Socio-economic fallout of pandemic and creation of disinformation regarding migrants

Published : 26 Jan 2021 08:34 PM
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Millions of young people- both men and women- have taken the courageous step of leaving their homes and seeking employment abroad. A high percentage of these economic migrants have used their overseas employment opportunity to save part of their salary or earnings abroad and send it as remittance back home to facilitate socio-economic welfare of their family. Many having arrived in their destinations, have however discovered that living abroad, particularly in the Middle East or in some countries in South-east Asia and the Far East, is not as easy as had been anticipated. They face invisible challenges – many difficult to overcome.

This awkward situation has been further exacerbated over the last five years because of political instability and unsafe living conditions in their countries of residence- be it Syria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia or Lebanon.. Many have found this matrix totally difficult and have succumbed to the temptation of illegally entering Europe- Spain, France or Greece- through diverse illegal routes. This has been happening with growing intensity since 2015.

The world has observed with alarm how many thousands among them have perished while trying to cross the Mediterranean or entering Greece after crossing Turkey. Many among them have with great effort managed to reach other countries within the European Union- be it Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Austria or Portugal. Some have also sought the help of their relatives who have been living in different European countries after having become successfully legal migrants and having claimed political asylum. This includes millions from African countries, South Asian countries, China and Philippines.

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has however turned things topsy-turvy. Whereas, previously (based on my experience of having worked in different countries in Europe for nearly six years), there was general sympathy for those entering Europe illegally. Those who had entered Italy or Germany or France or Portugal or Spain were looked after and efforts were made to create employment opportunities for them out of humanitarian conditions. They were also granted legal status and were assisted in settling down along with family members who had not been able to enter with them when they had crossed into Europe illegally. However, that has now generally disappeared.

Currently, the pandemic has altered the general approach among the original European population. Large sections of Europe are now suffering from lack of employment. This has not only created anger but also more intense efforts to restrict intra-European movement among the foreign migrant population and denying them entry into Europe from well guarded refugee camps. This dimension has also assumed political dimensions.

In many cases, in different countries in the Middle East, North Africa, South East Asia and the Far East there have been efforts to expel migrant workers working there for many years. According to our Expatriates' Welfare Ministry data revealed recently, that 2.72 lakh Bangladeshi expatriates had returned home between April 1 and November 11 this year after coronavirus struck.

These Bangladeshi migrant workers returned home almost empty-handed after job losses in the host countries amid the pandemic. They came mostly from 13 countries between April 1 and November 11-from the Middle East- 10 countries- Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain and also from  Maldives, Malaysia and Singapore. Most from the Middle East returned after expiry of job contracts or because they found that there was no prospect of jobs. The figures however do not include the many thousands who went to Libya or Malta or Cyprus- hoping that they could afterwards illegally use these countries to seek illegal migration to Europe- via Greece or Italy or France or Spain. The last category is living in a totally distressful environment.

Now, stuck at home for months, most of them see a bleak future ahead with no prospect of a job anytime soon in the host countries.

In Europe, as in the United Kingdom, the USA or Canada, as mentioned earlier, matters are quite sensitive at this point of time.

In Europe, in particular, matters have deteriorated because of efforts by some sections of the population to generate populist anger and hatred and grant it political dimensions through dissemination of disinformation related to migrants and migration. Instead of a humanitarian approach we have watched with anxiety how human rights are being trampled.

The definition of disinformation given by the EU’s independent high-level expert group on online fake news has been described as “all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit.” Analysts have pointed out that such disinformation is often being carried out by individuals, organizations or institutions. This may include state actors and also domestic supporters of radical political options.

Migration remains a salient political issue and a major topic of disinformation. Lies and half-truths about migrants are unfortunately being spread freely across the EU.  Strategic analysts have described this process as being a form of reverse discrimination where the perceived discrimination against a dominant or majority group is shown as being to the advantage of vulnerable groups. In this regard some political groups use this format to criticize that contrary to good governance measures are being adopted by some institutions and some governments for favoring migrants over the local population.

