Blog contribution by Franziska Fischer, PhD student at the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria

On Tuesday, November 13th, 2108 the Jean Monnet Network  at UVic brought together a network of scholars, lawyers and practitioners in order to discuss Canada’s border and migration policies in comparative perspective. The focus of the workshop emphasized the interconnection between public and political narratives and policy-making in a Canadian and European Union context and its effect on border-regimes. Three different Panel discussion and a concluding Roundtable discussion brought together the different perspectives of the participants on recent migration trends in Canada and the EU and offered a glimpse into potential policy-making approaches, and its obstacles and issues.

Dr. Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly introduced in his opening remarks the overarching theme of the workshop: the tension arising between migration and the concept of freedom and mobility that consequently results in a divergence between legislation and practice. This we can be witnessed in the European Union, as well as in Canada, where the perception of a refugee ‘crisis’ resulted in new interpretations of established border policies, such as the Schengen-Agreement in the EU and the safe-third-country agreement between Canada and the United States.

But how come we see these changes most recently? While migration has increased in volume over the past century, it has not increased in proportion to the world population. Thus, the trigger for recent changes sociopolitical trends concerning managing migration must be identified, rather than in demographic facts, in the perception of recent migration trends. The perception is that of a crisis, which is created, enhanced, reproduced and exploited through several channels to the public and the political landscape, including the media, legal definitions and political actions amongst many more. This constructed discourse regarding migrants and especially refugees in the recent years has created a path leading towards distinct policies.

The first Panel set the context by addressing ethical questions and humanitarian issues regarding global border and migration policies, critically evaluating the frames and labels that facilitate the creating of the current perception on migration in Canada and the EU. In Canada, migration and specifically the arrival of refugees is aimed to be connected to economic potential and progress, while in the European Union the perception is rather connected to an economic burden of the Member States to accommodate the influx of people. Nevertheless, in both contexts, regardless of the perception of economic potential or burden, migration is inherently connected to a security threat. Failure of existing institutions and policies to address this perception resulted in the theme of a ‘crisis’, with which recent refugee migration is now instantly connected to. The frame ‘crisis’ supports the notion of an existential threat and attaches a criminal identity to refugees by them simply crossing the border. This then results in an increase in police force, border patrols and even the closing of borders in both Canada and the European Union. The perception fails to distinguish between different types of migration, initiated through different types of conflict, economic necessity or climate change, which are all individually in need of distinguished policy consideration. National and international institutions and policies already in place fail to manage these different policy needs. Concluding the first Panel was the recognition of issues in the framing the situation that leads to a discourse which pushes for certain policy changes, such as the securitization of the border which will or is failing to respond to the situation.

The second Panel addressed already existing national policies in place in Canada and in the European Union and identified their shortcomings based on a flawed perception of the situation. The national policies in place within the Member States of the European Union differ from those in Canada, as the European Union provides an overarching political framework that ought to administer and manage the implementation of national policies based on a European Union wide standard encoded in its legislation. While all Member States initially agreed to a certain policy structure regarding migrants and refugees, we can witness three distinctions in national reactions within the European Union: Welcome-culture nations; Status-Quo nations, and Refusal countries. However, within all three reactions there were changes implemented in their national adaptation of the EU policy in direct answer to the perception of the security threat through migration. Consequently, two major EU legislations are at stake, the Schengen Agreement and the Dublin Convention and the concept of freedom of mobility in the European Union is no longer perceived as an advantage. Canada, being in a geographically different position that European Union Member States, nevertheless struggled to contain an anti-immigrant rhetoric. This resulted in a decline in the admission of Permanent Residents under the Family and the refugee categories in addition to the declining levels of government assistance in contrast to a rise in privately sponsored refugees. While Prime Minister Trudeau urged to the public that ‘diversity’ is Canada's strength, other voices connecting crime and migration are very loud in the Canadian political landscape. This leads to the questions: what can really explain this refusal attitude? Is it based in history, culture, populism, discourse or economic factors? And if policy is created based on a flawed perception how can we in academia ‘through sand’ into the mechanisms of policy making?

The final Panel added different perspectives from the field to the academic debate about policy-making based on public perception. The evolution of the US-Canada border underlines the increasing role of technology within border-policy-making. Biometric necessities and identification procedures are on the rise as tools to cope with the fear driven perception of an increasing migration trend in Canada as well as in the European Union. Administratively, in both Canada and the European Union we can witness huge backlogs of any refugee and asylum claims, as well as other entry classification categories, which now take up to 20 months in Canada and in some cases in the European Union have reportedly been on the shelf for more than four years. The solution for these huge backlogs seems to be in many instances sought in closing the borders rather then dealing with it administratively. What ultimately plays into the perception of the situation that calls for a refusal attitude mirrored in national policy is the representation of the situation in the media.

But how can we deal with this issue over fact and fiction in the perception of migration and refugees? How can we shape opinions and perceptions and direct them towards a more fact-based understanding? Would this necessary result in a different knowledge production that inherently leads down a different policy path? Or is there a different point of entry to this issue rather than discourse and meaning-making? By shedding light and connecting important dots regarding the creation of narratives and producing policy-outcomes, this workshop has set a very comprehensive framework in order to move forward creating a more distinguished soil for growing policy-recommendations. All participants deem it crucial to address the discourse and perception regarding migration and refugees before implementing policies and urge to acknowledge the potential for political actors to exploit a certain refusal perception for their agenda. As further steps, we now need to find methodologies and tools to disrupt and unlearn, what has been produced out of a place of fear, rather than compassion, or even merely a fact-based understanding of the situation.

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