On 22 April (conference Day I), participants from all over Europe arrived at a venue near Torino, Italy, for the UNITED conference “Moving Stories: Narratives of Migration Crossing Europe“. After arriving at the venue and registering, participants took part in an informal “Breaking the Blocks” activity, where they got to know each other in an informal way.
The formal conference programme began on the morning of 23 April (conference Day II), with a welcoming plenary session. UNITED programme coordinator Balint Josa introduced the UNITED network, while Claudio Tocchi introduced host organisation Associazione Trepuntozero. This was followed by a presentation on the situation in Italy and Torino by Torino city councillor Ilda Curti, who talked about her proud activist background, and how cities must play an active role in welcoming migrants and refugees. Talking about the topic of the conference, she said “it is clear that we need a new storytelling about migration.”
Danger of Words, the traditional opening activity at UNITED conferences, saw participants engage with the key topics of the conference. Participants were presented with pairs of words with contrasting meanings: crisis/solidarity, invasion/inclusion, migrant/refugee, rights/benefits and security/mobility. Through engaging with images and newspaper articles, they discussed the importance of choosing appropriate words, and the shades of meaning that can accompany words in particular contexts. The outcome of their discussion was collected in the form of key words that they highlighted, which were compiled into a word cloud (below).
The afternoon saw the first panel session at the panel. Entitled “Invasion… What Invasion?”, the panel looked at the current situation around migration and asylum in Europe, and how the media and political rhetoric reflect the real situation on the ground.
The panel kicked off with Ugo Melchionda of IDOS. IDOS provide information and data about migrants and refugees, and Ugo talked about the current data available on migrants and refugees in Europe and the wider world. He pointed out that the number of refugees and asylum seekers has increased at a far higher rate than that of economic migrants in recent years, and that the countries hosting them are very different – with economic migrants focused in northern “developed” countries, and refugee populations focused in less economically prosperous nations. He further highlighted that from 2000-2014 the EU spent 13 billion EUR on border control, while traffickers earned around 15.7 billion. He then moved on to the issue of reception centres and detention. He told us that 112,000 people in Italy are now hosted in reception centres, while across Europe, asylum seekers and migrants find themselves in detention: “people have committed no crimes, but are in real jail-like structures.”
Next, Audrey Cherryl Morgan of AIRE Centre talked about the situation in the UK. She started by talking about the rhetoric of British prime minister David Cameron, always prioritising the protection of borders over the effective processing of asylum applications. She also described the situation around the criminalisation of irregular migrants in Britain, and how this “creates a system in which people will be fed into modern slavery and be taken advantage of more and more.” She went on to talk about the mainstream narrative of migration in Britain, and how the economic migrant-refugee dichotomy can feed this negative narrative, as people turn their ire towards those that are labelled as “economic migrants”. She explained that studies have shown that after one generation of being in a country, people of a migrant background can take on a majority viewpoint, so that even people with recent migrant background can adopt anti-migrant views. But she presented the positive view that public opinion is more positive and optimistic than the media narrative, and that when you talk about things that all people can get on board with: freedom, justice, equality – positive messages can be stronger. She finished by asking the question of where these narratives come from: government, the media, or the public themselves?
Finally, Antonios Zeimpekis of Iliaktida talked about the situation on the Greek island of Lesvos. He started by showing a short video about the refugees who risk their lives to make the journey to the island from the Turkish coast, and then described the high prices that people pay to traffickers to make this perilous journey. He also talked about the situation around the large number of international volunteers on the island, and how their work needs to be well-coordinated in order to be effective. “It’s good to be a volunteer – but you have to know something first,” he said, “If you are too naïve, you can cause harm.”
The presentations were followed by a Q&A session, where participants asked questions to the panellists, who were able to go into more detail about the most interesting aspects of their presentations.
Having been presented with facts and figures about migration and refugees in Europe, participants then took part in the workshop “Mind the Gap”, in which they looked at the difference between hard data and the message spread by media and politicians. Participants discussed messages spread by the media such as the idea of “good” and “bad” immigrants and “bogus asylum seekers”, and the erroneous link between refugees and terrorist attacks in Europe. A key point was the exaggeration of statistics and data by the mainstream media. Another key point was misconceptions about the reasons for which people come to Europe, and the push factors that force much of the recent migration to Europe, as well as the variety of backgrounds and stories among refugees, contrasting with their portrayal in the mainstream media as a homogeneous group.
The final plenary session saw OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE-ODIHR) representative Christina Sell talk about ODIHR’s work regarding hate crimes. She began by reminding participants of the official definition of hate crimes, and went on to describe the work that ODIHR does in monitoring hate crime, raising awareness and training government and civil society employees on effective ways to counter hate crime. She gave some particular detail about recent increases in levels of hate crime against refugees and asylum seekers, focusing in her speech on Germany. She explained that there is often a lack of investigations into hate crimes against refugee centres, especially in the case of arson attacks.
She explained that, although the OSCE does not have a mandate to tackle hate speech, there is often a clear link between the two: “We can see that the anti-refugee rhetoric has become more radical, the incidents against refugees have become more radical and have escalated.” She also talked about the challenges of working with law enforcement agencies to tackle hate crimes in OSCE member states. She finished her presentation by talking about ODIHR’s tools for change – namely the OSCE-ODIHR Hate Crime report. ODIHR regularly reaches out to civil society organisations to contribute data to their annual hate crime report, with the next deadline for submissions on 30 April.
After the final plenary session ended, there was a meeting for participants in the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum project that is a follow-up to this conference. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum participants got to know each other in an informal setting, and were introduced to the outline of the project and their role.
The final activity of the day was a “speed-networking” infomarket activity, in which participants got to know their counterparts from all over Europe, and made posters about their organisations and best practices. They also shared international snacks that they had brought from all over Europe.
The UNITED network conference “Moving Stories: Narratives of Migration Crossing Europe” is taking place from 22-27 April near Torino, Italy. Follow all the news on the conference on Twitter, Facebook and the UNITED website.
This event has been made possible with support of the Council of Europe (European Youth Foundation), the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and Compagnia di San Paolo.
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