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Framing Migration: Rhetoric and Reality in Europe – An Introduction

1 Comment 🕔02.Dec 2015

This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

Syrian Refugees in a Vienna train station. Photo credit: Josh Zakary.


by Meghan Luhman and Kaisa Vuoristo

As the European migrant crisis continues to escalate, politicians, journalists, and academics everywhere are trying to make sense of the phenomenon. In Europe, in particular, this has led to a boost in public debates on immigration. These discourses[i] cannot be separated from their specific backgrounds: they are shaped by different socio-political contexts, policy traditions, and national vocabularies. Yet discourses and public policies do not exist in a vacuum: they are constantly affected by complex processes of internationalization. Indeed, since immigration emerged as a central theme in Western European political discourses, scholarly research on this topic has focused, among other things, on the degree of convergence of national policies toward restriction, and on the securitization of the issues of immigration and asylum (Geddes 2008; Guiraudon and Joppke 2001; Huysmans 2000; Walters 2010). In this feature, we bring together authors who draw on and contribute to this literature by examining contemporary European immigration discourses and by reviewing academic research on the topic. In so doing, we expand the geographical scope beyond Western Europe to include newer countries of immigration as well as countries where the issue is rising on the political agenda even if the overall number of immigrants remains relatively small. While the individual articles in this feature offer interesting insights into a number of national contexts, when taken together, they also open the door for comparative perspectives.

To begin with, the articles in this feature illustrate some of the ways in which immigration discourses have been affected by current political events, such as the tragic migrant deaths in the Mediterranean or the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France. They also highlight the links between discourse, policy change, and electoral support for anti-immigrant parties. For example, a number of authors examine how the framing of immigrants and asylum-seekers as a threat (to everything from local and national security to the welfare state or to gender equality) has led to new policy measures and, in some cases, to increased support for far-right parties. Often connected to negative public attitudes toward immigration, these securitizing discourses are also capable of incorporating new elements, such as the emphasis, in the context of financial crisis and recession, on the social and economic costs of immigration and asylum on native populations. Furthermore – and as a counterweight – several of the articles point to the role that humanitarian themes play in immigration discourses, migration control, and integration policies. While these themes can reflect genuine concern for the human rights of immigrants and be used to criticize restrictive policies, some authors suggest that these types of moral claims can, paradoxically, also be instrumentalized to shore up support for further restrictions.


Securitization and integration: Everything old is new again?

Ariane Chebel d’Appollonia, Suvi Keskinen, and Ruby Gropas touch on the issue of securitization in their texts on France, Finland, and Greece, respectively. Chebel d’Appollonia notes that, in France, securitization – the process through which politicians, media, and public opinion construct immigration as a security threat – should be understood against the background of the country’s colonial history, its large Muslim population, and the republican model of integration. Besides the 2004 “headscarf affair” and the 2010 “burqa ban,” the French security-immigration nexus is visible in the agendas adopted by both right- and left-wing governments. Indeed, since the 2005 urban riots, French political elites have promoted a range of securitizing measures, such as the establishment of an obligatory contract of integration, the reinforcement of citizen surveillance, and increased criminalization of illegal immigration. The consensus linking immigration and terrorism, strengthened by 9/11, was also recently reinforced by the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

In Finland, the anti-immigration and Eurosceptic True Finns became, in April 2015, the second-largest party in the Finnish Parliament. According to Keskinen, the rising support for the True Finns can partly be explained by the party’s rhetoric combining cultural and economic arguments. Although the number of Muslims in Finland is low, the portrayal of non-western immigrants as racialized others with abhorrent cultural practices (such as gender-related violence) has, there too, added to fears concerning immigration. The True Finns’ discourse has thereby contributed to the construction of an ethnically defined “us” against threatening “others.” Moreover, in the context of neoliberal globalization, the True Finns have capitalized on the alleged cost of migrants and asylum-seekers to the welfare state.

Securitization also plays a key role in the development of Greek migration policy, as Ruby Gropas writes. On the one hand, the institution of Greece’s 2010 National Action Plan on migration was centered on securitization; for example, Operation “Shield” tightened border controls, led to the construction of a fence in the Evros region, and contributed to the criminalization of irregular migration. Gropas notes that the rise of the Greek far-right has further propelled the discourse of securitization by portraying migrants as “free-riders” burdening welfare services and contributing to high unemployment rates. On the other hand, Gropas’s piece investigates the development of a counter-discourse of humanitarianism and social justice which emphasizes the need to help refugees and combat racism. The relevance of this humanitarian discourse is reflected in a bill, proposed in May 2015, which, if ratified, could grant citizenship to 100,000 immigrant minors.

