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The real story behind the anti-migration noise

Oak Foundation / Philanthropy

Photo: © Jan Van de Vel

“We need to think differently, use new messages and voices.”
Andrea Menapace, Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights

Good communication is key in the 21st century to informing public opinion. As the debate over refugees and migrants has become ever more polarised in Europe, Civitates has funded projects of support for civil society organisations which have found themselves on the frontline of humanitarian action and of efforts to try to explain the real story behind the anti-migration noise to the public and politicians.

Andrea Menapace from the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights explains why it is vital to boost communication on migration to the “undecided and persuadable middle”. “The political climate is more divisive than ever,” says Menapace, whose organisation leads a coalition of not-for-profit organisations pushing for change. Mainstream journalists and newspapers have been directly attacked for criticizing the government’s policies on migration and there has been arise in racist and xenophobic violence in Italy.

Yet, among the doom and gloom, there is a hope, he insists, citing a study on national identity, refugees and migrants that shows Italians fall into seven different groups on the issue. While 24 per cent reveal themselves to be hostile to open society values, 28 per cent can be considered allies of not-for-profit organisations and 48 per cent are part of a silent, anxious and undecided “middle”. It is this group the coalition plans to target with its communications campaign.

Narrative change

More concretely, this means working on a broader mandate of defending the rule of law and the fundamental principles of an open society, rather than focusing just on migration, explains Menapace. “Civic space is something that matters for everyone.”

To achieve this, the not-for-profit organisations are working on “narrative change and building a coalition to examine how we talk about the problem of migration and refugees in Italy,” he says. “More and more it is not a debate about the people who are coming to Europe, but about who we are as a society,” adds Menapace. “For example, Italy has always been seen as a country from which people emigrated, not one to which people migrated. This has changed dramatically.”

Menapace and his colleagues are creating a positive core narrative that they will use to engage with a wide variety of groups, including trade unions, young people and religious organisations, and will examine how best to communicate with each group.

“Not-for-profit organisations generally have little communications capacity and tend to give messages based on their own values,” says Menapace. “We need to think differently, use new messages and voices.” He cites young business leaders or sports stars who originally arrived in Italy as migrants themselves, as potential new voices to lead this debate.

Capacity building

To enable civil society organisations to make the most of this change of direction, the emphasis will be on capacity building and opportunities to experiment with different ways of communicating with new audiences. This will include a series of strategic training sessions and workshops to generate a deep analysis of the current political situation, with a focus on common values and developing a shared language.

And it is important for the not-for-profit organisations to ensure that the group they are ultimately trying to help is at the heart of the campaign. It will therefore include a mentoring programme focused on migrants and second-generation immigrants and other unrepresented or misrepresented groups. The plan is to develop a series of training activities to help them become effective messengers, provide them with opportunities to spread their thoughts and ideas, and to create a community of practice, peer-to-peer learning and exchange between these groups.

There are unlikely to be any quick wins and changing the narrative and opinions in the middleground will take lots of time and energy. But Menapace is optimistic that the campaign will make a real difference, not just terms of discussions around migration and other minorities, but to stop civic space shrinking in Italy and opening up new conversations and ways of thinking.

About Civitates

Civitates is a philanthropic initiative for democracy and solidarity in Europe. It provides funding for civil society actors to come together, revitalise public discourse, and ensure that all voices are heard. One of Civitates’ activities is strengthening the capacity of civil society actors, collectively and more effectively.

The 16 members of the consortium are: Adessium Foundation, Stefan Batory Foundation, Bertelsmann Stiftung, European Cultural Foundation, ERSTE Stiftung, Fondation de France, Fritt Ord, King Baudouin Foundation, Körber Stiftung, Luminate, Mott Foundation, Nicolas Puech Foundation, Oak Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Robert Bosch Stiftung and Stiftung Mercator.