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A return to humanity: Rethinking migration in 2017

by Jemilah Mahmood | International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
Tuesday, 10 January 2017 14:27 GMT

Jemilah Mahmood, IFRC Under Secretary General for Partnerships

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Toxic public discourse around immigration has very worrying implications, especially for children

By Jemilah Mahmood, IFRC Under Secretary General for Partnerships

Hassan greets me with a huge smile. He always does. It hides the scars and pain he has carried for years since fleeing violence in western Myanmar. He first found refuge in Bangladesh, and later Malaysia, where he was able to finish school and eventually get a job. Years later, he and several others pooled their savings and established a small centre where newly-arrived migrant children are given a basic education and a lot of care.

He has tears in his eyes as he recalls his ordeal, so terrible that he can hardly speak of it. All of his energy now is directed toward these children, so that they have a better chance in life.

Every year, millions of people like Hassan leave their homes out of desperation – fleeing wars, disasters, persecution, lack of food, water and livelihoods. They often flee at great risk, because they feel they have no other choice. They search for safety, refuge and hope in strange lands. And like Hassan, most are passionately driven to make life better for the next generation.

The year 2016 was a dramatic one for migration: unprecedented levels of human displacement, a sharp rise in deaths in transit, unsafe, undignified and uncertain conditions for too many uprooted people, more restrictive and discriminatory asylum policies and legally dubious deportations and returns, overwhelmed and overstretched host countries struggling with growing social and economic tensions.

It was also a year of pervasive, disturbing and dangerous anti-migrant rhetoric around, aimed at instilling fear, stoking hatred, inflaming xenophobia, dividing communities and winning votes. The public discourse was and still is toxic in many countries and the implications are extremely worrying, especially for children.

Preventable tragedies

In the final days of 2016, the International Organization for Migration shared the tragic news that nearly 7,200 men, women and children lost their lives while embarking on journeys to safety in 2016, the highest number of migrant deaths ever recorded in a single year. More than 5,000 lost their life while crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and those are the ones we know of. Many more deaths go unrecorded.

My own colleagues, staff and volunteers of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, assisted tens of thousands of people migrating this year in places of origin, transit and destination and relayed stories of immeasurable suffering, courage and resilience.

Those carrying out rescues at sea between Libya and Italy spoke of immense relief when they were able to save the lives of desperate people crowded into unsafe or sinking boats, and of heartbreaking loss when they were unable to reach people in time. Those assisting survivors heard stories of unthinkable violence and hardship, as well as sexual assault, torture, extortion and abuse — stories of people on migration routes being robbed not only of their meager possessions, but also of their rights and dignity.

What I find most tragic and unacceptable is that this situation is unnecessary. Every death is preventable and every dangerous journey avoidable, or should be, if only world leaders would collectively do the right thing to ensure the safety, dignity and rights of those in need.

Keeping commitments

With no end in sight to chronic conflicts and other crises triggering upheaval and migration, it is all but certain that the staggering levels of people in flight will continue in 2017, if not increase.

It is time all global leaders accept the inevitability of migration and manage it humanely, in partnership with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the United Nations, civil society and the private sector.

Foremost, wealthier nations must shelter a larger share of the world’s most vulnerable people, rather than leaving it to a small number of developing countries to shoulder that burden and suffer the consequences. They must ensure adequate humanitarian aid and protection along migration routes and establish safe, legal, dignified and sustainable pathways for people to seek asylum so they are not forced to pay smugglers. Anti-trafficking laws must be strengthened and enforced and strong punitive action taken against human traffickers. Leaders must reject and combat xenophobia in their societies and put in place policies and programmes that welcome newcomers, speed integration and self-reliance, and enable new arrivals to contribute economically and culturally to their new communities.

At the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September of 2016, all governments made or affirmed these commitments. It is time these pledges are translated into action on the ground.

Restoring humanity

Let’s stop the myths, misinformation and negative stereotypes that skew and damage the public perception of people who migrate and start talking about their positive contributions to societies where they settle. We have all heard enough talk of “them and us”.

Let’s return to teaching our young people about the values that so many countries of resettlement profess: equality, tolerance, compassion and solidarity. Let’s encourage our children to find inspirationin volunteers, first responders, mentors, care givers, teachers and community members around the world who offer a helping hand to those in need – the kind of people who welcome newcomers to their neighbourhoods, rather than reject them.

As the new year begins, I think of Hassan, someone who has suffered so much, but refuses to let that erode his faith in a better future. Like so many people who have migrated and settled in new communities in the past years and decades, he was given a chance, and now gives back in wonderful ways. Let’s ensure all people migrating have that opportunity.