly split in their valuations from very positive to very negative.

Of course, we need to take account of the correlations between this array of attitudes and specific social characteristics: gender and age, education levels, class, geography and more. There are certainly surveys and studies that indeed correlate such characteristics with public attitudes. However, drawing on a range of research, we can identify numerous factors that additionally impact upon the ways various members of the public come to understand migration almost regardless of their social traits.

One such factor is a false sense of the numbers. Practically everywhere, most people over-estimate the number of migrants and ethnic minorities in their country. People who think migrant numbers are huge often see migrants as a threat and want to reduce the numbers by cutting immigration. Even after people are given corrected information about ethnic minority numbers, however, it usually doesn’t change their already-formed, adverse feelings towards foreigners. Most people also regularly over-estimate future ratios of ethnic minorities, too, usually far beyond population projections. Changing demographics – however real or imagined – trigger threats to people’s status and other fears creating negative attitudes toward migration and ethnic minorities.

Even slight but rapid diversification has notable effects. In places where a relatively small but fast influx of migrants have arrived, tendencies toward xenophobia are greatest. Therefore it is not just the perceived size of migrant groups that affects people’s assessments of change, but it is the pace of change that some find distressing. Such distress tends to prompt anti-immigrant politics: for instance, in the USA, in areas most unsettled by rapid demographic change – such as Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania -- people were inclined to vote for Trump. In the UK, it has been shown that in places where the foreign-born population increased rapidly over the preceding ten years – such as rural areas in the North -- people usually voted for Brexit.

It is not just size or pace, but proximity to migration-driven diversification that also impacts on perceptions. In urban areas that are relatively ethnic majority-homogeneous but immediately next to highly diversifying ones, xenophobia also tends to increase.

People overwhelmingly see issues of migration at the national level to be more problematic than within own localities. Eurobarometer and Ipso Mori surveys show such a ‘perception gap’ between national and local levels of concern in many policy areas such as crime, unemployment and health – but the gap is particularly strong concerning immigration. That is, despite experiencing no problems in their own cities and neighbourhoods, when abstracting or generalizing to a national level many people tend to think that migration is a major problem.

Transformations in the media industry – especially complex new forms of competition, the prominence of 24-hour cable news and multiplying information sources on the Internet – have directly impact on how migration issues have been covered over the last thirty years. An ‘air of crisis’ around migration now tends to dominate media outlets as an audience-seeking strategy. Studies show the considerable effects on public understanding when certain media frame migration stories in unfavorable if not dehumanizing ways, such as through themes such as illegality, government failing, victimhood, criminality, security, and cultural distance. Fundamentally, story framings that conflate ‘immigrants’, ‘asylum-seekers’ and ‘refugees’ directly influence public understanding, often directly leading to more negative perceptions of migration overall.

A fragmentation of understanding also arises from the fact that people today can choose their own, pre-packaged sources of information that fit their own views. Further, on social media, the effects of moral-emotional language – especially around issues like migration – have even more far-reaching effects. In this way, by posting highly sensational and emotionally-charged content about immigration on Facebook, the AfD was far more successful online than all other parties in the 2017 election. This profoundly shaped not just the election results, but the ways that many of its Facebook followers perceived and understood the issues concerning migration.

With so many factors combining to shape public understandings of migration – often in negative ways – it is ever more important for academics, journalists and policymakers to communicate more effectively about facts and policies to mitigate unfounded fears. This is especially important as outspoken figures seek to manipulate facts and policies explicitly to foment fear around migration.