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Reception in crisis: Discursive practices and political actions

L’accueil en crise : pratiques discursives et actions politiques
Acogida en crisis: prácticas discursivas y acciones políticas
Laura Calabrese, Chloé Gaboriaux et Marie Veniard


Ce dossier s’intéresse aux ressorts du cadrage des phénomènes migratoires comme crise, en s’interrogeant plus particulièrement sur ce que les discours de crise font à l’accueil. Il réunit les contributions de chercheuses issues de diverses disciplines, qui enquêtent tant sur les constructions discursives de la crise migratoire que sur la mise en crise des discours sur les migrations.

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Notes de l’auteur

This thematic dossier comes under the ANR project entitled PACE—“The Politics of Asylum Crises in Europe” (ANR-18-CE41-0013), which funded the translations of the contributions into English on the Cairn International website.

Texte intégral

1Since 2014-2015, population displacements caused by the Syrian civil war along with the broader range of migratory flows to Europe have resulted in a situation that has often been described in host countries as a crisis. Because the relation between migration and crisis is fraught with complications, most migration studies now include a prior warning about the term crisis or the expression migratory crisis, as a reminder that the discursive frame is not neutral and should therefore be kept at a distance. Indeed, the set of interpretations generated by the word crisis are questionable and inherently biased. Originally used in medical vocabulary, it refers to an intense period that represents a break in the “normal” course of events (“pathological” implications are always inherent) while at the same time positing a resolution, an “exit from crisis” that calls for solutions (Veniard, 2013). The question is whether, even when kept at a distance, the mere use of expression migratory crisis does not fall into the same pattern; after all, it has the same semantic structure and seems to propagate the same set of interpretations.

2Actors involved in the reception of displaced persons drew attention to the issue very early on, arguing that the use of the word “crisis” was itself problematic; their reasoning was reported by a handful of journalists. Social scientists have also challenged this view of events as being of an unprecedented nature, pointing out that there is a long history of migration to and from Europe (Diaz, 2021). Exactly how this framing has imposed itself is a matter still poorly understood, as is its impact on the social and political spheres. Numerous studies have been conducted to describe the words used in migration (Collectif, 1997), particularly on their treatment by the media (Bonnafous, 1991; Gabrielatos and Baker, 2008; Calabrese and Veniard, 2018). Researchers have largely focussed on journalistic discourse, examining how the media presented events, first and foremost, as a “crisis” before turning their attention to the object of that crisis: migrants or asylum seekers? The Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies (Krzyżanowski et al., 2018) recently published an issue that highlights the widespread use of stereotypes to portray migration in both media and politics. Approaching the subject from the angle of critical discourse analysis, it points out that these interpretative frameworks carry a great deal of weight in public opinion as well as in political agendas.

3The aim of this thematic dossier is to bring such analysis forward, using a multidisciplinary approach that specifically examines the impacts of crisis discourse on reception. This approach involves going back to the drawing board to uncover how migratory phenomena are constructed, with a particular focus on corpora produced outside the media, whether exploited by the media or not. In this way, we hope to shed light on the political dynamics behind the framing of migration as a crisis, whether this framework is adopted or contested by actors involved in reception.

Around the word crisis and the formula migration crisis

4The word crisis stands out for the great heterogeneity of its referential field. This is evidenced by the sheer range of its paradigm phrases: The heat wave crisis (Calabrese and Rosier, 2005); the literature crises (Bikialo and Rault, 2013); the economic crises (Bonnet and Canu, 2017); and the 2020 health crisis, which is very often seen as an “opportunity” to change the course of events, drawing a kind of “before and after” line.

5The use of crisis rhetoric to qualify population movements is not altogether new. According to Myron Weiner, politician and theorist of the “global migratory crisis” (1995), such rhetoric has influenced the way Western public opinion perceives the migratory phenomenon since at least the 1990s. During the 2010s, crisis became a generic term to describe the influx of asylum seekers and migrants in the European context, by contrast with past sequences of migratory flows in Europe (Cantat et al., 2019). As the said crisis emerged, Europe was caricatured either as a “colander” or as a “fortress” (Auboussier, 2018): It appeared as part of a fairly straightforward argumentative repertoire that brought legal, humanitarian, and political debates into the limits of a very reductive framework (Krzyżanowski et al., 2018).

