“We need stories that show that the values we hold in common are stronger than what divides us.”1 With these words, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights launched the Toolbox on Migration Narrative Change. This collaborative effort comes at a time when divisive rhetoric has permeated mainstream debates in Europe, fueling an exclusionary perception of migrants and questioning who ‘deserves’ to belong. This Toolbox aims to help those who strive to shift the narrative on migration from fear and division to that which unites us.2
Belonging could not be more urgent for migrants, yet remains elusive for many as they are othered almost every step of their way. Expanding and bringing people into the center of “the circle of human concern,” is how john a. powell and Stephen Menendian describe addressing marginalization and ensuring belongingness. It is where all people are welcome and feel that they belong, beyond merely being tolerated or their differences respected.3 This understanding is also at the heart of a human rights-based approach, on which the Toolbox is grounded.
The Toolbox is a seven-step guide to rethink and change how we speak about migration. It is based on the UN Human Rights Seven Key Elements on Building Human Rights Based Narratives on Migration and Migrants and the experiences of their partners. It highlights a range of opportunities for anyone willing to take part in challenging discriminatory systems and the negative perceptions of migrants. The guide was developed with migrants themselves, and seeks to amplify their stories and experiences. It is the culmination of several years of research into and engagement with a range of experts on areas of cognitive linguistics, the creative arts, social contact theory, and more.
The Toolbox, with its repository of examples and activities, invites anyone interested to join a community of change-makers to cultivate an environment where migrants are not othered, but, rather, belong–by transforming the narrative, one story at a time.
I present some of the Toolbox' key tenets below, tenets that encourage us to create a vision of the world we want to see, leverage the power of shared values, practice listening, create opportunities of belonging at the local level, and build a tent to welcome a larger 'us'. I reflect on how countering harmful narratives using these steps can help engender a sense of belonging in migrants and society as a whole, both in process and outcome.
The Case for Narrative Change
Narratives shape the way people see and make sense of the world–including how we understand other people and how they (should) live. It follows that stories of ‘the other’ (in this case, migrants) directly influence migrants’ experience of their rights and their ability to enjoy them.4
In Europe, for example, toxic migration narratives that play into a fear of scarcity (and a metaphorical fixed pie) such as “Fortress Europe,” “refugee crisis,” “we are full,” or that migrants exploit welfare systems, can lead to public support for restrictive border and immigration systems, and limitations to migrants’ ‘eligibility’ to access public services or social ‘benefits’. These ‘othering’ (us vs. them) narratives enter media, political rhetoric, and, as a result, mainstream consciousness to have real-life consequences for migrants and migration policy.
The mental frames that inhabit these harmful narratives imply that people must earn their ability to belong–to enjoy health services and social protection–rather than being entitled to them as inherent human rights.5 Promoting and protecting migrants’ human rights must, then, intentionally engage with narratives and narrative-making.
Narratives create ‘thought moulds’ in our minds, which guide the way we think about an issue and help us navigate new or difficult questions more easily. These 'thought molds' heavily influence our perceptions and actions. As harmful narratives and the related systems of conditionality become more ingrained, the more migrants’ equality is rendered an unattainable right and the more entrenched and systematic their othering becomes. Systems for asylum and migration are increasingly dehumanizing and policies epitomize the inequality and othering of migrants, fueled by the normalized ‘thought molds’ that narratives have created in our minds.
Despite the impact of entrenched harmful narratives, I am encouraged that those who actively sow division do not represent the majority.6 The ability to influence mainstream narratives also applies equally to those of us who seek to diversify the narrative with more inclusive stories in which acceptance for multiple identities and experiences can expand.
The Toolbox proposes an approach that tackles not only the visible human rights violations. It also looks under the surface to prevent the perpetuation of violations by transforming attitudes towards migrants and diversifying narratives with stories and lived experiences that uphold migrants’ dignity and practice belonging.
