Claudia, female, daughter of a migrant, Italy“Please follow me right this way, Miss...Miss...Sh-...Sheku.... How do you pronounce your last name?” my doctor asked before my routine check-up, while hopelessly squinting her eyes in an attempt to read my name.
“Shekufendeh,” I corrected her with a smile.
“Ah, yes. And where are you from, Ms. Shukoufenday?” That would be my cue to take a deep breath and churn out a phrase that I have already recited many times. “Well, I'm originally from Italy”, I would respond, ready for her suspicious face to start taking form.
“Well, that doesn't sound very Italian, Shekufendeh.”
And it isn't. It never was, as my elementary school peers would remind me on a daily basis, bombarding me with questions as to where I was really from. I am from Italy, born from an authentic Iranian father with the thick Farsi accent.
Public perceptions of migration vary with time and place and are often shaped by contextual factors. During periods of economic recession, when unemployment levels are high, migrants may be viewed with disfavour and even hostility, especially in transit and destination countries. In countries of origin, emigrants and their children—even those born abroad—may be considered unpatriotic and are seen by some to have abandoned their home countries. In certain cases, young migrants who come back must deal with the perception that their return is due to their failure abroad. In other settings, youth migrants living outside their countries or returning home are recognized as heroes. Positive perceptions about migration in countries of origin can also influence the decisions of potential youth migrants to venture abroad, especially when they are given the opportunity to interact with successful youth migrants and returnees.
Unfavourable—and often biased—media content can reinforce negative perceptions about migration. For example, mainstream and social media (ranging from news programmes to blogs) may link immigrants and migration policies in a destination country to security threats such as terrorism.
Popular misconceptions surrounding migrants and migration can lead to harmful stereotyping, anti-immigrant discrimination, xenophobia, social exclusion, the abuse of migrants’ rights, and social unrest. Most young migrants are unaware of the full extent of these socio-cultural and political undercurrents prior to their migration and are thus unprepared to deal with the challenges they present.
Many youth migrants struggle through a period of adjustment in their countries of destination and often lack the time and resources to actively challenge negative perceptions about them. Even when they have met their basic needs and are better situated in their host countries, they may be unwilling or unable to internalize certain cultural values that are very different from their own; this may extend through several generations. All of these factors distance migrants from native populations, perpetuating bias, ignorance and suspicion among the latter and effectively creating resistance to change in society—which can result in tougher immigration policies and more difficult migrant adjustment experiences. To disrupt this vicious cycle, young migrants need to make their voices heard, to create support networks for new migrants, and to become actively involved in facilitating greater intercultural dialogue and understanding.
Natalia, female, age 22, family migrant, Poland → The NetherlandsI am a 22-year-old student living in the Netherlands. I was 15 years old when I was forced to reunite with my parents, who had previously immigrated to the Netherlands. After a period of depression, an identity crisis, and many difficult years, I managed to find a way to be happy. I became engaged in various social/political projects in order to help and inspire others in similar situations and to make policy makers and immigration experts in the Netherlands and worldwide aware of the impact of immigration—not only on youth [migrants], but also on second- and third-generation immigrants and even on those who are just young people living in a multicultural city.
Natalia’s experience inspired her to use political participation as an avenue to improve the integration of young migrants. She is a prime example of how youth can actively participate in advocacy to deal with the challenges of migration. Governments have responded to such efforts with policies ranging from addressing human trafficking to enhancing integration policies and cooperating with third countries to help control migrant flows. Migration policies and public perceptions can reinforce each other in both positive and negative ways; it is therefore essential that various stakeholders (including youth organizations, employers, labour unions, diaspora associations and international organizations) work to create positive perceptions about migration and migrants and that policy makers support and strengthen such efforts through the adoption of appropriate migration management policies.