In his article on the Netherlands, Han Entzinger looks to explain the country’s radical shift from multiculturalism to assimilationist policies. According to Entzinger, the policy changes and frame shifts of the last decades are linked to the misperception that Dutch integration policy has failed. This supposed “failure” of multiculturalism is contradicted by evidence Entzinger provides which suggests that substantial strides have been made by immigrant communities, notably in terms of education. The Dutch case therefore presents a paradox: political rhetoric on immigration has hardened while actual integration has progressed. Moreover, in spite of the major changes in policy objectives, Entzinger notes that some policy instruments, particularly with regard to education and housing, have remained strikingly stable.

In his contribution, Karolis Žibas discusses the gaps between policy and the challenges faced by migrants, particularly asylum-seekers, in Lithuania – a newer country of immigration. Negative public opinion and strong emotions surrounding the issue of “economic migration” in Lithuania have contributed to the development of political discourses that shape the fragmented policies providing support to refugees, and underscore the overall vulnerability of both asylum-seekers and labor migrants. Thus, uneven integration has been studied as a consequence of political discourse, negative public opinion, and the characteristics of different migrant groups, including social networks and position in the labor market.


Flexible discourses and rights-based approaches: Purely instrumental?

As mentioned above, the articles included in this feature shed light on the ways in which immigration discourses that have traditionally focused on security and integration have more recently meshed with newer themes. In Finland, as elsewhere in Europe, concerns about the cost of immigration to the welfare state have become a key theme in political discussion, thereby benefiting anti-immigration parties such as the True Finns. However, as Karin Borevi points out, in Sweden, the idea of universal inclusion in the welfare state has historically served to undergird state policies bolstering the inclusion of immigrants and the development of robust rights for immigrants. Indeed, with its inclusionary approach, which has remained strikingly stable, Sweden has been a clear outlier in terms of convergence toward restriction. The Swedish case therefore demonstrates that a “rights-based” approach grounded in the idea of a strong welfare state can still exist. As Borevi notes, though, only the future will tell whether recent developments, such as growing support for the radical right-wing party, will lead to policy shifts in Sweden too.

Sanjay Jeram questions whether, in the case of the Basque region of Spain, the adoption of pro-immigrant stances by Basque nationalists is based purely on electoral calculation, as the nationalist parties have adopted critical stances toward the centrists’ embrace of restrictive immigration policies. In the Basque region, the sub-national model of rights has provided a kind of discursive scaffolding for claims about the inclusion of migrants and for policy proposals in favor of residency-based rights. While the claims to Basque national autonomy and promotion of immigrant rights are not always paired, Jeram shows that the identification of the Basque nationalists as a minority contra the state has contributed to a positive attitude toward immigrant minorities.

Bastian Vollmer and Maurizio Albahari are more skeptical when considering appeals to human rights and morality in the United Kingdom (UK), and more broadly at the European Union (EU) level. Vollmer, in discussing the UK case, points out that the emphasis on “tough but humane” measures by both Labour and Conservatives leading up to the 2015 elections provided a moral grounding for continuing restrictive and even inhumane policies such as de facto “refoulement,” or returning migrants to their countries of origin. Similarly, Albahari notes that a focus on the immorality of smugglers and human traffickers has provided a rationale for justifying policies such as increased border controls and the targeting of smuggler boats in the Mediterranean. At the same time, the political will to address other problems, such as the lack of legal immigration opportunities, and to reach agreement on the details of burden-sharing with respect to resettlement and asylum processing, is weak at best. Thus, Vollmer’s and Albahari’s texts might lead us to conclude that while immigration discourses now contain references to rights and humanitarian obligations, policy-wise we will see more of the same, since the deterrence of migration has thus far remained a primary goal for most European member states and the EU as a whole.


Revisiting convergence

When examining these cases collectively, we can observe similarities between “old” or “new” countries of immigration. Concerns over security and the prospects and ability of immigrants to integrate remain common discursive themes in a diverse range of countries from France to Greece and Finland. The pieces in this feature have shown that the perception of threat is flexible and can include not only traditional security threats (e.g., terrorism), but also cultural and economic threats, the latter of which has become particularly relevant in the context of the financial crisis and the politics of austerity. Even in Lithuania – both a country of emigration and of immigration – discourses concerning “economic migration” and negative perceptions of certain migrant groups have contributed to what Žibas calls a “growing social divide between immigrants and the host society.”

