The Rise of Nationalist Politics and Policy Implications for Migration

    The Rise of Nationalist Politics and Policy Implications for Migration
    by Julia Blocher
    The Rise of Xenophobic Nationalist Politics and Policy Implications for Migrants

    Full Report Available Here



    • Prof Dr Melissa Siegel, Professor and Head of Migration Studies at the United Nations University – Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (UNU-MERIT)
    • Dr James Cockayne, Head of the United Nations University (UNU) Office in New York


    From different academic perspectives, this seminar examined the dynamics in which nationalism and xenophobia arise. Scholars on the panel considered, in the context of difficult political climates, how groups seeking greater inclusivity might redress divisive politics.

    The panel addressed the main reasons behind a recent increase in anti-migrant violence in some contexts – and why some countries experience a rise in anti-migrant sentiment while others, especially countries that observe similar migration patterns, do not. The discussion explored how current xenophobic and nationalist groups use anti-migration rhetoric, as well as what can be learned from historical examples. The overall aim was to consider how policies at the sub-national, national, regional and global levels may variously be used to tackle xenophobia.

     Commonalities Among Nativist and Xenophobic Movements

     Panellists highlighted the ongoing disconnect between research findings and the public narrative. Research shows that migration is overwhelmingly positive, yet some people – and narratives in the media – continue to negatively perceive the phenomenon. Some anti-migrant narratives perpetuate the false assumption that migrants take away from communities of destination, and that by sharing a country and culture with them, the communities of destination lose something of themselves. This idea assumes that migrants have nothing to contribute. Yet, most empirical research shows that migration makes innumerable and often unquantifiable contributions to societies, economies, and development. These impacts also have emerging properties; the result of migration is greater than the sum of its parts.

    Panellists brought specific evidence to the fore to argue that a rise in prejudice only occurs in communities where people do not hold intercultural values. In the context of economic or social discontent, professional ‘scapegoaters’ – particularly those with far-right or populist political agendas – target migrants, casting them as an amorphous and homogenous group, and as the source of many woes. According to research comparing the situation of many countries around the world, where growing migrant populations happened concurrently with cuts to social welfare – which are typically felt first in the poor districts that are both most reliant on them and where most frequently migrant populations concentrate – unscrupulous leaders could scapegoat the presence of migrants.

    Panellists noted that most members of societies are tolerant towards migrants and migration in general. Yet the focus in the media is often on the negative more than the positive. Although a higher percentage of migrants combined with recession in a society can contribute to prejudice, this happens only when people do not hold and strengthen intercultural values and dialogue.

    In relation to recent political developments, particularly in Europe, panellists noted that anti-pluralist and anti-multiculturalist populism has thrived in part because leaders there have been able to argue for homogeneity and identify themselves with the preservation of ‘one nation, one people’. In other words, such leaders claim to be legitimate representatives of the group, embodying the principle of the vox populi vox dei (voice of the people, voice of God). However, the clearly defined and indivisible people, language, culture and history they claim to represent does not truly exist. Culture, people and languages are not static but they are alive, mobile and evolve together with the development of societies. Ethnic heterogeneity has been the norm throughout history. The idea of static, homogenous ethno-cultural groups is simply an extension of nation-building myths that cover a far more complex reality. (However, not all forms of nation-building are based on exclusive patterns, which makes an important difference when countering racism, xenophobia and prejudice more generally.)

    Anti-pluralism and anti-multiculturalism are regularly observed cultural features of nativist, or right-wing populist, movements and are two characteristics common to such movements in Europe and beyond.

    Politically, anti-foreigner movements and occasional violence are linked to anti-establishment attitudes. Those who follow this right-wing ideology often believe that they are unrepresented and they consider themselves as good, ‘simple’, and hard-working people, while casting mainstream politicians and intellectuals as corrupt elites ignoring people’s interests.

    Finally, economically, they intend to represent anti-capitalistic and anti-systemic nationalism. They argue that their future and lives are unstable and unpredictable in the face of rapid socio-economic change especially caused by the influx of refugees competing with their social benefits. As a result, they scapegoat globalisation, capitalism, the United Nations, EU-institutions, and migrants for increasing difficulties that citizens competing in global markets and institutions face.

    These points were elucidated through examples of right-wing populism in Europe and with the counter-example of Scotland, where multiculturalism has been embraced. No political party that has any representation in Scotland has made migration an electoral issue. Panellists argued that the non-politicisation of migration can help lead to a consensus, suggesting that Scottish politicians talk about nationhood rather than ethnicity. Meanwhile, Scottish political elites tend to support the view that ‘Scottishness’ is an open identity. Rather than embracing the rhetoric of invasion that has pervaded elsewhere, which alienates minorities and sows divisiveness, Scottish politicians have challenged their people to remake the nation and meaning of ‘Scottishness’.

