MILAN — In the Italian immigration debate, the facts no longer seem to matter.
Ask an average Italian what percentage of the countrys population was born abroad and the answer youll get — according to the research firm Ipsos Mori — is 26 percent. The actual number is 9.5 percent.
Similarly, 11 months after a sudden, lasting drop in irregular sea arrivals to Italy, 51 percent of Italians still believe the number of migrants arriving in Italian ports is “similar or higher” than before, according to a recent survey published by the newspaper Corriere della Sera. The truth: Arrivals are almost 80 percent lower than they were nearly a year ago.
The problem is not unique to Italy. Across Europe, and indeed the world, the dominant political discourse has become increasingly dissociated from reality. The Ipsos Mori survey found similarly inflated perceptions about the foreign-born population in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. And, according to another recent study, Germans estimate the unemployment rate among immigrants at 40 percent. The true figure is less than 8 percent.
Despite a proliferation of widely available and ever more accurate data, public perception on immigration continues to be shaped by politicians who happily ignore the facts — or bend the numbers to fit their stories. And the perception they shape is ultimately expressed in both policies and political outcomes.
Just look at the headlines. The number of irregular crossings between Germany and Austria has plummeted, but that hasnt stopped the phenomenon from sparking a political crisis in Berlin and Brussels. And despite overwhelming evidence that the biggest driver of migrants across the Mediterranean are conditions back home, the European political discourse remains dominated by the idea that NGO rescue operations are a significant pull factor.
The temptation is to hide behind numbers, dismissing skeptical voices as uninformed, and thus not worthy of attention. This has not worked in the past, and it will not work today.
The devaluation of data has critical implications for policymaking; its impact is even being felt in the traditionally technocratic realm of long-term planning in the European Union. In its proposal for the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (the blocs seven-year budget), for example, the European Commission has proposed nearly tripling the amount of money devoted to asylum and migration, from €13 billion to €35 billion.
But while funds for securing the EUs external borders will nearly quadruple (from €5.6 to €21.3 billion), money devoted to integration — an area that experts agree is essential for the long-term management of immigrants — will most likely remain at current levels. This is a direct reflection of pressure created by politicians who have zeroed in on closing the blocs external borders, despite the fact that new arrivals are down and a long-term solution requires attention to integrating those who stay.
For technocrats accustomed to being armed with facts and figures, the triumph of political narratives over hard fact presents a real challenge. The temptation is to hide behind numbers, dismissing skeptical voices as uninformed, and thus not worthy of attention. This has not worked in the past, and it will not work today.
The situation has reached a dangerous impasse, as evidenced by recurring standoffs between countries, like Greece and Italy, where immigrants are most likely to enter the EU, and those, like Germany and Austria, more worried about migrants traveling between countries. Loud voices calling for radical solutions to perceived problems — divorced as they may be from fact — are attractive to voters not only because they play into their fears, but because they speak to their desire for someone to take charge and “fix” the situation.
Liberal minds need to wade into the debate, not shy away from it. But there is also a need to change tack in terms of the counternarratives that we employ.
Politicians and experts need to show much more empathy when it comes to the opinions and beliefs of ordinary people. Fears and doubts need to be understood — not dismissed. This takes time and patience, but the center is much less polarized than we often believe it to be.
For example, if a country is asked whether “it is right” to welcome foreigners, the response is likely to be highly polarized — and the political response highly polarizing. But try asking a more subtle question: Which do you prefer, a foreigner with no residence permit, unable to find legal work and thus more likely to fall prey to criminal organizations, or a regular, tax-paying immigrant? And a possibility of finding common ground emerges.
Tapping into fear has always been easier than trying to find viable solutions, but that should not stop liberal-minded politicians from trying. The room for calm public discourse may have shrunk, but there is still plenty of space for data and facts. We just need to use them more carefully — and more compassionately.
Matteo Villa is a research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies migration program. Follow him on Twitter @emmevilla.