6From a pragmatic perspective, what goals can be attributed to such a framework (Benson, 2013)? A number of studies have been published on the subject, suggesting various avenues for interpretation. While a minority of authors view the intention behind the framework as one of minimising problems soon to be resolved (Hazan, 2006), most studies, by contrast, emphasise the amplifying effects expected of the actors involved, whether from the media (Mathien, 2001), the political and administrative sphere (Morin, 1976; Buchet de Neuilly, 2006), the humanitarian sector, or any other. Generally speaking, the crisis framing is upheld in the lexical field of the unpublished. In the press corpora studied, the crisis is described as taking on “unprecedented proportions” (cited in Avraamidou, 2020, p. 484); as representing “the largest movement of people that Europe has seen since 1945” (cited in Fotopoulos and Kaimaklioti, 2016, p. 266); as involving an “historical” influx (cited in Blanchard and Rodier, 2016, p. 4) or “a tidal wave of desperate people fleeing poverty and warfare and trying to enter the elusive European El Dorado” (cited in de Haas, 2008, p. 1305).

7What is so striking about the syntagm, beyond the use of the word crisis, is that it sometimes places the focus of the rupture on migration (migratory crisis) and sometimes on one of its actors (migrant/refugee crisis). The fact that there are other denominations in circulation (asylum crisis, reception crisis) means that this is not the only possible framework, even if it is the dominant one. Similarly, the debate surrounding the naming of displaced people reveals different interpretations of the event and even the desire to impose alternative framing (Calabrese, 2018).

8In the public discourse, the reason for such powerful focus on terms that designate people and the event can be ascribed to the interdiscourse underpinning these designators; an interdiscourse that renews paternalistic arguments or attitudes hostile to reception (Avraamidou, 2020). It is precisely for this reason that social scientists urge us to distance ourselves from the naming of the event, for instance by using quotation marks or glosses that mark a strong enunciative heterogeneity (“la soi-disant crise des migrants”, “the so-called refugee crisis”). The way the event is presented—whether as a “migrant”, “refugee”, or “humanitarian” crisis—necessarily depends on the host country’s outlook. For all these reasons, the denomination of individuals—which is not the subject of this dossier—has given rise to a series of analyses, based on the observation that the designator is a factor in axiology and policy-making. The lexeme crisis thus powerfully affects the collective imagination not only as a single term but also in its articulation with a complement, which casts the crisis as an exogenous event that Europe is merely observing and trying to manage.

9Clear evidence of this is presented in this dossier. Approaching the subject from this angle, two of the articles analyse the circulation of “formulas” (Krieg-Planque, 2003, 2009) generated by the framing of migration as a crisis, and as a “migratory crisis” specifically in the French-speaking area. In their study of institutional and associative discourse in Belgium, Cécile Balty and Valériane Mistiaen draw attention to how the denomination reception crisis in 2012 (to be understood, in this context, as the crisis of reception structures) evolved into asylum crisis, a controversial name that puts the responsibility for the crisis situation squarely on immigrants. Catherine Perron, meanwhile, discusses how Germany all but avoided a discourse that would make migrants responsible for the situation (at national level and particularly in the state of Baden-Württemberg) over the period spanning from 2012 to 2016. What paved the way for this positioning was a combination of the Willkommenskultur (culture of reception) discourse, which focuses on labour migration from a utilitarian perspective, and the reuse of a post-World War II expression, Flüchtlingskrise (refugee crisis), to be understood as the crisis of solidarity among European countries in the distribution of refugee reception. Far from ascribing any kind of agency to the subjects involved, the crisis report echoes the Willkommenskultur’s call to mobilise on behalf of migrants and to collectively overcome the challenges associated with their arrival.

Migration framing in the media

10The media play a significant role in framing and reframing migration as a crisis. While the manner in which the media cover migration has been a topic of social science research for decades (Bonnafous, 1991), the discursive moment starting in 2015 has been the subject of a particularly large number of studies. There are two main threads running through this body of literature. First, it broadly calls into question the categorisation of the migratory episode as a crisis; and second, it views the news media as actors who have the capacity to influence political agendas and the way citizens perceive migratory processes. Needless to say, these two elements are intertwined. Since the media discourse is capable of shaping social representations, the way migration is framed can have a decisive impact on how it is perceived by political elites and ordinary citizens. Based on this observation, the circulation of lexical units used not only to name people on the move but also to name the event is considered to have an indisputable pragmatic scope, even though many researchers also question the ability of social actors to resist the dynamic of top-down denomination, whether at the associative or citizen level (see for example the Bridges project, “Assessing the production and impact of migration narratives”; Roblain et al., 2020; Calabrese and Veniard, 2018). Thus, media representations are carriers of ideologies “which can have consequences on the material world” (Avraamidou, 2020, p. 479) and “hold a pivotal role in disseminating information, spreading knowledge and shaping ideologies, as well as exerting influence over societies” (Fotopoulos and Kaimaklioti, 2016, p. 266).

11According to Myria Georgiou and Rafal Zaborowski (2017), while the media generally play a fundamental role in framing social events, media action in this particular context has been singularly decisive due to the scale and speed of events, as well as the alien-ness of the migration experience for Europeans; a whole set of factors that have made audiences and policymakers dependent on media narratives. This interpretation would imply that migration policies are informed by media discourse, something that most researchers do not dispute. However, it is clear that the phenomenon by which events are framed as a crisis does not result solely from the media system, nor is it a one-way process. This leads some to go further and examine the interactions between several spheres, particularly the media and political spheres, that participate in a “circular” process of media coverage by influencing each other (Colombo, 2018).

12The analysis of media, political, and institutional discourse can thus uncover the dynamics behind the circulation of ideas, arguments, and elements of language. Anna Triandafyllidou (2018) argues that framing is the product of a constant interaction between the media, political discourse, and the mobilisation of civil society, although this is an observation that presides over the analysis without being corroborated by data. She also notes that the media and political debates are framed differently according to the national and regional context, and the host country’s stance with regard migration management. According to Emmanuel Blanchard and Claire Rodier (2016), the migration episode that started in 2015 was indeed anything but unexpected given the political instability in several regions of the world and the number of exiles observed since at least 2012. The authors also call up other episodes in the past when significant movements of people were not viewed as crises. Notwithstanding, in 2015 the European Union (EU) cast the event as unprecedented, urgent, and extraordinary, and chose to take exceptional measures instead of triggering those provided for by the Temporary Protection Directive in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons1.

13Crisis framing clearly does not spring from media discourse alone, but rather tends to be taken up in the journalistic field without being questioned by the speakers, seemingly in a naive, purist attitude to language that presupposes the existence of anhistorical terms to name people on the move and events. Surprisingly, these practices have received very little attention in research: While many researchers take media productions as their starting points, few question the professional practices that govern journalists’ discursive choices. Methodologies other than discourse and content analysis, such as interviews and focus groups, could provide concrete answers regarding the relations between journalistic practices and political or institutional practices.

14In recent years, research in the information and communication sciences has unveiled not only complex interaction between media, political, and institutional discourse, but also forms of resistance to hegemonic rationales, particularly via social media. These are the angles from which our dossier approaches the issue, with the study of non-media discourse, some of which is related to journalistic framing (as in the text of C. Perron) and some not (as in the other contributions). In this way, it demonstrates that the interpretation of migration as a crisis is neither homogeneous nor unanimously shared. While the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), whose reports are analysed by Odile Vallée, and the governmental and non-governmental organisations studied by C. Balty and V. Mistiaen do take up the framing of migration as a crisis, they nevertheless seek to assert different⁠—even competing⁠—interpretations of this framing, according to whether the use of the term crisis justifies political choices or, conversely, criticises them. The work of Pina Lalli and Elena Giacomelli, like that of C. Perron, proves that whole sections of the social and political world can escape the dominant paradigm. In fact, the discourse of Italian social workers collected by P. Lalli and E. Giacomelli, and the political discourse of the German executive (at federal level and in the region of Baden-Württemberg) go even further, directly rebutting the crisis rhetoric and calling it out as being at the root of questionable and contested migration policies.

Migratory crisis policies

15The construction of migration as a crisis does indeed spring from a particular political order, dubbed the “government of crises” (Angeli Aguiton et al., 2019). This is a “new” order, based on a paradigm specific to contemporary times (Morin, 1976; Koselleck, 1982; Gilbert, 2019). To see the world through the lens of this political order, one must consider the challenges faced by those in power that are viewed as exceptional, distinct from the normal course of events; challenges that call for⁠—and justify⁠—extraordinary measures (Roitman, 2013). In the case of migration, this framework is not new (Weiner, 1995) but it became necessary in the 2010s, even before the arrival of refugees from the Syrian war (Cantat et al., 2020). It legitimised a security approach to migration (Bigo, 1998; Karamanidou, 2015) and, together with this, multiple violations of the fundamental rights of migrants (Carrera et al., 2019). The framework has also had major impact on public debate, imposing the idea that migratory flows constitute or provoke a crisis⁠—in other words, arousing fears that can then be easily maintained and exploited by far-right parties (Zolbert and Benda, 2001; Wodak, 2015; Héran, 2017). The success of the far-right in the polls and elections, in turn, leads to maintaining or even deepening crisis migration policies that not only go beyond the scope of the common law but also hinder any long-term project to normalise the treatment of migratory flows that have become continuous or at least recurrent (Lacroix, 2016).

16The multidisciplinary approach adopted in migration studies has thus enabled the origins of this framework to be traced back to the migration policies implemented since the late twentieth century. Martin Baldwin-Edwards, Brad K. Blitz, and Heaven Crawley (2019) explain how a consensus emerged in the early 2000s in the EU to consider migration in the broadest sense as a primarily economic phenomenon and to approach it from the angle of security, ignoring mixed flows and migration trajectories. Jérôme Valluy (2006) traces this “spiral of rejection” back to the 1970s, when the tropism of the “false refugee”, the political counterpart of the “rejected right of asylum”, emerged in political and institutional discourse.

17This outlook gave rise to the discourse of crisis, by which events were interpreted as an emergency situation to be resolved through restrictive asylum policies; a discourse that then served to justify exceptional measures. As the author points out,

  • 2 “these interactions generate the construction of rhetoric common to the two worlds, providing ways (...)

à travers ces interactions se construisent des rhétoriques communes aux deux mondes, à la fois manières de penser et prêt-à-porter de la justification éthique et politique des choix quotidiens et des engagements durables. Il s’agit des rhétoriques qui fournissent aux décideurs, du fonctionnaire de guichet jusqu’au ministre en passant par le juge, les « bonnes raisons » qui leur sont nécessaires pour agir dans le sens du rejet. (Valluy, 2006, p. 21)2

18The concepts of “manifestly unfounded” asylum requests (expressed by UNHCR in 1983), “safe countries” or “safe third countries” (in 1989), and “internal asylum” (late 1990s) emerge as part of this dynamic. It therefore appears that the crisis discourse arises not from migration dynamics so much as from a change of tack in European policies, dating back to well before 2015 (Guiraudon, 2018).

  • 3 Africa Gordillo, “‘Protection temporaire’ : pourquoi les Ukrainiens pourraient être les premiers à (...)
  • 4 Informal meeting of Ministers for Development, Montpellier: Doorstep by Josep Borrell Fontelles, H (...)

