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Removing the Fear from Migration

published 20 December 2013 updated 20 December 2013
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During the ILO Tripartite Technical Meeting on Labour Migration on 6 November 2013, Ambet Yuson, Chair of the Council of Global Unions (CGU), and of its Migration Working Party, stressed the concern that fear is a serious barrier to the exercise of  rights by migrant workers:

“There is another serious problem faced by migrant workers that I want to put on the table. It is a powerful, but sometimes hidden factor - racism and xenophobia. One of the reasons that human rights are not exercised, including the rights of workers to organize and bargain, is fear. Migrant workers are often in social and economic situations that breed fear, but, in addition, they are often victims of stereotypes or even hatred”.

Migrant workers are usually grist for the mill of the Extreme Right, whether by direct attacks or through the use of code words, and this is largely the extent to which attitudes towards migrants are “on the table” in public debates.

The problem is this: for the rest of the political spectrum, there seems to be a division between those providing a pale imitation of Extreme Right positions —which is often also coded—and deafening silence. Far too many politicians seem to consider that words of reason and decency will mean political suicide. So, while many migrants continue to live in fear of the hostility that surrounds them, the politicians—who could potentially help to reduce that fear—also seem to be paralysed by the same emotion.

Countering racism and xenophobia is long-term goal, and it must be met with rationality, hope and perseverance. The European Region is a particularly strong example in that the economies that exist within it would be crippled without migrant workers, and yet anti-migrant sentiment remains firmly planted in the public opinion.

UNIA, a Swiss trade union representing multiple sectors (including, construction companies, hotels and restaurants—industries with large numbers of migrant workers), has a majority of foreign-born members. It conducted a campaign that produced concrete examples of some important industries that depend on migrant workers. The campaign, “ Sans Nous” (without us), depicts the real lives of Swiss migrant workers, and the contributions they make to society, as opposed to viewing migrants as solely politically manipulated abstract images.

Another way to change the discussion and to make the debate more real is to humanize it, and stressing the common problems—as well as the need for common solutions—and avoiding distortions based on ethnicity or country of origin is an excellent way of doing so. For example, if one migrant was a criminal, it would not mean that all migrants are criminals; after all, crime is the problem, not migrants. These gross simplifications, however, still cause problems for migrants and non-migrants alike.

The Global Unions statement for International Migrants’ Day stresses the fact that the pressures on migrants persist: “In host countries, they often face hostility rather than hospitality. And, they become popular scapegoats for failures of governments and societies”. Respect for rights, greater security for workers and practical solutions to concrete problems can build a broader culture of respect and dialogue in our societies and work to both deepen and strengthen economic equality and democracy.

Silence on migration can and must be broken, and dialogue must also be stimulated by trade unions, employers and civil society organisations. Such a dialogue offensive might help create some “safe ground” for politicians to enable them to do the right thing without having to show too much courage or leadership.

Education is critical to both undermining and countering racism and xenophobia against migrants, but the real focus must be on “education” in the broadest sense of the word. It is undoubtedly in that spirit that Helen Keller wrote: “The highest result of education is tolerance”. There is, at times, a tendency to blame schools for all societies’ problems, so, if one is to have impact, it is necessary to look at the education that takes place in broader society on values; among them, tolerance and understanding.

Schools and teachers can, nevertheless, play a critical role in helping societies evolve by encouraging openness, communication and tolerance. In addition, schools are often the places where migrant and non-migrants meet and have the best chance to understand each other. That, again, helps move the abstract to the concrete and relieve fear.

It is possible for adults to have close friendships with individual migrant workers without ever losing a prejudice against the group. That is something which is more difficult for children. Migration and its associated opportunities and problems are not going to go away any time soon, so what is a better long-term solution to the serious danger behind the fear than “getting it right” in the schools?

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.