Governments’ Information Campaigns for Potential Migrants: What’s the Point?

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Debates about governmental information campaigns targeted at migrants raises crucial and underexplored questions that have huge implications for migration governance: who monitors the content and quality of such messages? How can quality assurance incorporate greater political accountability? While already a pressing concern in more general debate about governmental social media communication and political interests, this blog argues that we need to take governance standards about open and fair communication seriously, especially when it targets migrants and potential migrants that are in risky or dangerous situations.

In response to the dangers of irregular pathways and loss of life, EU governments have intensified their efforts to inform migrants and potential migrants in transit and origin countries about the risks of misinformation about irregular migration and smuggling. The European Migration Network has identified more than 100 information and awareness-raising campaigns launched by EU member states that since 2015 have cost more than €23 million. Yet, these campaigns have been criticized by migration scholars, parliamentarians and journalists, questioning their effectiveness and intention to be reliably informative in light of their potentially dissuasive character.

What exactly is the debate on information and awareness-raising campaigns about and is this criticism justified? Generally, online and social media facilitate the circulation of mis- and disinformation. For people who are considering migration (especially on irregular pathways), or are already en route, reliable information is crucial at every stage of their journey. Online/social media and a mobile phone are essential tools for people to connect with peers about their migration experiences, to find out about pathways, to access news about entrance restrictions, to navigate border controls, and to identify networks for support and solidarity. Misleading information – intentionally or not – can have severe consequences. Last year’s situation at the border between Poland and Belarus was a particularly serious example of how false claims on social media have led migrants into life-threatening situations, pulling them into the centre of a geopolitical conflict.

It could seem reasonable that governments in liberal democracies increase their efforts to provide information by funding or implementing online campaigns that tell migrants about the risks of irregular migration, provide information on entrance requirements, and the rumours ‘out there’. But why have such campaigns received criticism?

Two aspects are particularly relevant. First, the effectiveness of these campaigns has been questioned. There are hardly any systematic evaluations that reliably test the impact on migrants’ knowledge or on behavioural change about irregular migration. Social media communication has been shown not to be effective in changing peoples’ minds and media effects are overall difficult to measure. More than that, even if migrants are aware of the risks of smuggling, trafficking, and other dangers – which they often are – regular pathways might not be accessible to them. Migrants therefore require information about how to navigate irregular pathways, instead of information about why not to choose them. In this sense, the goals such campaigns tend to formulate are not only too vague, but they also seem more oriented at simply reducing irregular migration instead of actually providing helpful information.

This leads us to the second point of criticism which essentially addresses the ethical undercurrent of such governmental campaigns. All in all, there seems to be a mismatch between what such campaigns declare as their intention (to inform, to empower, to achieve humanitarian objectives) and governments’ actual policies regarding irregular migration. Such policies often contain elements of indirect deterrence and dissuasion. Research suggests that information campaigns reflect these current migration management approaches. For example, governmental information campaigns are considered to be ‘symbolic’ by taking initiatives against the dangers of irregular migration and so maintaining a ‘humanitarian image’. Discourse analysis shows that many campaigns focus mainly on risks or victimhood and rarely emphasize information about the right to seek asylum. Furthermore, some campaigns communicate in an emotional way by, for example, portraying emigration as an egoistic decision toward other family members. These findings raise doubts about the intentions of governments because they highlight that providing information can be ambiguous.

There is also criticism about how governments handle this ambiguity. Some governments have been criticised for being misleading, cynical, or lacking transparency. For example, the placing of ads in Lebanese newspapers by the Danish government in 2015 received considerable media attention and was considered as a way to negatively brand Denmark as destination country. In another case, an ostensible campaign website for migrants has been labelled  a ‘fake website’ because it did not, at first, disclose the involvement of the UK Home Office. This website also triggered a considerable number of Freedom of Information Requests. At the time of writing, the website appears to have been taken down. Even initiatives which are highly transparent, such as ‘Rumours about Germany’ by the German Foreign Ministry, have been criticised with parliamentarians from the right and left submitting information requests about the costs of the campaign and about specific formulations. My own research suggests that information campaigns for migrants can raise issues about the standards of government communication in liberal democracies, such as neutrality, transparency, and autonomy from political party interests. Social media campaigns by governments to deter asylum seekers might therefore be considered ethically questionable.

What should we make of this debate? Are the criticisms of governmental information campaigns justified? I would argue that they are. Not only do research and public contention bring forward convincing evidence for unethical lapses in government communication with (potential) migrants, but such campaigns are also ineffective instruments to support migrants on irregular pathways (if they are reaching migrants at all). Given the current focus on reducing irregular migration and externalisation of border controls, the publicly announced campaign objectives to support migrants in their decision-making are not particularly persuasive. While it would go too far to judge such campaigns as ill-intentioned, the best they can do is to inform about increasingly harsh and ambiguous European migration policy approaches to irregular migration. It remains unclear whether such information is helpful for potential migrants.

The debate about these campaigns enables researchers, migrant advocacy groups, and even governmental actors themselves to critically assess what we actually say to migrants and why. While information and awareness-raising about the dangers of irregular migration make sense, they need to be explicitly geared toward migrants’ needs, also and especially on irregular pathways. For campaigns which involve governments this would inevitably require a distance to their current politics on irregular migration, or put another way, an absence of political interests. If that is not possible for governmental campaigns, then what’s their point?

Verena K. Brändle is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Communication, University of Vienna, and a former Visiting Fellow at the MPC. She is currently leading a research project on information campaigns funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark.