Ms. Teresa Albano, Economic Affairs Officer at the Office of the Coordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities and Senior Project Manager of the E-MINDFUL project.
“The Stone Guest” is a metaphorical expression, indicating an impending but invisible presence, somehow unexpected, almost disturbing.
When discussing factors that influence attitudes towards migrants, the impact of migration policies and politics seems to be regarded as a Stone Guest, a presence that everyone knows but no-one names. Research on attitudes, in fact, tends to give priority to exploring individual drivers, such as values and beliefs or socioeconomic, cultural and demographic factors. Yet, migration policies and politics play a critical role in shaping the environment where attitudes get rooted and develop. In some international commitments, they are described as the ‘conducive conditions that enable all migrants to enrich our societies through their human, economic and social capacities’ (Preamble, Global Compact for safe, orderly and regular migration, 2018).
But how does this Stone Guest act?
The first tool is the management of space. In times of demographic decline and ageing societies, more and more accommodation remains empty while reception and housing of migrants are structurally insufficient and inadequate. Refugees and migrants tend to be clustered in remote, rural areas, often in detention centres or reception camps, where they are either out of sight – therefore non-existent – or easily perceived as ‘guilty’ of some wrongdoing.
Although widespread movement has regularly occurred for decades and can be, unfortunately, predicted according to the numerous crises taking place, the impression is that conflict-induced migration and persecution-driven movements are a sudden and unexpected emergency. Yet, this emergency dates back to the late nineties, when the fall of the Berlin wall and the digital revolution accelerated the economic integration in what today we call globalization. While borders have disappeared for goods and financial assets, they remain a stumbling block to the circulation of individuals, which for some is insurmountable. The power of a passport to allow – or not, such circulation, is the representation of a new divide in the management of transnational space, between those who can swiftly move between countries and be part of the global world, and those who cannot.
The second tool is language. Described in ways such as vermin, disease, or residual load, migrants are portrayed as less than human. Dehumanization increases anger and disgust, it sparks fears and offers fertile grounds to reinforce spatial segregation and marginalization. Migrants are turned into mere bodies, good for nothing and ready for anything, ideal merchandise for exploitation.
In dealing with these dynamics, the Stone Guest is an invisible but critical presence. It has the role to design rules that impede people to circulate, despite labour shortages across skill levels and the increasing demand for talent. It can devise measures that keep individuals at the margins, in a perpetual state of insecurity. It can fuel division, disgust, and rejection. Or the contrary: the Stone Guest can remind us that if hosting communities wish to increase or keep up with their living standards, a migrant labour force is needed. It highlights that hosting communities can benefit from the educational achievements of newcomers. It has the potential to design a common space where dignity, mutual tolerance, understanding and respect for all is promoted, creating the conditions where we and they partner for the common good.
Yet, in times of post-Truth and de-legitimization of fact-based research, it is not easy for policy-makers, often hostages of fictitious narratives, to break the vicious circle that points at migrants as the easy scapegoats of economic recession and the shrinking of welfare systems. In such an environment, decisiveness prevails over fact-based decision-making. It is a politics of emotion and not of reason. Migration narratives get rooted on these grounds, and they bear the fruits of their feeder.
Working on elaborating messages that resonate with those who are still uncertain about their feelings and opinions towards migrants is an integral part of the efforts towards evidence-based migration policies that can harness the social, cultural, and innovative potential of newcomers. Because ‘no other force – not trade, not capital flow – has the potential to transform lives in the sustainable, positive ways and on the scale that migration does’ (Sutherland, 2015).