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UNITED Torino Conference Report: Day III

24 April (conference Day III) at the UNITED network conference “Moving Stories: Narratives of Migration Crossing Europe” opened with the panel “What’s the Story”, which aimed to introduce participants to the concept of narrative, and how narratives are constructed. The first speaker was Jonathan Even Zohar of EUROCLIO – European Association of History Educators. He talked about the roots of the historical narrative on migration in European societies, and the Eurocentrism that is at its heart.

He began by setting out the key point that narrative is not just the rhetoric of media and politicians: “narrative is what you discuss at birthday parties.” He went on to examine the link between mainstream narratives and history education, giving the example of the Netherlands, where since 2004, the government has looked to foster national pride through canon of history – and here there is an observable link with trend towards anti-European, nationalist sentiment in elections. Jonathan went on to talk about the mainstream historical narrative of the Dutch Golden Age, where of all the important elements – growth of central power and worldwide trade contacts etc. – migration is not seen as an important aspect, even though migration was extremely important for the economic growth of the Dutch Republic; when migration is included, it is portrayed as Dutch “tolerance” for religious minorities, but actually these migrants were encouraged to come.

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He went on to talk about the concept of “us and them” in historical narratives. Historical events in which it is the “us” imposing pain on others is not usually included in historical narratives. He gave an introduction to his organisation, EUROCLIO, and why he believes that history education is so important to European societies: “History is a tool to help young people understand how arguments are made. History doesn’t tell you the truth – you must be aware that there are many truths and that the past is perceived differently.” He explained that history teachers have role to play in addressing these challenges, as history is abused for all sort of reasons.

He went on to introduce the concept of Eurocentrism, and its importance to historical narratives, as he put it: “Europe has got addicted to its own history.” The world now is globalised, with diverse societies – but how do we in Europe deal with the history of the world? Actually, we don’t do much; on a European-wide level, we have poor understanding of world history. Jonathan gave the example of teaching about the Crusades, where the most important elements of the history are not told in school textbooks. This Eurocentrism in historical narrative, Jonathan explained, influences ideas such as: “we need to protect our Judeo-Christian values” and “Islam is not compatible with democracy.”

He continued by referring to the previous day’s discussion about the language and words, and gave examples of self-contradictory Eurocentric narratives in which westerners are always the protagonists, or portrayed as stronger; E.g.: “in ancient Egypt, the kings had doctors” but, “in ancient Greece, the science of medicine was invented.” The story of European history taught in European schools, he said, is often overly simplistic and excludes the contribution of non-Europeans.

He concluded with the question of what kind of history, and history teaching, makes sense today, and how this connects with the “refugee crisis”. Firstly, he said, history has to deal with people being linked to big revolutionary ideas – “ideas that attract the mad and desperate to commit crimes.” – although radical ideas can also have positive consequences. He continued by highlighting the importance of cooperation and peace history, and the historical construction of identities. In response to the “refugee crisis”, he said, it is important to highlight that human mobility is the most consistent factor in our biological and cultural history. “Apart from birds we are the most migratory species. We even went to the moon – we like to travel.” When teaching the history of migration, we need to keep in mind that environmental circumstances matter, and that hisotory education needs to look back before 19th century nationalism when discussing concepts of construction of identity and common memory. “History can give us lots of fantastic grey zones – and that is most important point.”

The second panellist was Stefano Volpicelli, who talked about the sociological perspective on narratives of migration. He started by looking at dictionary definition of narrative – it is very simplistic “a story, something that is narrated”, then elaborated on this etymology: “make something known to someone.” This led to a basic postulate: to have a narrative we need a teller a listener; here there is a tacit agreement: the listener allows the other to take the stage and promote their narrative.

Continuing with the theme of words and meaning; “mobility” he said, is a better term than “migration”, as it includes all the mobility and movement of people across the world, whereas the definition of migration has changed over the past 20 years. The narrative on human mobility in Europe, he said, swings between the idea of “threat” and “compassion”. These are two polarised positions, and this polarisation is the key problem – migrants and refugees are portrayed either as a sinister threat, or as victims to be treated with compassion.

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The problem with this is that people have always made connections and intercultural mixtures. “We are all sons and daughters of migrants; most of the time they are internal migrants.” He examined the core of the narrative on migration, starting with the myth of “invasion”. For this myth, he said, we need an identity: “us and them.” From 1950’s, we in western Europe needed an enemy, and the cold war conflict with communist countries, who were portrayed as trying to destroy our social fabric, provided conveniently; then when these divisions collapsed we had no enemies, so “we had to create a new enemy, and islamists were very proactive in helping us there.”

He went on to talk about the use of different terms for human mobility, and the interchangeable use of different terms with negative nuances. He talked about the influence of EU policy on the creation of the term “economic migrant”, and how this put many migrants in a strange situation, where their status is always under scrutiny. He then discussed the issue of refugees and the UN refugee convention, which, he suggested, is no longer fit for purpose. This convention, he explained, was created in special historical circumstances: “we were very enthusiastically embracing people who were crossing the Berlin Wall because they were embracing our lifestyles.” It worked because the concept of refugee is based on a personal individual situation. But then came the Yugoslavian crisis – and subsequent crises and wars – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria – and we found ourselves with a huge number refugees. In these situation, the refugee system no longer worked, because their requests are accepted on the basis of nationality.

