Governance and politics

The danger of a single story on migration

Conflict Research Unit of Clingendael Institute

European politicians are currently playing a dangerous game of one-upmanship in order to contain migration flows. Migrants are depicted as people cheating social benefits, stealing jobs of the “natives” or worse, as potential terrorists ready to commit attacks at any time. This sentiment is reinforced over time by some politicians and media outlets that provide a narrow and biased understanding of what migration entails and the reasons behind this phenomenon.

Is this really the full picture?  Is there another side of the story?

The famed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned in a recent TED Talk against ‘’the danger of a single story’’.  According to Adichie, power relations determine when and how stories are told, and who tells them. Single stories create stereotypes and distort realities, becoming the dominant narrative.

The interactive meeting on the African Union organized by the Platform and the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) in September 2016 illustrated the danger of a single story. While institutions in the Netherlands organize many conferences, expert meetings and brainstorms about issues related to the continent, African voices are rarely part of the discussions. This meeting actually involved practitioners, experts and policy-makers from Africa and revealed the considerable gap separating the two continents.

Although there is more than one story, the dominant narrative we hear is the one created by the EU that migration is a security issue. Against the backdrop of economic downturn, terrorism and mounting social tensions, EU member states argue that they are unable to welcome the ‘’world’s misery’’. This story is based on the general assumption that African migrants are “mere’’ economic migrants and not “true” refugees fleeing from violent conflict. Moreover, the recent revelations of the infiltration of European migratory routes by some jihadists (a small group of whom were responsible for the 13 November attacks in Paris) support EU member states’ interest in controlling or even closing borders.

In contrast, the dominant African Union (AU) perspective is that migration contributes to the development of the African continent. This story is also grounded in the reality that the AU has undertaken several initiatives in order to address migration, such as the 1991 Abuja Treaty or the 2006 AU Migration Policy Framework for Africa, which the EU either ignored or saw as being in direct competition with European interests. This story was on display at this event, as it became clear that there is frustration over the unilateralism of the EU in the international forums convened in Rabat, Khartoum and Valetta. Indeed, these three processes were criticized for being EU-led and driven by a European agenda. The discussions exposed the need to rebalance relations between the two continents by creating inclusion, ownership, trust and mutual accountability.

This event succeeded in putting the spotlight on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. It was an eye opener and a call to always look for other stories. As Adichie says, ‘’Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.’’

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