Create a vision of the world you want to see
The Toolbox hones the potential to positively influence narratives on migration. While shifts in narratives demand patience and time, anyone can contribute to a new narrative every time they speak about migrants. The Toolbox therefore encourages everyone to do so. It points out that people are more inspired to act when shown hopeful potential rather than threats and fear. The starting point is therefore to create a vision of the world we want to see, to articulate it in our communications, and to fervently be the role models for the change we want to see.7
The Toolbox advances a human rights-based approach, which emphasizes process as well as outcomes, deepens participation and empowerment – particularly of those left behind – to achieve more sustainable results and, based on common agreed standards, strengthens accountability. To change the narrative, the Toolbox reinvigorates a vision and a set of values that underpin the human rights framework and help achieve belonging. In this vision, migrants can claim rights endowed upon us all because we are human, rather than being left to the whims of the powers that be. It guides us to build accountable and representative institutions and systems that serve and welcome people in their diverse identities. It leads us to recognize the innate power and agency of each individual in shaping our shared future, including their meaningful participation and influence when creating laws, policies, or leading movements for change.
The Toolbox encourages us to advance this human rights-based vision through actions that practice belonging and relate them in stories that in turn nurture and grow a more welcoming narrative.8 These stories would focus on power sharing, empathy, and compassion, rather than on pity or charity.9 In them, we recognize everyone’s multiple and intersecting identities and avoid reducing migrants to victims, their ‘migrant-ness’, or revering only those migrants with exceptional, or near superhuman qualities and achievements.10 Instead, our stories and actions seek to encourage a world where there is space for migrants to tell their whole story beyond how and why they moved. A space where migrants tell the story of what belonging means to them rather than being told how to belong.
Leverage the power of shared values
Shared values are at the heart of the Toolbox because values are deeply embedded in narratives– guiding the way we view the world and influencing our attitudes, behavior, and judgement. Shifting narratives therefore requires us to deepen values that are able to evoke our vision of belonging.11
The realisation that we share core values with others enhances our feelings of connectedness, which results in a sense of belonging, and a higher willingness to show solidarity and cooperate to achieve common goals across group boundaries.12 Shared values have the power to expand our sense of empathy, community, and help us recognize our common humanity. Identifying shared values - and centering our work on narrative change around these shared values and principles - is therefore central to the Toolbox’ objective to tackle the othering of migrants. However, with migrants often rejected because they are perceived as not having the ‘same values’, and with constant messages of fear, disillusionment, and division, uniting around our shared values to achieve a deeper sense of belonging across groups can often seem like a herculean task.
“We all share a longing to belong, to care for our loved ones, and to be connected with friends and communities,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized. As the Toolbox highlights, when we recognize our shared quest to belong and our core values, shared values serve as a meeting point to collaborate and realize the world we collectively want to see and live in together.
‘What do I need to flourish as a human being’? is a question that surfaces the shared values of people from all backgrounds. This is a question I have used in trainings to elicit participants’ values and what human rights mean to them. Regardless of whether participants are border officials or civil society representatives, participants come up with similar responses: family, food, a good education, love, health, safety, and freedom to believe. They then compare the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with their lists and notice that there is always considerable overlap between what participants consider important and the human rights framework established by the international community. Human rights may be perceived as abstract or sensitive in some circles, but this exercise demonstrates that when we distill the core value of each right, we find that these values are indeed shared, irrespective of a person’s political inclination, race, religion, or origin.
Listen and be heard
While connectedness and a common sense of purpose through a recognition of shared values can elicit belonging, how we identify and achieve these common values and goals is equally essential. The Toolbox urges us to listen to migrants’ voices, local communities, and to one another. Listening helps us identify and focus on the underlying values people care about rather than polarizing debates. It can enable more nuanced discussions, identify concerns and anxieties – both related and unrelated to migration – and help deepen mutual understanding and find common ground.13
Furthermore, listening to people and providing spaces for their voices to be heard, especially migrants and marginalized people, is particularly relevant to co-creating positive narratives and guaranteeing their rights, including a marginalised person’s right to participate and be heard. It is integral to a human rights-based approach and the process that accompanies co-creation of what belonging means and feels like for migrants and communities. Listening empowers and bestows a sense of dignity, respect, and belonging to the person being heard.14
The Toolbox therefore proposes ways in which we can listen to migrants’ voices and each other as a transformative step towards acceptance of individual diversity in a larger ‘us’, as well as appreciation that we have more in common than what divides us.
