Opinion piece on migration policy provokes strong reactions

opinie-plaatjeAn opinion piece that I wrote together with Leonhard den Hertog was published in de Volkskrant, a Dutch leading quality newspaper on 29 May 2015.

In the article we react on a plan by the Dutch minister for Development cooperation and foreign trade, Lillianne Ploumen, to do extra investments in migrant sending developing countries, so that people will invest their ambitions in their own country rather than migrate.

We argue that the plan is based on old misconceptions about the link between migration and development: increased welfare will not stop migration, but will instead lead to more migration.

We argue that in a real development perspective on migration, mobility should be promoted rather than constrained. Only then can migrants potentially contribute to development. We call for the Minister of development cooperation to no longer let her funds be abused for anti-immigration politics, but to engage in the debate with a real development agenda.

The article provoked quite strong reactions among the online readers, who left their comments on the newspaper’s website. Some were constructive and supportive. But the majority of the comments could be divided into three categories of criticism, all of which should be taken serious, and also raise questions.

The first type of reaction protested against the idea of increased possibilities for mobility. They argued that more migrants will strain the labour market and the welfare state. In the global picture, migrants often help an economy to thrive. Moreover, more mobility also means that migrants may travel back and forth more easily, and therefore choose to move on if they cannot find a job. Nevertheless, individual people may lose, or fear to lose, their jobs in favour of a migrant. This is an important reason for anti-immigration sentiments and should therefore be taken seriously. But how can we address these feelings in a nuanced way?

The second type of reaction objected to the idea that migrants could contribute to development, arguing that Africans have not been able to ‘do things right in their own country’, as they are stupid, lazy and greedy. This shows that outright racism, the stigmatization of people based on stereotypes of their background, is still persistent. But how can we counter racism in an effective way?

The third type of reaction was against the researchers themselves, arguing that this was ‘another message from the ivory tower’, unrealistic and naive, and all of that paid for by the tax payers. I would argue I saw more dust and sweat than ivory in Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda or Burundi, to name a few countries where I did fieldwork: our arguments are based on research, not highbrow thought experiments. Being paid out of public money, we do have a responsibility to do relevant research and to make outcomes accessible. However, this does not mean that research is only relevant if you agree with the conclusions. But how can we convince someone of a message they don’t like to hear?

Last, a discussion emerged between those in favour and those critical of the argumentation of the article. Although online reactions that are in favour of an article are often rare, and risk to be ridiculed, it is of great value that a diversity of voices can be heard. But how to encourage people to engage in this scary form of interaction?

A newspaper article to address politicians leads to an online discussion by a wider audience, which in turn leads to reflections on how to respond to the concerns of this audience. A great example of how research, policy and public opinion can interact in a continuous process.