19The war in Ukraine, however, shows that framing migration as a crisis is not in itself sufficient to incite an attitude hostile to refugees. As we write, the “massive influx” of Ukrainian refugees, much larger than that of Syrians in 2015 (one million refugees in a week for the former, the same number in a year for the latter3), leads to the release of exceptional aid and not, as in 2015, to the weakening of the asylum instrument. The same discursive repertoire can thus trigger very different representations depending on the referent to which it applies. This war also suggests that the EU is making a political reading of displacement by choosing to call migrants “refugees” or “exiles”4 (in contrast to the economic reading that was favoured in the 2015 displacement). The term “Ukrainian crisis” can therefore refer to a paradigm vastly different from “migratory crisis”.

20This dossier stands out from other studies in the field because in its study of regions and situations that precede the war in Ukraine, it highlights scenes where the process of framing migration as a crisis jams up, loses its effectiveness, or is even challenged outright and competes with other interpretative sets. Instead of measuring the crisis framework’s hegemony through its effects on migration policies or on public opinion, the contributions gathered here approach the framework from its boundaries, exploring the limits to reveal forms of resistance that assert themselves, to a greater or lesser extent, at the very heart of the reception systems set up in Europe. As mentioned above, the social workers in Trentino interviewed by P. Lalli and E. Giacomelli protested against the very idea of emergency, since it forces them to carry out their missions with great urgency. As mentioned previously, the German executive refuses to speak of a crisis with regard to the arrival of Syrian refugees, choosing to base its discourse instead on the Willkommenskultur, the culture of reception (C. Perron). While the Belgian non-governmental organisations studied by C. Balty and V. Mistiaen do take up the crisis discourse, they also try to correct institutional discourses, reinterpreting what is meant by crisis and, more occasionally, calling its existence into question. In a less obvious way, the UNHCR reports analysed by Odile Vallée also reveal how untenable the crisis discourse becomes when pronounced by the institutions whose very purpose is to safeguard the rights of migrants. They can only subscribe to it by employing semiological discursive strategies of circumvention and avoidance.

21Analysing discourse that rejects the association between migration and crisis helps shed light on the impact this association has on migration policies. Italy’s case is particularly enlightening (P. Lalli and E. Giacomelli). The idea of emergency has led governments to establish systems that lack consistency and exhibit wide regional disparities as they pile up programmes and draw extensively on non-governmental organisations. The lack of resources and long-term vision is particularly reflected in the precarious position of social workers recruited to carry out the first stages of reception. Hired without qualifications and given little or no training, they pass from one short-term contract to another, without knowing whether or not they will be able to complete the projects undertaken with migrants. The interviews these social workers granted E. Giacomelli show that they are perfectly aware of the deadlock. They view the crisis framework as directly responsible for hampering their work, since migration issues cannot be dealt with properly without taking into account long and complex trajectories and treating the very diverse needs of migrants in a concerted, specialised manner aimed at successfully integrating them into the host society. Instead, the crisis framework restricts action to short-lived expedients, which only makes things more difficult for both social workers and migrants.

22By contrast, as C. Perron points out, the Willkommenskultur discourse paved the way for a fundamental reform of the German reception system. Nevertheless, this “anti-crisis” positioning⁠—fuelled by the still vivid memory of the forced migrations of part of the German population (Perron, 2015), by the country’s economic prosperity and its labour needs and, to a certain extent, by its deep-seated culture of performance⁠—has certainly not prevented crisis discourse from circulating elsewhere, especially on social networks. Nor has it been able to curb the rise of the far-right, which is still making considerable advances on the electoral field. However, as the author concludes, this stance has been accompanied by a liberalisation of the German migration model, historically based on jus sanguini (“blood right”).

23Differences in the discursive construction of migration also translate into differences in the modes in which civil society organisations participate in managing migrants. This is another topic on which the dossier provides valuable insights. While the discourse of the German Willkommenskultur helped engage a vast network of associations alongside public, state, and regional authorities in the task of organising the reception of Syrian refugees in 2015 (C. Perron), the Italian rhetoric of emergency has quite the opposite effect. It tends to mobilise service sector workers against the authorities, generating a “community of practices” whose members demand not only the improvement of their working conditions but also, more broadly, improvement of the migration policies themselves (P. Lalli and E. Giacomelli). The crisis discourse used by political powers thus provokes counter-narratives on the field; narratives that largely focus on deconstructing the emergency and its imperatives.

