MEP Mercedes Bresso is a member of the European Parliament from Italy. Bresso is serving on the Regional Development and Constitutional Affairs committees of the Parliament and belongs to the political group of Socialists and Democrats. She is the Chair of the European Parliament Intergroup on Rural, Mountainous and Remote Areas and a member of the Intergroup on Integrity (Transparency, Anti-Corruption and Organized Crime).
On 25 April 2018 she is hosting the “Shaping the public perception of migration” round table discussion with policy makers, journalists and academics at the European Parliament.
The OPEN Media Hub spoke to PEP Bresso in the eve of the event.
English translation of the interview transcript:
Q: In the fourth year of migration influx in Europe, a recent study by the European Commission in the 28 Member States shows that only 37% of individuals consider themselves well informed about immigration, 57% feel comfortable in their interactions with migrants, and more than half believe that immigration has a negative impact. How can this perception of the public be interpreted?
A: First of all, I get the impression that the public is very confused between “refugees” and “migrants” who are not the same situation at all, I mean, on one hand people who are presently in one country and who are not from that country, and those who come as a consequence of the great problems such as what we have in Syria and had in different times in different parts of the world, and especially in Africa. I think the public mixes everything up. There is a need for a clearer understanding and for being better informed about these phenomena for which humanitarian assistance is really essential, but also about the policies at European and at national level to control the flow of economic migration.
Q: How do media publications influence public attitudes? What is your opinion both as an Italian and as a European?
A: The media influences the public attitude a lot because if you see on television that you’re invaded, you accept you are invaded. In fact, we know that this year in Europe, more than 100,000 people have arrived as refugees, so it’s not an invasion, but if you say it’s an invasion, the public will think it’s an invasion. So, I believe that the media must also give more precise information. It is clear that there are problems in this part of the world but I do not believe that Europe is invaded, this is not the reality.
Q: Is there anything you are missing in the coverage of migration in the media you are following?
A: I think, maybe first there should be less generalisation and we should sometimes listen to the people who arrive, and give a voice to migrants , especially to those refugees fleeing with their families from war, who lived through terrible things and had terrible experiences. Perhaps we should give a little more coverage to concrete facts, to real people, to know that these migrants are not a never-ending influx of people, but a considerable number of people are asking for help and have had terrible experiences. I think getting a little closer to the real people would also eliminate this tendency to look at figures rather than individuals, while we should see the human beings behind the figures.
There are many of them, indeed, but in reality, in fact, I live in Piedmont for example, or for a person who lives in Sicily, how many refugees – not economic migrants, who are there to work, and who are actually needed, this needs to be clarified – how many refugees does one knows personally? How many has one seen? If you think about it, one might have seen only a few. In fact, they are coming in and with the difficulties we are experiencing, Europe should really give us hand in managing the flows but in the end, they are distributed all over Europe, they arrive regularly, but they arrive in Europe. So, it is clear that there are specific situations, for example, they arrive on an Italian or Greek island, there are situations on the borders when the states do not agree on how to manage the flows, so physically people can see them. Paradoxically, those who are the most scared are people in rural areas, where they have never seen a refugee, and they see migrants who come to harvest perhaps tomatoes, or olives or other products, perhaps oranges, and who are absolutely necessary, who are underpaid and poorly treated. That’s what they see, but refugees? Most Europeans have never seen one. And I think doing a survey would be useful for the media, doing a survey asking how many refugees do you actually know, can you introduce us to one?
Q: How do public attitudes toward migration affect the way politicians make decisions?
A: Look, it’s obvious that at the moment we have, in Europe, populist movements that tend to make an issue of migrants: they call them migrants and not refugees, they talk about a big issue, about Europe being invaded. And that has consequences for all politicians, also for those like us who are in favour of a proper reception and of providing help, but also trying to slow down the flow, to host people if possible closer to their countries, where they want to return when they are free to do so, when they will have the opportunity. But even for people like us, it becomes difficult to explain to citizens because of the politicised use of the refugees’ issue, which is deliberately mixed up with that of migrants. I believe that we ourselves, and with the help of the media, will have to try to explain to the citizens the difference and say that migrants in Europe are necessary, we have an aging population and we do not have the possibility to cover the same amount of jobs without having migrants; sometimes they are already in Europe, sometimes they come from outside. In both cases, we must learn to be inclusive, we must learn to manage the phenomenon well, but we cannot eliminate it. The refugees issue is a fundamental humanitarian issue and I do not think we should increase the number of warnings. There is a global problem of dictatorial states that drive away their inhabitants. So, I think we need to act at the political level, with the United Nations, the EU, to counter this phenomenon, because it is terrible for these people, but we must also make it clear to Europeans that they are not going to invade Europe, they are not going to create problems for our democracy. For me it is fundamental to have the help of the European institutions, to have also the help of the media to make clear the reality of the phenomena. The phenomena are serious, but they are not unmanageable. There is no invasion, Europe will not be flooded. And we hope so, because looking at the rest of the world, totalitarianism is increasing everywhere, it must be clear that’s not going to happen. We have to try to bring the political issues back to reality. Raising the alarm is easy. I believe that populist movements do it, sometimes the media do it. I believe that a little more calm and clarity would be useful for everyone, and as I said, go back to the real people, and not images from catalogues that are always the same, the same people who land, as if they land a hundred times. Sometimes it’s the same images, but it’s a real person who is there with his child, with his wife or with her husband, who sometimes has lost her child at sea. That’s it, this person is asking for help, we should make it clear that it’s a person like us, it’s not a number, it’s not a figure, it’s not a political problem, but simply a human being.
Q: Since 2015, the European Union has been trying to modernise the right to asylum and security legislation in order to be able to respond more effectively to refugees and immigrants, but that is not progressing as quickly as expected. Why and what would it take for this reform to take place?
A: Because many of our states are also caught by this invasion complex. So, the European Union has to do a number of things. Reform the Dublin agreement, because refugees who come to Europe come to Europe, not to a specific EU country, not to the first one they enter, they want to come to Europe. So, a Dublin agreement that is common to all Europeans is very important. For that, we need to have a common border policy and common border guard force, and we’re doing it, but we have to do it faster, by making resources available, because, if we have 10 European border guard forces and all the rest is done by the countries that are on the border, this is not European. And the third thing is to help the African countries where the migrants come from and help them manage them on the spot: check on the spot if they are economic migrants or if they are refugees, so that they have the right to asylum. We also need a policy not just for the development of Africa but also for democracy in Africa. We will never have to help African countries that are not democratic. Being a democracy must be, as it is for the countries that join the European Union, an essential element to be able to receive European aid, because it is democracy that can avoid the terrible problems that we know today. That’s what we have to do, that we owe these people, people who are driven away by the undemocratic behaviour of their states.