What have we learned so far? First insights from our interdisciplinary research

The EU-funded PERCEPTIONS project is concerned with perceptions (potential) migrants hold and narratives that circulate about Europe and how this influences migration behaviour. The project also tries to understand if and how certain perceptions may be linked with potential security threats.

Insights from current knowledge on migration narratives and approaches to migration 

In the first phase of the project, the project consortium studied how the notions of ‘(mis)perceptions’, ‘narratives’, and ‘(security) threats’ are approached, defined and conceptualized in relation to migration issues in prior academic research as well as in a wide range of reports and documents from policymakers, (inter)governmental organisations, security practitioners and civil society organisations. The analysis of numerous academic, policy and civil society documents shows that, when dealing with migrants’ perceptions, concerns mainly revolve around the idea that migrants frequently hold ‘false’ or ‘inaccurate’ perceptions of migration trajectories and Europe. In this context, migrants’ high expectations of (life in) Europe are often described as ‘misperceptions’ that are based on narratives and imaginaries that circulate about e.g. job opportunities, decent housing conditions and accessible health care and social security facilities upon arrival. This way of reasoning implies there is a need to ‘correct’ these perceptions to stop the large inflow of migrants, according to some, or to at least create more ‘realistic’ expectations before migrants decide to embark on their journey to Europe, according to others. This binary approach of migrants’ perceptions as either ‘false’ or ‘inaccurate’ (so-called misperceptions) versus ‘true’ or ‘accurate’, however, is not neutral but mirrors dominant discourses created by those in positions of power who can define what is considered an ‘accurate’ perception of (life in) Europe. Moreover, it assumes there is such a thing as a ‘correct’ perception of what to expect after migration, while failing to acknowledge that many migrants have long term goals, migrate to achieve relatively better lives for themselves and their children, and often also do not (feel like they) have a real choice to stay. In this regard, it is important to move beyond this binary categorization and gain insight into how and why different actors – including policymakers, practitioners as well as migrants themselves – categorize particular perceptions as ‘accurate’ and others as ‘inaccurate’. 

Another key finding is how a growing acceptance of a securitization approach to migration is leading to an increased focus on ‘migration as a threat’ in migration policies, with authorities being particularly concerned with the threat of radicalisation and violent extremism. While disproportionally a lot of attention is paid to the threat migration is assumed to pose to receiving societies, threats posed to migrants seem to receive far less attention. These securitization narratives and perceptions of ‘migration as a threat’ seem to be largely based on fears but do not necessarily have a profound and well-established scientific ground; nor do they consider the multiple perspectives of the various actors involved in migration to Europe. Yet, these securitization approaches are slowly but steadily entering public opinion and migration policies, without critically reflecting upon the discourses applied or the consequences this may have. For instance, perceiving ‘migration as a threat’ in itself can constitute a threat to both migrants as well as the societies they cross or intend to reach, since it may lead to e.g. closing legal migration routes and imposing strict border and immigration policies that foster the creation of illegal routes.

What’s next?

Taking into account these insights of the first phase of the research, the PERCEPTIONS project and the multi-perspective approach it embraces provides a good opportunity to look beyond existing dominant discourses as it includes the voices and perspectives of people in vulnerable conditions – most notably the migrants themselves – and of those who are not yet fully represented in these discourses and narratives. In the next phases of the project, the aim is to gain more in-depth insight into how different actors (including policymakers, first-line practitioners and migrants) consider particular perceptions, narratives, and discourses as either ‘accurate’ or ‘inaccurate’, or ‘true’ or ‘false’. This will lead to a more nuanced understanding of perceptions and narratives about Europe, as well as of the criteria by which their accuracy is evaluated by these different stakeholder groups. By taking a critical approach to securitization narratives, the PERCEPTIONS project also tries to learn what countermeasures of perceiving ‘migration as a threat’ could look like according to the different actors involved. Moreover, the project will look into the impact of the increasing securitization of migration on perceptions about Europe and its effect on migration. In this regard, it is crucial to also pay attention to the (limited) influence of migrants’ agency in migration decisions in order to better understand to what extent perceptions of Europe influence actual migratory behaviour.


Note: This article is based on PERCEPTIONS Deliverable 2.6
Authors: Rut Van Caudenberg & Lore Van Praag




Perceptions, migration, research, Europe, narratives

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