Recently a total of 1,425 articles were analyzed for the study, with a combined engagement of over 13.7 million likes, comments and shares in the social media. The sample of articles (430 from Germany, 363 from Italy, 374 from Spain and 259 from the Czech Republic) was selected by using a set of broad, migration-related keywords, such as migrants and refugees and misrepresentations of reality based upon manipulative use of information. Only 16% of the 1,425 articles were outright false, while 23% used distorted (e.g. manipulated figures) and 34% misleading (facts used out of context) information. Furthermore, 26% of articles made claims that were simply unverifiable, usually because they lacked sufficient detail to fact-check. However, the analysis of underlying narratives revealed that, even in the case of unverifiable statements, sources reproduced content that matched hostile frames, strongly implying malicious intent to mislead.

It may be recalled that the topic of immigration became especially prominent in Germany after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to admit over a million refugees. Since then, German media has undergone a shift from a “sympathetic treatment of refugees” to one in which insufficient attention is given to the positive social and economic effects of migration. Instead there has been growth of nationalist discourses, hate speech and false representations of migrants in German traditional and social media. Immigration remains a source of political debate and campaigning in Italy, especially due to the activism of Matteo Salvini’s Lega (League), a party which has made it its flagship political issue. There has also been polarization of the debate by covering specific and salient topics in accordance with political agendas. Spain is another major European country of arrival, from both North Africa and South America. However, migration has not been a major topic of political discussion and controversy in that country until relatively recently. It has been noted that now, sometimes, there is a growing anti-migration discourse which portrays migrants as security and health risks and as alien or hostile to Spanish traditions.

However, the narratives and themes used by disinformation actors are not static. It has been mentioned by humanitarian workers that as events develop and public concerns shift, so do the types of stories pushed by those seeking to mislead. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a growing stream of articles linking migrants to infection risks and accusing them of receiving preferential treatment. Migrants are also sometimes depicted as a hostile invasion force, a threat to European or Christian traditions, and a measure being used to replace white Europeans in Europe.

Media analysts, legal and ethical experts have in this context also drawn attention to the fact that those spreading mal-information tend to especially target those in the ‘movable middle’ who are most open to changing their views. They have also suggested that those involved in controlling the flow and creation of the disinformation matrix should, instead of focusing on promoting simplistic depictions of migration should try to counteract specific claims. This can be done through fact-checking or counter narratives. Through this method communicators and policymakers might be able to promote alternative narratives that can undermine the appeal of hostile frames and create ‘herd immunity’ against disinformation.

Now, there is a growing general consensus that any effective communication strategy based on alternative narratives should take account some of the following recommendations:

(a) The message should aim to avoid amplifying anxieties. Messages promoting alternative narratives must be timely and reflect the news cycle. In this era tainted by the pandemic, the effort should be similar to a vaccine administered at regular intervals.  Simple, specific messages that can prompt the best immune response against hostile frames spread by disinformation should be repeated. 

(b) The media should aim to restore trust among groups. Institutions, which are often subject to discrediting campaigns, should prioritise communication through trusted intermediaries who can get messages to the hard-to-reach. They should work in partnership with civil society and local actors to deliver coordinated messages.

© Audiences should also be targeted based on their values and what they feel is important. It will also be required to find the least common denominators on this issue. In this matrix efforts should be made to develop messages that can support a single overarching meta-narrative: for example, that migration is a normal phenomenon that can bring benefits to European societies if managed effectively and in full respect of fundamental human rights.

One needs to believe that such an approach will go a long way towards resolving the concerns that drive disinformation on migration. This dynamics can also be further facilitated through the adoption of meaningful reforms in line with EU fundamental values and human rights. This will then create a mutually reinforcing cycle of alternative narratives and policymaking.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance