The Impact of COVID-19 on the Narratives of Migration

On April 22, I attended an open civil society webinar event entitled “Countering Negative Narratives on Migration”. At this event Eva Garzόn Hernandez, Migration Lead at Oxfam Intermon, presented her research and insights on the impacts of COVID-19 on migration and migrants. Responses and contributions were also offered by Alexandra Young, Director of International Migration Policy in the International and Intergovernmental Relations Branch of Immigration, Sophie Van Haasen, Coordinator of the GFMD Mayors Mechanism, Véronique Lamontagne of the City of Montréal, and Mόnica Trigos, UN Major Group on Children and Youth Shaping Narratives Thematic Lead. I attended this event as a delegate of the United Nations Association of Canada and I was able to learn not only about the challenging impacts of COVID19 on the narratives of migration, but also how I can begin to dismantle the increase of negative narratives in my own community.

The negative narratives surrounding migration, such as xenophobic and racist ideas and reactions, have increased recently with the rise of COVID-19. As Garzόn Hernandez explains, “Migration is often used as a scapegoat to cover up issues of structural inequality. As long as migration is being blamed, the real problems will never be addressed”. As such, many individuals, including some politicians, will be quick to draw attention to migrants and migration during times of crisis. Since COVID-19 originated in China, many Asian immigrants have been wrongfully blamed for the spreading of the virus. Negative narratives such as this allow structural problems to remain while innocent people are targeted and blamed. Garzόn Hernandez mentions that “negative narratives fuel hate speech” and that is something that everybody must be aware of. Facebook posts, tweets, and negative comments made to others about migration can promote negative narratives surrounding migrants and migration which can lead to hate speech and violence if left unattended and unopposed.

So what exactly has COVID-19 impacted in terms of a migration narrative? According to Garzόn Hernandez, “migrants have been historically blamed for the spreading of diseases” and unfortunately COVID-19 is no different. President Trump has been a key influence of blaming migrants, particularly with his constant use of the term “Chinese virus” which is not only the incorrect title of the virus but it is also irresponsible as it places blame on a country and a group of people which can result in hate speech, xenophobia, and the perpetuating of negative narratives towards migration. Garzόn Hernandez also explains that “as people lose their jobs, they will be scared of anything they perceive as a threat”. As such, migrants become the focus of misplaced anger, frustration, and fear as people worry that their jobs and financial security will be taken from them due to migration. President Trump continues to foster such a belief of blame towards migrants. On April 20th, he tweeted, “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”. This sentiment relays a negative message towards migration and places the blame of COVID-19 on migrants. Such a tactic promotes an “us vs. them” mentality and can be extremely dangerous. A pandemic is the time for unity and collective solidarity – not division and hate. Despite the negative narratives that are being perpetuated by individuals and politicians, Garzόn Hernandez offers suggestions of how to counter these negative narratives within our own communities.

According to Garzόn Hernandez, what can be done to counter negative narratives towards migration? First off, it is necessary to keep in mind that people with extreme values and beliefs around migration will not likely change their stance on the issue. It can be far more effective and worthwhile to appeal to those whose beliefs are somewhat central and not fully developed or thought out. Those who remain unsure about certain aspects of their stance will be more open to hearing what you have to say and you would likely have a better chance at impeding and eliminating the negative narratives that they may hold towards migration. Secondly, it is important to understand your audience and why they might buy into the negative narratives on migration. There are three main fears that people hold pertaining to migration which can lead to resistance, blame, and hatred towards migrants. These three fears are:

1.  Fear of losing one’s physical integrity

2.  Fear of losing one’s living standards

3.  Fear of losing one’s cultural identity

When addressing this issue, whether in your community at large, online, or to a family member or friend, it is important to be empathetic towards their fears and misconceptions. Breaking down the fears they might have and providing them with data or examples can be helpful in stopping the spread of negative narratives. However, as Garzόn Hernandez explains, “evidence is not always enough to change public perception.” Sometimes you must use emotional data to appeal to your audience. So what exactly is emotional data and how can you use it? Emotional data can be the personal story of an immigrant or refugee that will allow the audience to be empathetic to their situation. Sharing stories like this, with clear permission from the storyteller, will likely increase empathy, understanding, and a feeling of connectedness among audience members.

Despite the growing negative narratives on migration, COVID-19 has also increased feelings of community and the idea that we are all in this together. As Garzόn Hernandez explains, we have seen a “surge in collective solidarity” during this pandemic. While things may often feel bleak and overwhelming, collective solidarity, unity, and empathy will ultimately aid in the fight against the negative narratives on migration. 

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