Europe is in the middle of a major election year, but the media coverage on the biggest issue moving voters – migration – is not only crippling the debate, it is making it easier for populist politicians to fool voters with unrealistic, sensationalist ideas.
These “pet peeves” were what led Berlin-based writers and researchers Christina Lee and Miriam Aced to launch the website Migration Voter – a project specifically aimed at “demystifying election messages on migration.”
It isn’t hard to find a common thread to Brexit, Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, Marine le Pen, and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) – fear of immigration and wild, spectacular promises to stop it. But, according Lee, those promises are usually doomed to be broken – and the media is failing to point that out.
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“You might be able to get away with doing something outrageous for a short period of time, and many countries do,” said Lee. “But ultimately there will be legal repercussions. Your politician that promised you that they were going to do so many things is going to get tied up in court – that’s not what people are voting for.”
President Trump found that out most recently with his executive orders that stopped people travelling to the US from various Muslim-majority countries. “As we’ve seen, there was no legal way to do it,” said Lee. “And it’s not because he’s so dumb and the way he did it was illegal. He could’ve come up with 20 different Muslim bans, none of them would’ve worked because the way the Constitution is set up and the way immigration law works it wasn’t going to be possible.”
“Even if you want to keep immigrants out of your country, you should still not be treated as a gullible person who idiotically follows whatever someone says they’re going to do and makes promises they can’t keep,” she told DW.
The failure to flag this up when Trump first mooted his travel ban is the media’s fault, according to Lee. “The media seems to enjoy promoting these outrageous things, but they don’t often push back and ask: ‘okay, but how would you do that?'” That is the point of Migration Voter – to test politicians’ policies for plausibility, and supply a legal reality check through sober explanation.
France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen, currently running for president on April 23, provides an excellent subject for this analysis. While her rhetoric is strongly anti-immigration and anti-Muslim, Lee says her policies “would have very small impact on a very limited group of people – most often not the people that anyone’s interested in keeping out of the country.”
The main center-right candidate Francois Fillon, meanwhile, “is far more knowledgeable about immigration policy – and he actually has some ways that he could make life very uncomfortable for immigrants.”
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Both Lee and Aced, who studied migration law, have plenty more examples of how the media is failing to pick up such points – even from before the “refugee crisis” began in fall 2015.
For instance, Lee remembers wondering why German newspapers were reporting that most Balkan migrants were Roma. “Germany doesn’t collect racially desegregated statistics, and they were quoting officials saying that 80 to 90 percent of migrants were Roma. But how would they know that? No one pushed them on that.”
The explanations for these flaws are varied – reporters might be restricted by tight deadlines or an editorial line, or they simply don’t know enough about Germany’s migration policy – but the outcome is that voters end up misinformed about the one issue that, surveys tell us, is most important to them. “And the politicians are counting on voters to be misinformed and gullible,” said Lee. “Like when Geert Wilders says he’s going to ban the Koran – people report this ad nauseam, but no one stops to ask: what would it take in the Netherlands to actually overturn religious freedom?”
“Another example is how the media conflates failed asylum seekers, illegal immigrants, and refugees – you see that a lot in Eastern Europe, where many people are considered illegal immigrants because politicians tell voters, ‘Well, if they’ve made it here, they’ve passed through several safe countries, that means they can’t be a refugee,'” said Lee.
While the European Union’s Dublin regulations require asylum seekers to apply for asylum in the first member state they reach, there is no law stripping refugees of their status once they pass through another country. “So someone comes to Italy as a refugee and keeps going to Germany, they might not be accepted in Germany because of the Dublin system, but that doesn’t mean they cease to be a refugee,” said Lee.
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Populism not so popular
Andrea Wolf, researcher at the Mannheim-based election research organization Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, says Germans’ interest in migration has declined a little in recent months – but it is still the number one concern. “Though its relevance has fallen since the end of last year, it’s still the most important issue, but the distance to the other issues in Germany has become shorter,” she told DW.
Interestingly, Wolf’s surveys also suggest that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is still seen as the party with the most competence when it comes to immigration. “Last week, 39 percent said that that is the party that can get problems under control,” said Wolf. Far fewer German voters – only six percent – have the same faith in the AfD, which has made restricting immigration is main issue.
Then again, Lee says that, despite appearances, and like the EU itself, Germany has already done “nearly everything that can legally be done to prevent refugees from coming” through a series of asylum laws passed since September 2015. So even if the AfD were in power, the populist party could hardly be tougher on migration than Merkel is already.