Finally, this feature raises the question of whether a convergence toward restriction is all there is to the story of immigration discourses and policy in Europe. The adoption of humanitarian and rights-based approaches has, in the case of Sweden, led to a durable policy based on inclusion, and in other cases, such as Greece and Spain’s Basque Country, the values of openness and inclusion which are seen as integral to national and sub-national identities have led to policy proposals that would expand immigrant rights. Conversely, Vollmer and Albahari suggest that humanitarian discourses may provide a justification for the expansion of restrictive policies or for the continuation of a focus on border control at the expense of migrants’ rights. Still, taken together, the approaches here suggest that immigration and asylum policy discourses, while featuring many of the same themes which emerged in Western Europe from the late 1990s onward, may be combined and recombined in new ways.

Meghan Luhman is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland. Her dissertation examines the role of crises and ideas about nationhood in the development of European migration control policies.

Kaisa Vuoristo is a PhD candidate preparing a joint degree at Université de Montréal and École Normale Supérieure de Cachan (France). She is a member of the International Research Training Group (IRTG) “Diversity – Mediating Difference in Transcultural Spaces.” Her dissertation examines the linking of public secularism and gender equality in French republican ideology and public discourse.

This article is part of our feature Framing Migration.

[i] The term ‘discourse’ is used here in the broadest possible sense to encompass, among other things, written and spoken forms of communication including party platforms, government agendas, discussions about policy, and public debates and how these influence policy and electoral support. As one of this feature’s goals is to incorporate not only different country cases but different disciplinary perspectives, we believe the depth and breadth of this feature necessitates a broad understanding of ‘discourse’ and a relative openness to the various authors’ approaches to analyzing discourse.


Geddes, Andrew. 2008. Immigration and European Integration: Beyond Fortress Europe. European Policy Studies. Manchester, United Kingdom: Manchester University Press.

Guiraudon, Virginie, and Christian Joppke. 2001. Controlling a New Migration World. Routledge/EUI Studies in the Political Economy of the Welfare State. New York: Routledge.

Huysmans, Jef. 2000. “The European Union and the Securitization of Migration.” JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 38(5): 751–77.

Walters, William. 2010. “Migration and Security.” In The Handbook of New Security Studies, ed. J. Peter Burgess. London: Routledge.


  1. 🕔 4:58, 16.Feb 2016


    Very disappointing! I was looking for an academic investigation into this subject, but it doesn’t take very long to read this, to find that the authors have written from a presupposition that mass immigration of peoples from Islamic cultures into Europe, is objected to because of misconceptions or prejudices.

    If you want to produce an informative, unbiased and objective academic study of this subject, you will need to have quantitative and qualitative information about all the aspects of movement of these people into Europe, including the numbers, their origins, their religion, their cultural norms, their education and their occupations. You will need to have a breakdown of the numbers of immigrants who are men and the number who are women and whether there is a discrepancy between these numbers, as appears to be emerging. There will need to be investigation into why there is any discrepancy, going beyond the presumption that women can’t travel, but should instead be left behind, defenceless in a war zone?

    There will also need to be investigation into the number and scale of violence and crime involving recent immigrants in Euorpean cities, particularly where this involves large groups of men. There should be an investigation into how thousands of men who have come into Europe without women accompanying them, are going to cope sexually in a European culture which has very different social, gender and sexual cultural expectations than their own: and how this has affected behaviour of recent events.

    There will also need to be investigation into why the official media on TV news broadcasts, are making very little reports on migrant behaviour and life in European cities? There appears to be little or no such coverage, while private footage on the internet, is revealing some very different pictures.

    Additionally there should be unbiased investigation into the policies of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and that of European governments. An analysis of the political ethos of each European government affected by the immigration, should be made, including the philosophy that has directly impacted upon their policies in regard to immigration. This would include detailed analysis of both Left wing and Right wing and in-between philosophies.

    The last thing that is needed is an “academic” presentation that is really a ‘Trojan Horse’ effort to promote a particular immigration policy! We need facts, figures and reality, obtained and presented with absolutely no influence of preference in respect of immigration of large numbers of Muslims into Europe. It needs to be stated that the bulk of the immigrants that have been pouring into Europe, are in fact, Muslims and how this is going to directly affect European culture and society.

    It is particularly important that the views and difficulties that the common people of Europe are expressed as a result of large influxes of Muslim immigrants into their towns, cities and countries. It has to be recognised that religion has a direct affect on the behaviour, culture, attitudes and expectations of the incoming migrants, towards their hosts. Any approach to this subject that attempts to ignore the religion of the migrants, is removing essential drivers of behaviour of the migrants and is a denial of reality, which will be counter productive, It is very obvious to people informed about religion, that this will inevitably have a very big impact upon European societies where migrants bring Islamic religion have come. It is not academic to avoid this issue. Therefore a proper study of the impacts of this are absolutely essential, if there is not going to be continued a political whitewash of the real and tangible affects this will and is already having on European societies.

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