    The panel discussed how women may experience xenophobia differently than men. Considering women with a migration experience – that is, women who have a migrant family member, and not migrant women only –  panellists noted the salience of gender in the construction and perpetuation of xenophobia. Outbreaks of violence in some contexts, it could be suggested, tend to be centred around masculine energy. The accounts on the side of the perpetrators of violence is of migrants ‘stealing [our] women’. Protestors accuse migrants of fostering prostitution, which boils down to the fear that ‘native’ women are being violated. Migrants are commonly characterised as ‘stealing’ jobs, which relates to a perceived threat to a key (pre-industrial) symbol of masculinity. Migrants are also accused of bringing drugs into the country, which can be related to a fear of one’s failure to protect their children. At the same time, violence towards women – including migrant women – is relatively common. Much of the focus on migrant women has been on their vulnerability and exposure to violence. More work should focus on the interplay between masculinity and xenophobic violence to paint a clearer picture of the roots of xenophobia and its presence in everyday life.

    Panellists offered a case study of xenophobia and its linkages to masculinity in South Africa. In South Africa, anti-migrant narratives and xenophobic violence are typically directed towards Black African foreigners. Because much of the media focus around xenophobia tends to centre around outbreaks of violence, the media may miss out on the everyday lived experiences that belie systematic and institutionalised xenophobia. These are as important to understand as isolated outbreaks of violence.

    Research shows that among women with a ‘migration experience’ in South Africa, women married to foreign nationals often feel ostracised or marginalised by other South Africans (both men and women). Among interviewees, foreign African women were especially likely to recount experiences of racism. However, both foreign and South African women married to foreigners lamented their inability to protect their children from xenophobia in their daily lives. While racism, classism, and education are historically important in flare-ups of anti-migrant sentiments, xenophobia cuts across race, class, and age. Worryingly, masculinity and tunnel-vision media focus may be feeding xenophobic undercurrents.

    Reversing Anti-Migrant Narratives

    Panellists and audience members echoed the need to change the narrative on migration to a positive, evidence-based one. It is important for certain countries to promote and implement lessons from other countries that have success stories with migration, to emphasise the refugee and migrant dividend.

    It was discussed that the persistence of anti-migrant, xenophobic narratives is not for lack of evidence, but a non-acceptance of evidence, as well as the continued use of xenophobic narratives by politicians seeking to capture popular discontent and scapegoat migrants to advance their own agendas. While economic downturn and other sources of discontent – cuts to social services and education, which disproportionately affect poorer populations who interact more frequently with migrants – are associated with a rise in prejudicial attitudes, the rise only occurs in places that do not hold intercultural values. Furthermore, such sentiments accrue when those most affected by cuts to public policy are also those who feel ‘left out’ of globalisation. Because of this, a long-term solution is to emphasise that nations prosper when they include everyone, and not just the few. Panellists cautioned against portraying the ‘left behind’ as the problem, as indeed middle-class actors have been influential in recent events and low-income groups often have low levels of political participation. Importantly, the panellists underlined that the welfare of migrants and the concerns of poor citizens are not mutually exclusive.

    Panellists lamented the ‘climate of criminalisation of migration’ in different parts of the world. Governments should find methods to more positively govern migration in ways that can create and strengthen the conditions for migrants to positively contribute to societies they reach, rather than pushing them into informal, unsafe routes. The panel argued that when safe, legal pathways for migration are limited, criminalising migration – ascribing ‘criminality’ and threats to migrants while enforcing a climate of fear for undocumented migrants – does not stop migration flows. Instead, it may have the effect of increasing business for illicit migrant smugglers.


    Panellists offered several suggestions for governments and local administrators to combat xenophobia and promote inclusion, both of migrants and the people who feel ‘left out’ of globalisation and who have recently supported nativist movements in certain parts of the world.

    Intercultural education programmes for natives as well as migrants and refugees can help improve integration and inclusion in the short and longer term.

    In addition, it is important to showcase the positive contributions of migrants to counter-act the harmful narratives around migration. Countries of destination can work more closely with countries of origin to prepare migrants for integration and to work on the structural causes of migration, to ensure that migration is a choice, along with the right to stay and return. Countries should increase and create regular channels and avoid detention policies that contribute to the criminalisation of migrants.

    Countries must generate ways to share economic success and hardship evenly among people in a country. To address long-term and more deeply complex issues, panellists suggested countries generate ways to share economic hardship (and success) evenly among people in a country. Addressing the weaknesses of global capital: the ideology that interconnecting markets and the pursuit of wealth in a free market would trickle down as long as everyone embraced capitalism is not working for all. There are many losers and some gainers. Without social, political and economic intervention, such ideology has not been working and continues to destabilise peoples and countries everywhere.

    Panellists highlighted that it is important not to ignore or dismiss populists as intellectually or morally misguided. While it may be difficult at times to separate violent prejudice and racism from the legitimate concerns and criticisms of citizens, the latter must be taken seriously. In terms of anti-globalist sentiment, governments and international institutions can do more to inform citizens about the benefits of multilateral and intergovernmental institutions, globalism and global capital, and migration.

    Panellists advocated for modifying or expanding the concept of a migrant household in research approaches, meaning scholars should include not only people who have migrated but also those with a ‘migration experience’; migrants’ spouses, children, and other relations impacted by migration and, ultimately, by xenophobia.

    Panellists expressed optimism that xenophobia can be successfully addressed today. Multiple public ‘spheres’ exist – in which members of the public intersect – and failure to be open, progressive, and inclusive in one does not necessarily mean failure in all spheres.