24The comparison of discourse from public and semi-public institutions and non-governmental organisations involved in the reception of migrants in Belgium since 2011 (C. Balty and V. Mistiaen) ultimately reveals that framing migration as a crisis serves to further strategies other than those of the state of emergency mentioned above. Indeed, it reveals that crisis discourse is always underpinned by issues of political responsibility. The difficulties of the moment are attributed to an event that is beyond the control of those in power but that requires them to react in order to find a way out of the crisis. The series of ways in which the crisis is then characterised by the Belgian authorities therefore allow the matter to be circumvented: The problem is put down to the temporary inadequacy of the reception structures, which, moreover, is due to a set of factors external to Belgium, occurring in the countries of origin or related to European policy. This means the authorities can develop an image of competence and control, describing themselves as being in the process of overcoming the “crisis”. The efforts of non-governmental organisations to redefine the crisis—as having longer-lasting dysfunctions that the authorities refuse to see and fail to deal with, or even for which they are responsible, with disastrous human consequences—do not really achieve their goal; instead, they tend to consolidate the crisis framework which, as it happens, is rather favourable to the government’s position. Here as elsewhere, appeals to the state, whatever state it is, to deal with the crisis do not prevent public services from being called into question but rather seem to reinforce whatever restructuring is currently underway (Hay, 1999; Jessop, 2015; King and Le Galès, 2017).

25Odile Vallée’s study of UNHCR reports confirms that this issue of political responsibility plays a significant role in shaping the “migratory crisis” discourse. The research shows that UNHCR takes up the crisis framework and, with it, the questionable distinction between refugees (fleeing countries in crisis and putting countries of arrival in crisis) and migrants (defined only by their motivation, which is assumed to be purely economic). The UNHCR thereby plays a part in imposing a distinction that allows the authorities of host countries to sort people into categories at their borders, in contempt of the newcomers’ fundamental human rights (Agier and Madeira, 2017; Calabrese, 2018). The institution then finds itself in an impossible situation that casts doubt on its mission to protect (Sheel and Ratfisch, 2014). Such “putting into crisis” discourse reflects an untenable position in which UNHCR’s primary vocation is brought to the fore while the people set to benefit from it are erased from the institution’s activity reports. Migrants fall into shadow, as though the UNHCR were disinterested in the fate reserved for them, while refugees are relocated and thus are somehow deprived of their voices and their subjectivity.

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1 Directive 2001/55/CE, (consulted on April 28, 2022).

2 “these interactions generate the construction of rhetoric common to the two worlds, providing ways of thinking and ready-made justification, at ethical and political levels, of daily choices and sustainable commitments. These are the rhetorics that give decision-makers⁠—from desk clerk to minister and judge⁠—the ‘good reasons’ they need to align their actions towards rejection.”

3 Africa Gordillo, “‘Protection temporaire’ : pourquoi les Ukrainiens pourraient être les premiers à bénéficier de ce statut au sein de l’UE (et pas les Syriens) ?”,, March 3rd, 2022, (consulted on April 28, 2022).

4 Informal meeting of Ministers for Development, Montpellier: Doorstep by Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, European Commission, (consulted on April 28, 2022).

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Laura Calabrese, Chloé Gaboriaux et Marie Veniard, « Reception in crisis: Discursive practices and political actions », Mots. Les langages du politique [En ligne], 129 | 2022, mis en ligne le 07 juillet 2022, consulté le 12 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Laura Calabrese

Free University of Bruxelles, ReSic

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Chloé Gaboriaux

University of Lyon, Sciences Po Lyon, Triangle (UMR 5206)

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Marie Veniard

University of Paris-Descartes, EDA

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