Attendants at the Aurora Dialogues in Berlin. Image by Aurora Prize

“Politicians drive perceptions. If politicians speak differently about refugees, attitudes change”

How attitudes in hosting countries influence refugee integration.

Kati Krause


Today I attended an event called Aurora Dialogues, a one-day forum organised by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative to bring together a small number of high-profile international humanitarians, academics and members or civil society to discuss the most pressing issues of the day — and currently that issue is, of course, migration.

I was there for work and only able to attend one session, but I wanted to share my notes from that session because I found it so relevant for politics and media. The panel dealt with attitudes towards migrants in host countries and how to change them, and especially how to close the gap between perception and reality. The participants were Lori Wilkinson, director of Immigration Research West, a research group at the University of Manitoba in Canada; Andreas Görgen, director-general for culture and communication at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Rita Süssmuth, a former German federal minister and president of the Bundestag; and Gianni D’Amato, a member of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration.

The session started with Dirk Jacobs, a professor of Sociology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, showing academic findings on perceptions—or rather, misperceptions– — about refugees and migration. One such global misperception, for example, is that Germany takes in most refugees internationally; in fact, Germany is only in 4th place, behind Turkey, Pakistan and Iran (I think that was the third; I didn’t write this down). Similar wrong ideas about refugees’ economic cost or propensity for crime persist.

Asked what needs to be done to change idea that refugees bring terrorism, Jacobs acknowledged that it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: politicians say what they think voters want to hear. But, he says, data makes one thing clear: “Politicians drive perceptions. If politicians speak differently about refugees, attitudes change.” In other words, we need leadership.

Much of the rest of the discussion centred around how to provide such leadership. Görgen offered three points on this. One, language matters, and words such as “flood” in relation to refugees naturally have a negative impact. Two, don’t be too selfish. Germany is a very rich country. And three, “We told people that a nation-state is homogenous, when it’s really a 19th century legal concept.” Now that the nation-state faces globalisation, we have to publicly debate its nature.

Wilkinson agreed that there’s a corruption of language. “If I don‘t like the proposition, I call it fake news.” (Who could she have been referring to?) But, she said, “50 percent of people don‘t know about migration and they learn about it through media.” In other words, media coverage matters.

“Culture is often seen as static but it isn’t,” Wilkinson said further, so we should try to educate people about that to counter negative narratives. And as how to change attitudes? Above all, we need time. “We expect things to change very quickly. They don’t. Bringing people together and building trust takes time. Especially shaping the narrative. It takes time, it’s not going to happen in two weeks.”

Asked how to counter negative narratives when doing so has led, in Germany at least, to accusations of one-sidedness and an erosion of trust in media and politics, Christoph Bosch (chairman of the Robert Bosch Foundation) interjected that media should focus above all on objectivity and truth when telling stories. Görgen added that politicians shouldn’t worry so much about narrative at all. “It’s not about being on the good side,” he said. “It’s not about being moral. In politics you have to present several options and get into a fight with your people and show leadership. It’s not about doing good but doing the right thing.”

Finally, when confronted with the prospect of people whose ideas seem to be set in stone, Rita Süssmuth urged us not to give up on anyone. “Don’t stop speaking to people with a fixed mindset,” she said. “There’s no solution, there’s only process. And that takes conversations.”