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Between Exploitation and Demonization: The European Turn to Discrimination

The last decade has shown a progressively-increasing trend concerning the scope of the migration phenomena and its simultaneous exploitation and demonization by political forces. Scholars and institutions have registered an ever-growing flow of people seeking refuge in either neighboring countries or states far from their homelands. As reported by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2021, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide amounted to 89.3 million, with most of those situations of displacement coming into existence due to environmental, economic, or conflict-related issues. In this context, the role of territorial entities like the European Union becomes fundamental. They represent not only the object of attraction of the crashing waves of individuals seeking a better future, but also the leading forces in the political and juridical recognition of migration issues. The policies employed by the countries constituting said entities can shape the understanding and treatment of migration issues by the international community, fundamentally impacting the respect, or lack thereof, of asylum seekers' human rights.

In this context, the rising of right-wing and far-right political securitarian propaganda across Europe is creating growing anxieties among scholars and politicians. Ever since the onset of the 2015 migration crisis, the European Union has seen a gradual increase in social support for political parties that have based their programs, ideas, and propaganda mostly on the rejection of the other. Many right-leaning political entities have depicted those same minorities through a perplexing narrative that set the standard for the demonization of those that, according to the propaganda, could potentially hinder the unity and sanctity of national identities.

This process has mostly taken the shape of highly-conflictual political campaigns in which the figure of the migrant has been exploited and demonized in a massive conglomeration of blatant electoral needs and violent rhetoric. All over Europe, right-wing politicians have identified migrants as a destabilizing factor for the Union and the state. They created a direct link between the instability and progressive weakening of the ideological principles of the European Union, and the constant influx of people from third countries could steer the political agenda into amorphous positions that differ from the original plan. This widespread paradigm has gained a lot of traction, and the growth of populist parties and movements has been eased by these same ideas, often leading their leaders to the heads of cabinets, political groups, and even states.

The alleged destabilizing role of migrants in the context of Europe is outlined throughout their will to deform the contours of the 'thick' Europe (Kaunert et al., 2020). This theoretical concept finds its foundations in the commonly-shared matrix of civilization principles distributed among European countries. Among Europe’s unity, there might be a sense of plurality and multiplicity that fundamentally clashes with the ideas of cohesion and unity on which the European Union itself was born (Buhari-Gulmez & Rumford, 2016). In this sense, the quest for belonging takes the shape of the process of othering through identifying first what Europe is not (Edmondson & Luhtakallio, 2019). Migrants and refugees are described as lacking this sense of belonging and through this process of differentiation, many political entities manage to find a means for self-identification in a time of constant change and development. The figure of the migrant becomes the perfect scapegoat to answer to the widespread instability in Europe as it portrays both the problem and the solution to the search for ontological security.

It is especially around this idea of security that the narrative of anti-migration policies develops and unfolds. The European Parliament Research Service (EPRS) has reported an ever-growing number of states that have started considering migration a major priority, often in negative terms, by viewing it through the aforementioned criteria of destabilization of the European status quo (EPRS, 2016). What is particularly interesting in this data is that the consideration of migration as a top priority in ontological and social security often moves parallelly with the exploitation of the theme for national political achievements (Liebhart, 2020). The politicization process of illegal arrivals on the coasts of Italy has been fundamental in the amplifying of the voice of right-wing parties like Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (FDI). Since 2018, their political campaigns have been characterized by focused framing on migration as an irregular phenomenon to be fought with harsh measures (Dennison & Geddes, 2021). This ever-increasing power play was pursued at the expense of migrants and asylum seekers, through a series of policy decisions oriented at the promotion of stricter and more rigid mechanisms for repatriation and criminalization (Pettrachin, 2020).

Figure 3. by Sujeeth Potla on Unsplash

The harsh turn taken by the Italian migration policy since 2018 could represent the double track on which the question of migration runs in the current European context; if the flow of migrants has been demonized to satisfy the inherent need for security of a supranational, or it has been carefully exploited by national political groups for mere electoral needs (Dennison & Geddes, 2021). The result of this process is a European Union that finds itself challenged in the validity of its founding principles (Kaunert et al., 2020). The principle of cohesion that once led to European integration is being twisted and exploited by national actors with anti-immigration political agendas. Migrants constituted in this sense the perfect scapegoat for the mainstreaming of the political inquests. Its politicization, through the systemic exploitation and manipulation of fear, has been used to hide racism and xenophobic ideals. These, paired with the growing instability of the foundations of European integration in the matter, could endanger the rights of migrants and the integrity of the entire European system. The issue of immigration seems to have the potential to alter not only the national environments but also the political equilibrium within the European borders (Davis & Deole, 2017) and therefore, it requires a formal reframing to be properly tackled. To avoid the over-exploitation of migrants, there is a need to reconsider not only the migration policy framework but also the overall portrayal of the phenomena in European cultures. This objective can only be achieved through inclusive education, the independence and accuracy of media, and the improvement of overall social imagery that could, then, drive detachment from identity and security politics. A shift from this paradigmatic interpretation of migration is certainly possible, but such a process requires an ethical willingness that many European countries seem to struggle to embody.

Bibliographical Resources

Buhari-Gulmez, D., & Rumford, C. (2016). Towards a (“thick”, “thin”, or “parallel”) European society? Understanding the dynamics of European multiplicity. Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 29(1), 41–55.

Czymara, C. S. (2020). Attitudes toward refugees in Contemporary Europe: A longitudinal perspective on cross-national differences. Social Forces. doi:10.1093/sf/soaa055.

Davis, L. & Deole, Sumit S. (2017). Immigration and the Rise of Far-right Parties in Europe. Ifo DICE Report, 15(4), 10–15.

Dennison, J., & Geddes, A. (2021). The centre no longer holds: The Lega, Matteo Salvini and the remaking of Italian Immigration Politics. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 48(2), 441-460. doi:10.1080/1369183x.2020.1853907.

Edmondson, R., & Luhtakallio, E. (2019). Boundaries, barriers and belonging. European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology, 6(3), 281–287.

EPRS. (2016). Parlemeter 2016. European Parliament

Feinstein, S., Poleacovschi, C., Drake, R., & Winters, L. A. (2022). States and refugee integration: A comparative analysis of France, Germany, and Switzerland. Journal of International Migration and Integration. doi:10.1007/s12134-021-00929-8.

Halikiopoulou, D., & Vlandas, T. (2020). When economic and cultural interests align: The anti-immigration voter coalitions driving far right party success in Europe. European Political Science Review, 12(4), 427-448. doi:10.1017/s175577392000020x.

Kaunert, C., De Deus Pereira, J., & Edwards, M. (2020). Thick Europe, ontological security and Parochial Europe: The re-emergence of far-right extremism and terrorism after the refugee crisis of 2015. European Politics and Society,23(1), 42-61. doi:10.1080/23745118.2020.1842699

Liebhart, K. (2020). The normalization of right-wing populist discourses and politics in Austria. In The state of the European Union: Fault lines in European integration. Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2022). Refugee statistics, UNHCR. UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency. Available at: (Accessed: October 21, 2022).

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Niccolò Fantin

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