Create opportunities for belonging at the local level
Communities and the local level are central to providing physical spaces for people to have these conversations, listen, recognize shared values, as well as co-create and realize their shared vision. As the Toolbox explains, spaces and opportunities for personal encounters between migrants and communities can contribute towards shifts in stereotypical perceptions, connect people, and create a deepened sense of belonging.15 Such lived experiences of belonging help people visualize the possible and nurture the narrative with stories of ‘us’.
However, for migrants, finding a place to call ‘home’ and experiencing a sense of ‘belonging’ can be particularly difficult to grapple with. Ethnic, cultural, or family ties across borders, as well as stigma, othering, and exclusion complicate their circumstances. Furthermore, migrants are often physically separated from the local community upon arrival, living in uncertainty about their status for months, and sometimes held in detention or left without any support.
An example of where the Toolbox’s human rights-based vision and call to create opportunities for belonging is put into practice is Plan Einstein, an innovative reception system piloted in the City of Utrecht, the Netherlands. It set up shared housing for migrants and young people from the community, offering courses and social and cultural events to anyone interested. Initially, a group of locals, who feared that the arrival of migrants would exacerbate the community’s problems, fiercely opposed the plan. As the pilot ended, however, the figurehead of this opposition was apprehensive of its closure stating that the initiative had in fact been beneficial to the neighborhood, "It has become a cozy facility, a kind of community center, where I like to go to have a cup of coffee... We haven't had any nuisance, it's only positive actually.”16
Plan Einstein provides a number of lessons that are valuable for practicing belonging and addressing anti-migrant narratives. The City of Utrecht grounded Plan Einstein on a human rights-based approach, recognizing its institutional responsibility towards migrants and the local community and addressing inequalities and human rights gaps faced by both. The city acknowledged that meaningful social contact was necessary for integration. This required moving away from a segregated reception system to provide a shared space that is easily accessible to all. Valuing collaboration between migrants and locals towards common objectives contributed to bolstering their agency and empowerment.17
One refugee appreciated that, “what is special about this reception location is that we live in a residential district, among local people... Here we no longer feel like foreigners or strangers, like in the other reception centers. We just belong and that gives us a nice and safe feeling.”18
Build a big tent to welcome a larger ‘us’
Creating a ‘big tent’ encapsulates the idea of connecting through our sense of shared values and common humanity to look beyond silos or perceived differences. It encourages us to focus on what we have in common and galvanize different parts of society to participate in solidarity and allyship and to leverage everyone’s role and voice to broaden mutual support for our causes.19 In turn, this can more readily advance our vision. Building a big tent is premised on the idea that if we stand up for each other’s rights and expand the circle of what and who concerns us, it will increase human rights protection for all, strengthen our sense of belonging, and help create a larger ‘us’.
For example, climate change-related narratives that paint migration and migrant arrivals as a threat, risk triggering fear and playing into divisive narratives. Instead, we can build a 'big tent' that highlights the challenges faced by migrants and local communities alike and how we can better tackle the adverse impacts of climate change when we work together. The Comic released by UN Human Rights seeks to illustrate how collective action is key in this regard.20
In another example, Stop Funding Hate virtually brings together a range of individuals, businesses, advertisers and the media to stand up for migrants’ rights and other social justice causes. It crowdsources ideas from its supporters and galvanizes consumer power to put public pressure on companies that place ad-money on media or online content that spreads hate and division. This propelled the formation of the Conscious Advertising Network, a coalition of businesses and civil society organizations that leverages the role of advertisers and advocates integrating principles of human rights and ethics in UK advertising. The shared values and common cause, appreciation for each individual’s ability to contribute, proposing how they can do this, and leveraging the comparative advantage of different sectors, has formed the successful basis for this joint effort. As a result, it has created incentives for more responsible advertising and inclusive, diverse media. Some of the achievements include the Daily Express officially distancing itself from divisive anti-migrant rhetoric, hateful online content and media being demonetized, and companies pulling their advertisements from such content.21
Shifting narratives is a long term process but an important aspect of collectively fulfilling a vision of belonging for everyone, regardless of where they came from. The approach the Toolbox proposes, integrates the above-mentioned and more tools for shaping values-based messages and stories to create narratives of welcoming and belonging grounded in human rights. It also emphasizes the power of our lived experiences in instilling a sense of belonging along our journey, which in turn sustains an environment for welcoming narratives to thrive. Anyone can contribute and be part of this process in many ways. The most challenging task is that successful shifts demand our belief and trust in the possibility of transformation.
