Professor of Political Science
Professor of Political Science
Omar N. Cham
The EU and its member states put a lot of money and efforts in information campaigns. Typically conducted in African and Asian countries of migrants’ origin, these campaigns seek to dissuade locals from coming to Europe irregularly
Sweden, which holds the EU Presidency in the first six months of 2023, is a case in point. The country’s new government is keen to implement a ‘paradigm shift’ towards more restrictive asylum and migration policies. A ‘global’ information campaign towards migrants considering coming to Sweden is an important element of this new approach. According to Maria Malmer Stenergard, the Swedish minister for migration, better and accurate information can stop (potential) migrants from coming: “Today, two-thirds of those who come to Europe have no grounds for protection. They put their lives in the hands of refugee smugglers… If they are informed about the rules, we reduce the risk of suffering for these people.”
Similar to other migration information campaigns, the Swedish one builds upon a central assumption. It starts from the idea that migrants have only distorted or incomplete information about the risks of the migration journey and the situation in the country of destination. If they knew what they can expect on the way and in Europe, it is assumed, they would certainly refrain from leaving. While this seems logical at first glance, is this assumption actually true?
In the framework of our research for BRIDGES Work Package 6, we went to The Gambia, in West Africa, to see how young Gambians perceive and react to the messages put forward in EU-funded information campaigns. The Gambia has the highest rate of (irregular) emigration to the EU in the West African region, in relation to its population size. It therefore comes as no surprise that the EU and its member states organise migration information campaigns there.
Our results show that most Gambians do not really consider these campaigns relevant when making decisions on migration. They prefer other sources, be it traditional or social media. Our study participants often rely on videos, stories and information provided by Gambians who ‘made’ it to Europe. Those sources are considered more authentic and unbiased compared to the messages provided by EU-funded campaigns. The Gambians who reflect upon migration even explicitly tend to avoid the information provided by national or international actors. According to Gambian man in his 30s, “most of the people who undertake the ‘backway’ [irregular journey to Europe] never consult government agencies or the right channel. They follow the smugglers and friends to go.”
Furthermore, the messages typically put forward in migration information campaigns are too disconnected from how locals view and talk about migration. The campaigns put in place by the EU and its member states seek to convince people that life is difficult in Europe for undocumented migrants; also, that there would be training or business opportunities in the place where they are living right now. Gambians are indeed aware of local training opportunities, but consider these often out of reach, or not leading to a job that takes away a main driver for migration: the impossibility to earn enough to sustain themselves and/or a family. Structural problems at the labour market or factors such as unfair trade policies, corruption or nepotism make it very difficult for them to get along. In addition, examples of ‘successful’ migrants create a social dynamic in which young people in The Gambia are enticed or feel a pressure to leave too. Such people can be a Gambian migrant who has become a professional footballer or a neighbour who now manages to regularly send back some money to the family left behind.
There is only one message promoted by the EU which resonates with a local narrative on migration. It concerns the dangers of the migratory route to Europe. There is a local discourse of growing importance in The Gambia regarding the violence towards migrants on the journey, deaths and exploitations. Gambians tend to be well informed about these dangers of irregular migration because it touched so many families. The dangers also feature prominently in the local media. Therefore, Gambians do not need migration information campaigns to be aware of these risks but the EU-funded information campaigns reinforce a narrative putting risks at a centre of a debate on migration.
Yet, even people who know the risks and the dangers of a journey often choose to migrate. Information is only one of many sources influencing migration decisions. More important factors as to why people leave are the lack of prospects to improve one’s professional or private situation; an everyday struggle to get through financially; the societal respect given to migrants who made it to Europe and now support families and communities back home; and a religious belief that one’s life is predetermined. These factors tend to influence the decisions of migrants more than information campaigns. In other words, making a decision of migration is not only due to a lack of information. This implies that the EU and its member states cannot simply ‘convince’ an individual to stay.
Information campaigns therefore transmit a simplistic picture about how migration is triggered and decided upon. The EU can have an impact in countries of migrants’ origin, but such a policy needs to be different. It requires a more realistic picture about why and how people leave and a proactive engagement with the citizens of third countries that goes beyond pure deterrence. In fact, the actual purpose of information campaigns likely is a different one. The governments of EU member states may seek to convince their own electorates they are ‘doing something’ on migration – regardless of how such a policy is received outside Europe.