Both concepts, of economic migrant and refugee, he continued, can be easily blurred, and this promotes confusion in the public consciousness about migration and human mobility. No one knows or understands the real numbers, and we don’t have reliable data on human mobility. This all created a sense of chaos. What do we know? The real number of refugees: millions; where they are coming from: everywhere. And all this promotes a sense of being under siege.

The final point of Stefano’s presentation was to ask why this narrative works. His answer was that such narratives are needed – they provide policy-makers with an easy scapegoat for general reduction of the economic benefits and the welfare state. These simplistic narratives, from the perspective of policy-makers, gives the public a “toy” to keep them occupied, while they help media organisations to sell copies. He concluded by saying that, although it is OK to try to counter these narratives, he sees the role of activists differently: “They need to create something different. Using facts and proper arguments – not narrative. Narrative is a story. We don’t want a story, we want the truth. Our enemies are not the media, they are the policy-makers, and we need to challenge them. In any case, don’t use the word narrative, use the word discourse; promote reasoned thought.”

The third panelist, Martina Chichi of Carta di Roma was unable to make it to the conference in the end, but you can read UNITED’s interview with her here.

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This morning and afternoon saw the two-part “Read Between the Lines” session, where participants actively engaged with narratives, looking at common points and how to de-construct and counter them.

This morning and afternoon saw the two-part “Read Between the Lines” session, where participants actively engaged with narratives, looking at common points and how to de-construct and counter them. In the first part of the session, participants looked at cases from diverse politicians making statements of an inflammatory anti-migrant or islamophobic nature from Israel to Hungary, from Czech Republic to Italy, in a unified language of right-wing populism. Through looking at these different cases, the participants together identified several common features to be found in their statements, in the way they construct their hateful narrative:

They found that it often refers historical events or knowledge, but the historical fact is either misued or utterly perverted to fit the propaganda, giving it a patina of a historically-supported truth. It is also often filed with erroneous or made-up facts and statistics, purportedy proving the stated point. Another common element is in the use of “we” against “them”, where “we” always stands for an opinion of the entire state, not only for the private opinion of the individual politician, who claim to speak on behalf of all. This is where the techniques of critical history teaching can provide tools and methods of evaluating facts and discerning them from mere opinions or outright lies.

At the end of the workshop, participants came up with questions to pose to people that support that rhetoric and try to actually de-construct the said narratives/discourses. Questions participants came up with to counter these narratives included: “What do you mean by invasion?”, “Is social media a reliable source of historical data/info” and “What is the source of the information you get?”

The second part of the session was led by Ron Salaj. Taking into account the ideas on bringing critical history teaching methods in deconstructing hateful narratives, the participants proceeded to decontruct the narrative that emerged after New Year’s Eve Cologne attacks, an event deeply shaping European imaginary on refugees. How were the media messages shaped? What were their context, target group, a probable impact?
A consensus was reached that the main media outlets, targeting the general public, and with a message of attacked women it has particularly reached the male European audience, the context was immediately set into refugee situation and German oupen doors policy. It is not easy to create a counternarrative to such a strong media mayhem; nevertheless, several construtive ideas emerged. The possible public communication issued from civil society actors should start with gathering proper data, calling for a proper investigation of the facts and for a prosecution of those involved in criminal activities. It should bring a gendered perspective, bring facts instead of feelings regarding the level of crime and sexual crimes in the country, setting the attacks in the context. A positive outcome could be reached when engaging “heroes” of the scene, such as the Syrian young man who has helped a woman to escape the scene of the attacks. The workshop proved to be an intriguing excercise on how to think about the media world and how to construct a different message that could come through to influence the public discourse.

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Nour continued by talking about her personal story: her sister risked her life to come to Europe, which affected her and made it difficult to work. Nour, herself originally from Syria, also talked about how she was victim of discriminatory narratives: her landlady evicted her from the house where she had been living for several years because she feared potential links to Islamic extremists. Meanwhile, she said “all the refugees I meet cling to the hope that coming to Europe will delete all the suffering in their lives.”

She concluded by talking about potential solutions to this situation. Firstly, she talked about the importance of words: “instead of crisis, let’s say something else – and instead of migrants/refugees, let’s call them ‘life-seekers’.” She also suggested that we could show positive counter-examples: the many refugees who adapt to their host countries and respect local values and customs. And, she concluded, we need to deal with the fear, and remind people that the refugees come to Europe also because of fear.

Next, Daniel Ocbe of National Coalition Building Institute Switzerland talked about the situation of refugees from Eritrea. He started by talking about the history of Eritrea, focusing on recent conflicts and oppressive regimes that led people to flee to neighbouring Ethiopia and Sudan, as well as further afield. He continued by talking about the social situation in Eritrea, and the compulsory military service, which most young people in Eritrea are forced into.

