31. März 2021

How the European Commission frames migration

For years, the EU and its Member States have been deeply divided over issues of migration and asylum. Last September, the Commission presented the New Pact on Migration and Asylum (the Pact) as a ‘fresh start’. The proposed policies shall normalise migration so that it will eventually become another “boring” EU policy. While there is much to be said about the Pact’s substance, we take a closer look at its language in this piece.

A Comment by Jascha Galaski & Johanna Hase


Political actors use their words strategically. They use frames that promote their perspective on political issues, on how they are created and how they should be solved. Such frames influence how policy issues are understood. This is why we were interested to see which frames the Commission uses in its Pact, and whether migration is portrayed ‘boringly’. To get an idea, we looked at the terms migration, trust, and return in the Commission’s overarching official communication.


Dry puzzles and personal struggles

The Pact speaks of migration as “the challenge of external border management”, “large-scale arrivals”, “overpopulated reception centers” or “high numbers of unauthorised movements”. Through such abstract nouns, migration is depersonalised. It thus appears as a technical issue or a dry puzzle that must be solved. Additionally, it seems to be a burden, which the EU and its member states “face”, “cope with” or must “shoulder”.   

This frame shifts when the Pact speaks about the people who actually migrate. In these instances, migrants are not portrayed as being the problem but rather as having a problem. For instance, the Pact speaks about how the EU “aims to reduce unsafe and irregular routes and promote sustainable and safe legal pathways for those in need of protection”. It intends to “provide certainty, clarity and decent conditions for the men, women and children arriving”. Much more personal – and thus arguably much less ‘boring’ – migrants are portrayed as struggling human beings. Often, they are shown as vulnerable and in need of help, which the EU apparently can provide.


Sowing seeds of trust

Another term that appears frequently in the document is ‘trust’. It is either framed as ‘trust of citizens in the EU’ or trust of member states in each other. In contrast, ‘trust’ of asylum seekers and migrants in the EU and its migration and asylum system is mentioned only at the margins. The ‘lack of trust’ of member states and citizens is conveyed as a problem to be overcome, whereas trustful relations between citizens, national governments, and the EU are envisioned. 

The causes for the lack of trust are seen in the inefficient governance of migration and borders. For example, citizens supposedly lose confidence in the EU because of low return rates, and member states lose trust in each other in view of people crossing internal European borders or so-called ‘secondary movements’. To solve these issues, the Commission suggests among other measures that it will monitor the member states’ implementation of EU legislation more closely. In other words: The Commission seems to gain citizens’ trust in the EU and to improve trust among member states through more European oversight. 

Trust is a deep human emotion. By using it as a frame and by describing member states as characters that can feel trust towards each other, the Commission humanises them, thus making them more relatable and making what happens to them more interesting. Also, in framing migration and asylum policies as a trust-building enterprise, the policy area itself becomes secondary. When the objective is to foster trust between citizens, the EU and its member states, it does not matter as much whether this happens through migration, health, or climate policy. In a way, the ‘trust-frame’ serves for building an idea of Europe in general.


Reframing return

Another remarkable term in the Pact is ‘return’. It appears almost a hundred times in the document, including in one of its main policy innovations: return sponsorships. This mechanism, through which member states are meant to sponsor the return of people from other member states to third countries, is framed as a solution both to migration and the lack of trust. The word ‘sponsorship’ is associated with ideas of support and even protection. Through it, the mechanism receives an emotional connotation, which makes it more appealing and interesting. In reality, however, the mechanism is meant to facilitate the deportation of individuals back to places they have fled. Using positive language for such a controversial idea has earned its German translation – Abschiebepatenschaften – the title of “Un-Word of the Year” 2020

In contrast, return is framed in a more technical way when named in one breath with asylum. Here, the idea “that asylum and return work as part of a single system” is meant to solve the issue of low number of returns. This solution is also reflected in the repeated linguistic interlinkage of the “asylum and return system”. Framing asylum and return as a single system likens it to a machine that works like a revolving door: Many people try to enter, but most are immediately redirected without ever really entering. This rather abstract frame not only portrays return in a technical way. It undermines the protective and rights-based meaning of asylum by tying it so closely to its opposite, return.


Is migration ‘boring’ – and should it be? 

The Pact is a policy document, not a novel or a political speech. As such, it can be expected to be somewhat technical or even ‘boring’. Some of the frames that the Commission uses support this, for instance when migration is portrayed as a dry puzzle or when return works with asylum in an abstract system. In contrast, portraying migrants as in need of help that the EU supposedly provides, framing the Pact as a way to (re)gain European citizen’s trust and picking emotionally laden words such as ‘sponsorship’ make the Pact a more emotional and interesting read. Thus, judging by the frames it uses, the Pact normalises migration only partially.

It is a question, though, whether migration should be conveyed as ‘boring’. The framing of migration as an abstract technical issue clouds the human stories, the lives and dreams that lie behind it. When migration is a rather smooth process for everyone involved, this can be appropriate. But especially in view of people still enduring inhumane and undignified conditions in make-shift camps on Greek islands or in the Western Balkans, abstract and ‘boring’ framings might even hinder quick policies that could bring them relief. At the moment, the reality of migration at Europe’s borders is still too dramatic for ‘boring‘ frames.


The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments solely express the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image via unsplash

Jascha is working since 2018 as advocacy officer at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe. He holds a Master in Public Policy and Human Development from the United Nations University in Maastricht. Jascha joined Polis180 in 2020 to work on changing migration narratives.


Johanna studied European Migration Studies in Magdeburg, Prague, Barcelona and Liège. In her dissertation, she focuses on changes in citizenship narratives. She has been active within the Polis180 migration programme since March 2020.


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