With the incessant hate and suffering of migrants we witness, I regularly struggle with these demoralizing forces and the daunting task before us. Then I remember that the process is as important as the outcome, and that along this journey, kindness is contagious. People mirror each other’s actions and when we observe or even hear stories about acts of kindness, we are likely to feel more empathy and want to take similar action and spread positivity.22
While one good deed may seem like a drop in the ocean, its ripple effect can carry immense potential to amplify in reach and impact. The more we unite around our shared vision and values, seek out and cultivate kindness and welcoming behavior at the local level, create spaces and enable diverse identities to listen to each other and reach common goals, as well as persistently share these stories of a larger ‘us’, the more likely we will succeed in diminishing skepticism, shifting narratives and realizing a future where all migrants’ rights are respected. A future in which we can all belong.
Going forward, UN Human Rights will continue working with its offices and partners on the ground to operationalize the Toolbox and continue to promote a human rights-based vision of the world. For further information about the Toolbox and UN Human Rights’ work on narrative change on migration, visit The Toolbox on Migration Narrative Change and the "Reframing Narratives on Migration".
Geneviève Säuberli is a passionate human rights advocate working at UN Human Rights, where she provides expert advice on migration and human rights. Over the past years, she has driven the Office’s work on shifting narratives on migration, working with partners across the world to develop a Toolbox on migration narrative change. Other areas of her work focus on the human rights protection of migrants in vulnerable situations, human rights monitoring in the context of migration, and developing capacity building tools on human rights and migration. Prior to joining OHCHR, she worked with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in Belfast, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Council of Europe and the Embassy of Switzerland in Vietnam. Geneviève holds an LL.M. in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex, UK and a Bachelor’s degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Berne, Switzerland.
"Jin* In Diaspora series is a part of my Kurdish and queer identity, which I constantly struggle with. Being an immigrant in a Western country and facing daily discrimination strengthens your bond with your identities. The only way to make these issues visible is to make them as visible as possible using my artist identity. I try to deconstruct my feelings as a defensive dynamic between my works and my identities."
Ciwan Veysel is a Turkey-born visual artist who lives and work in Austria. He opened his first solo exhibition in Berlin in 2018 and his second in Vienna in 2021. Through the connection between art and identity, artist production deals with political memory issues such as immigration and diaspora, social memory, Queer struggle, border, political subjectivity of Kurdish identity. Ciwan also continues to photography, curator and performance at artist collectives and art festivals created by Vienna-based immigrant artists. You can visit his website here and check out his Instagram @ciwanvm.
More on Jin’ in Diaspora:
JÎN* IN DIASPORA is a collaboration of young Kurdish migrants from Vienna. The lives of women*, lesbian*s, intersex, nonbinary and trans people in the Kurdish diaspora are characterized by multi-layered mechanisms of oppression and conflicting expectations in the process of finding identity. Migrant. Minority. Exotic female* fighter. Kurd. FLINT*. These identities are political and manifest complex power dynamics. This project tackles expectations posed from the outside and personal experiences between the here and there, the inside and the outside, in the framework of a podcast series and a performance. Therefore, contemporary dance, rap and slam poetry flow together with traditional stylistic devices such as Dengbêj. Dêngbej’s aesthetic form resembles rap and slam poetry respectively and created an epic tradition in the sense of oral history allocated in the Kurdish regions of Turkey’s east. Hence a collective memory came into being that simultaneously was a form of resistance. This tradition is reinterpreted in the context of JÎN* IN DIASPORA by processing individual and collective experiences.
