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Framing of migration in EU policy

This month, we have been focusing our advocacy posts on framing. Framing describes the choices we make when presenting information, including tone, metaphors, numbers and visuals, and how these choices affect people’s attitudes, understanding and action. In a field so highly politicized as migration, framing plays an important part in developing attitudes, explaining or justifying policies and pushing political agendas.


Photo Credit: Banksy


While the terminology used around migration has evolved significantly in the past ten years, and has become more nuanced in certain milieus, framing is not just about terms. It is not merely about our choice of using the words  “migrants” or “people on the move”,  but it is also about the broader context in which migration is talked about,  about the associations that are called into play and the agency ascribed to people migrating. The framing of migration in the EU has been shaped by and also in turn informed the EU’s narrative and policies. Initially being included in a  narrative of “solidarity”, it then evolved to a narrative of “crisis” and “overwhelm”, and has  now arrived at the stage of “control”. EU member states and institutions are depicting a strong image of having migration and people on the move “under control”, or at least aiming to do so. This is reflected in the elements of the New EU Pact on Migration as well as more recent policies tabled by the European Commission. 


Framing of migrants in the new EU Pact on migration 

The EU Pact on Migration is a set of regulations and policies which were proposed in 2020 and adopted in December 2023 and aim at regulating migration within the EU and end the political impasse that has dominated EU migration policies in recent years. The Pact includes regulations and policies on the identification and screening of people on the move upon arrival, a new regulation for asylum procedures  as well as one dedicated to crises and “force majeure” events, among others. It has been framed by the EU as a milestone to “a fairer, efficient, and more sustainable migration and asylum process”.  Yet the Pact, perfectly aligns with and actually puts into practice, the increasingly widespread  security-narrative which frames migration as a threat. 

In 2024, a group of researchers analyzed the framing of migration in the EU Pact on Migration, by coding the language based on certain criteria. They found that although loaded terms such as “migrants, refugees and asylum seekers” were rarely used and instead replaced by more neutral terms, the language in the pact still strongly reinforced the idea of migration as a “threatening mass”  and migrants as “a plurality of people with little individual presence or active roles syntactically and semantically”. 



Source: Häkli, J.Kudžmaitė, G. &  Kallio, K.P. (2024Devaluing personhood: The framing of migrants in the EU's new pact on migration and asylum. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers00115. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12676



Indeed, the Pact ascribes little agency  to people on the move, who have often experienced war, natural disaster or economic decline and have proven their capacity and resilience on their perilous journey. Instead, authorities, private institutions, and big organizations are qualified as the “actors” with agency of “control”. The documents within the pact focus these actors   ‘screening’, ‘counting’, and ‘identifying’, migrants,  as justified by reasons of national security and a need for further control. 

Furthermore, there is a clear differentiation between “qualified people” and “unqualified people” with an approach that prefers blanket decisions over consideration of individual cases.

“In the interest of swift and fair procedures for all applicants, whilst also ensuring that the stay of applicants who do not qualify for international protection in the Union is not unduly prolonged, status should accelerate the examination of applications of applicants who are nationals … of a third country for which the share of decisions granting international protection is lower than 20% of the total number of decisions for that third country. “ (European Commission. (2020h).


This kind of language frames persons as “unqualified” migrants, not worthy of international protection due to their implied lack of (economic) utility for the country they arrive in, and hence calculate  their value numerically  (the recognition rate). This is not only problematic for the lack of agency and personhood ascribed to these individuals but also in the eye of international law.  This approach disregards the “individual” right to seek asylum and the right to a “fair procedure”, not to mention the importance of protecting human life as a basic principle, regardless of an individual’s training, occupation, or education. Alignment with international law and the Geneva Convention of 1951 is indeed not prioritized  in the documents of the Pact. The terms ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’, which both have international legal definitions and binding obligations, are used only 12 times altogether (six times each) out of a total of 595 coded quotations referring to migrants, arguably proving the attempt to evade international obligations such as the principle of non-refoulement and the right to seek asylum. 


Similar rhetoric to that of the Pact has also come up in more recent legislation including the new Schengen borders code, which would grant member states the right to “take the necessary measures to preserve security, law and order” when migrants attempt to “force entry en masse using violent means”, specifically in situations of instrumentalisation. This language clearly reflects the framing of migrants as a threat once again , and also opens the door for  states to exploit such situations to justify the mistreatment of migrants (as seen with  Poland officially legalizing pushbacks in 2021). 


Last but not least, we are seeing an increased application of criminal law in matters of migration. In the most recent legislative package proposed by the Commission, known as the “Facilitators Package”, EU member states are encouraged to take criminal legal measures to punish the crime of “facilitation of unauthorized entry”. Not only does this disregard the fact that people must first enter a territory of a state to be able to apply for asylum, it also criminalizes people who save lives by steering an overcrowded boat, driving a taxi, or supply life-saving humanitarian aid to people on the move. In short / most importantly, it o wrongfully applies criminal law in a matter that should fal under administrative law. 


This has been criticized in a publication by the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) which clarifies that “ Migration is not a crime” and that it is therefore inadequate to use criminal law to punish migration.  Criminal law is designed to punish individuals who harm other individuals or society at large. Irregular entry and stay by migrants should not be treated as a criminal offense, because the mere fact of crossing a border or staying in a country irregularly is not a crime per se against persons, property or national security and should not be treated as such.” Indeed, it is understood that under human rights law, criminalizing irregular migration exceeds what falls under a legitimate interest of states to protect their territory. 


These links among language, legislation, and policy, are why we dedicated this month’s advocacy posts to framing: Because language matters. Not only because it can shape attitudes, but because it can affect people's lives. The framing of migration through the security-lense has had a massive impact on the EU migration policy and thereby on the lives of people on the move. 

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