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He continued by describing the many reasons that people choose to flee from Eritrea: the oppressive regime and its use of unlimited prison sentences. This leads many thousands of people per month to flee from Eritrea to Ethiopia and Sudan. From here, there are traffickers who charge extortionate fees to traffic refugees to Libya, and onwards to Europe. Many refugees, he said, finance their trips by selling their organs for transplant: “we all talk about the problem of human traffickers,” he said, “but who is talking about the people who are buying organs from refugees?”

He then described the harsh conditions faced by refugees crossing across the Sahara, which claims the lives of many, as well as the measures taken to evade police on the way, with many refugees crammed into small vans, and finally the journey by sea from Libya to Europe, where many refugees also perish: “even if we arrive in Europe, we cannot think like the others who live in Europe. We carry trauma with us.” Daniel concluded by talking about his own personal experience of trying to find legal status after arriving as a refugee in Europe.

Following Daniel, Veronica Gottlieb from Austria talked about the “Stop War Not People” campaign of APS YARD. They looked at the data on source countries of refugees arriving in Europe, and the conflicts that drive much of this forced migration. She then talked about how they promoted their campaign, using the endorsements of celebrity figures.

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She also described the different actions coordinated as part of the campaign, including boycotting of companies and countries with links to the arms trade, and large public demonstrations. “We realised that data was not enough, so we tried to link data to personal experience.” In this way they try to shift the narrative, and change the perspectives of people. For this campaign, they decided to do some interviews with migrants and refugees, and to link these interviews to the data. She screened one of these videos to illustrate.


The final panellist was Vedat Sevincer of Norsensus Mediaforum. Vedat began by contradicting the title of the panel, saying: “I would call myself a storyteller rather than a protagonist.” He continued by telling a story about a man who tries to buy a talking bird; when the bird he buys cannot talk, the pet shop owner gives him advice to help the bird learn to talk, but in the end the bird dies; when the man goes back to the pet-shop owner, the shop owner asks if the bird said anything before it died; the man replies with a yes: “food!” This story illustrates the point that shouting our message and expecting people to take it on board often ignores the basic needs of people. “The nature of people is made up of ideologies and preferences.”

Like Stefano Volpicelli in the morning session “What’s the Story?”, Vedat made the point that, in mainstream media portrayals, refugee and migrant stories usually fit into one of two poles – migrants are either passive victims, or undeserving, active agents of violence, immorality and fraud. He continued by talking about a project of Norsenus that seeks to bring the mainstream media representatives to role of mentors with immigrant youths. The aim is to encourage and empower young people to create high-quality media products, rather than to be stuck in social media bubbles. In the end, they created a portal that creates the materials to be syndicated to mainstream media.

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The idea of the project, Vedat explained, was not to make the protagonists focus on the immigration issue, but to encourage these young people to engage in mainstream society and dialogue. The project was also successful in creating skilled and resourceful community spokespeople. “We wanted to help these young people feel like agents, rather than victims of discrimination.”

After the panel discussion, the floor was opened to participants to ask questions and contribute to the discussion. Participants’ questions focused on issues such as the current situation in Eritrea and the difficulties of integration for migrants and refugees. An interesting discussion arose about what kind of stories about refugees are needed to counter the prevalent media narrative. Panellists agreed that it is important to broaden the perspective and deepen the discussion, but also to link the stories of refugees and migrants to their future lives, not just the limited scope of their experience of flight and trauma.

The afternoon’s session concluded with UNITED’s Ralph du Long, who was there to present the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, which is a financial supporter of this conference. He started by introducing the history of EU-Russia Civil Society Forum: it was established in 2011 as an independent platform for EU and Russian NGOs.

Ralph talked about the work the Forum does in networking between its member organisations, which come from all across the EU and Russia. One of the projects he focused on was the Forum’s Europe Lab. This event will feature workshops for participants, and projects arising from these workshops will be backed by grants. He also talked about the open call funding mechanism, whereby the forum can fund initiatives by civil society organisations; UNITED is a beneficiary of one of these grants, which partially finances the Moving Stories conference, as well as the refugee campaign which will be a follow-up of it.

UNITED represented at OSCE meeting in Vienna - read more...

UNITED represented at OSCE meeting in Vienna – read more…

Ralph also highlighted the Civic Solidarity Platform, which is directly linked to the OSCE. (UNITED is in the steering committee of the CSP.) He explained the context of the Basel declaration on xenophobia, the recommendations of which are a priority of the current OSCE German presidency – and talked about the CSP’s high hopes for a Hamburg declaration this year on migration. “This really helps us to push things further within the OSCE.”

The evening session was taken up by Political Cafes. These are informal discussion groups which are organised by participants themselves, focusing on burning topics, some of which are not otherwise covered in the conference programmes. The political cafes covered topics such as the ongoing conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine, the psychological aspect of narrative, the situation at refugee camps, and the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, and the work it does in promoting an alternative narrative around migration and refugees.

Continue to Days IV and V


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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, and the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.

The information contained herein does not necessarily reflect the position nor the opinion of our sponsors. Sponsors are not to be held responsible for any use that may be made of it.