- 1 Geneviève Säuberli is a human rights and migration expert at UN Human Rights. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.
- 2 OHCHR Toolbox on Migration Narrative Change, https://www.standup4humanrights.org/migration/en/toolbox.html.
- 3 john a. powell & Stephen Menendian, “The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging,” Othering & Belonging Issue 1 (2016).
- 4 OHCHR Toolbox, “Introduction: Toolbox on Migration Narrative Change,” https://www.standup4humanrights.org/migration/pdf/UN-Introduction.pdf.
- 5 OHCHR Toolbox, “Step 7: Do No Harm,” https://www.standup4humanrights.org/migration/pdf/MigrationToolbox-Step-7.pdf.
- 6 More in Common, "Attitudes towards National Identity, Immigration and Refugees in Italy," August 2018, and "Attitudes towards National Identity, Immigration and Refugees in Germany," July 2017.
- 7 OHCHR Toolbox, “Step 1: Create a Vision of the World You Want to See,” https://www.standup4humanrights.org/migration/pdf/MigrationToolbox-Step-1.pdf.
- 8 “Get Inspired: UN Human Rights Vision for the World,” https://vimeo.com/491113945/0fa9d20a10.
- 9 OHCHR Toolbox, “Step 7: Do No Harm”.
- 10 OHCHR Toolbox, “Step 3: The Power of Storytelling,” https://www.standup4humanrights.org/migration/pdf/MigrationToolbox-Step-3.pdf.
- 11 OHCHR Toolbox, “Step 2: Promote Values-Based Narratives,” https://www.standup4humanrights.org/migration/pdf/MigrationToolbox-Step-2.pdf.
- 12 Lukas J. Wolf, Geoffrey Haddock, Antony S. R. Manstead and Gregory R. Maio, “The importance of (shared) human values for containing the COVID-19 pandemic,” British Journal of Social Psychology (2020 July) 59(3):618-627, p 623f.
- 13 OHCHR Toolbox, “Step 5: Finding Common Ground,” https://www.standup4humanrights.org/migration/pdf/MigrationToolbox-Step-5.pdf.
- 14 Othering & Belonging Institute, “Toward Belonging kick-off digital dialogue,” https://belonging.berkeley.edu/video-toward-belonging-kick-digital-dialogue.
- 15 OHCHR Toolbox, “Step 4: Think Local,” https://www.standup4humanrights.org/migration/pdf/MigrationToolbox-Step-4.pdf.
- 16 Diane Hoekstra, “De felle tegenstanders van toen gaan het azc in Overvecht missen,” Algemeen Dagblad, 29 September 2018, https://www.ad.nl/utrecht/de-felle-tegenstanders-van-toen-gaan-het-azc-in-overvecht-missen~ac3ba896/.
- 17 Caroline Oliver, Rianne Dekker and Karin Geuijen, “The Utrecht Refugee Launchpad Final Evaluation Report,” 2019, https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/041219-Final-evaluation-report.docx.pdf.
- 18 Urban Innovation Actions, “Plan Einstein is where you build your future,” https://www.uia-initiative.eu/sites/default/files/2018-07/PLan%20Einstein%20Folder_ENG.pdf.
- 19 OHCHR Toolbox, “Build a Big Tent,” https://www.standup4humanrights.org/migration/pdf/MigrationToolbox-Step-6.pdf.
- 20 OHCHR Comic, "Migration and Climate Change: The Power of the Collective," https://unhumanrights.exposure.co/climate-change-and-migration.
- 21 John McCarthy, “After axing anti-immigration stories, The Daily Express hopes for advertiser reappraisal,” >The Drum, August 7, 2019, https://www.thedrum.com/news/2019/08/07/after-axing-anti-immigration-stories-the-daily-express-hopes-advertiser-reappraisal.
- 22 Jamil Zaki, “Kindness Contagion: Witnessing kindness inspires kindness, causing it to spread like a virus,” Scientific American, July 26, 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/kindness-contagion/.