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Q&A: &#39Migration of Religion Can Work Both Ways&#39

Interview with Peter Schatzer, Int'l Organisation for Migration

ROME, Sep 11 2007 (IPS) - Migrants most often carry their religion with them, and this often leads to clashes with people in their host country, Peter Schatzer, Director Mediterranean Regional Office and Head of Mission in Italy for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), tells IPS correspondent Sabina Zaccaro. And that makes religion a particular issue for about 95 million migrants around the world.

IPS: Recipient countries are often inclined to respond to intercultural pressure by reaffirming their own identity and traditions. In Europe, &#39Christian roots&#39 have recently entered the debate over the European Union institutional reform. Why?

Peter Schatzer (PS): When identity in under threat, people try to look for something that they can hold on to. In case of some Europeans, it is the Judeo-Christian background of the continent, and this serves mostly to unite against something that is considered a threat.

That is where the problem starts, because it&#39s fine that you try to define yourself, and the culture, the traditions, the religion of your ancestors; but what is in a way interesting at the moment is that Christianity in Europe is not such a big deal any more. The churches are empty, or mostly filled with old people, and many are not practising religion but still pretend to identify themselves with their religious background.

That is what has to be explained also with people who arrive here as migrants; they feel under pressure, they also identify themselves through religion, while what they are actually defending is traditions. Many of the things that happen today in the name of religion are not foreseen in the Bible, or the Koran, in the Torah, but they are based on traditions that have evolved over centuries.

IPS: Italy is seeing a wave of intolerance due to some recent crimes by undocumented migrants, and widely reported by media. Local municipalities and institutions respond to citizens&#39 concern by adopting more severe policies against irregular migrants indiscriminately. What should they do to isolate these episodes without interrupting dialogue efforts?


PS: Italy reproves without reproving really, and protects without really protecting. There&#39s some schizophrenia in Italy&#39s approach to migrants; from one side there is a compassionate attitude, but then, when media report some criminal acts by immigrants, police actions are too rigorous.

A right balance between respect for law and a humanitarian approach really helping people in need would be better.

Then, you have to use all the facilities you have at your disposal to first of all create a base to find out what the actual problems are, and why these problems exist. You have to do research, you have to work a lot with cultural mediators, with people who understand the various angles of an argument, and then you have to dialogue and organise the dialogues amongst the people involved in this: the ones who are afraid of those who are different. That is what we call xenophobia; phobia in Greek is…well is fear, and it is more a disease than anything else, so it needs to be treated like any disease by trying to go to the roots.

IPS: You are suggesting a scientific approach to the issue, while the most common reaction to such problems is emotional rather than rational…

PS: Well, that is part of the problem. We see that again these days with some of the crimes that are being committed. But that is also understandable, because, as I said, this (reaction) is based on irrational motives, is based on fear, and you cannot command people to not be afraid; you have to lead them and help them to not be afraid. You have to explain in a rational fashion what is actually going on.

IPS: To come back to religion, what is its impact on the integration process of migrant women? Does it in some way limit or slow it down?

PS: Again, let&#39s make a difference between religion and tradition. It depends very much on what sort of religion is being practised and what the traditions of a society allow women to do. There are clashes sometimes, when the tradition of a country of origin perceives a completely different approach to that of the host country.

But here again, one has to look at the basis of the issues, and listen to what religious experts have to say about that, and see how far a society wants to go to allow freedom of expression, which goes from wearing a cross or wearing the veil, to caricatures about other religions; and again there are limits on what societies accept. Each society has to decide how far it wants to go, but it has to do this through dialogue with all concerned, it should not impose this.

IPS: Is the integration that a host society has in mind a kind of assimilation?

PS: We can&#39t generalise. In some countries everybody has to be following the lead culture, at least if it&#39s the official policy, but there are others that accept more cultural diversity. Each country is trying to solve this on its own, and Europe needs to…see which ones work, which ones don&#39t.

But what they can&#39t neglect is that even those countries that say people have to fit into the host culture do change through immigration, simply because of the presence of people with a different background. What we have to do is to make this adjustment process on both sides possible, and help individuals concerned to make it as painless as possible. In the end, everybody agrees on some basic common values that hold a society together.

IPS: Would you mention a successful model of immigration and integration policies within Europe?

PS: I would say it is Portugal, which opens its doors to migrants, but then these people have to respect rules. Portugal has a very interesting and positive integration system as well; in Lisbon, for example, you can find a place where all immigrants – even undocumented ones – can go and receive assistance with documents, health, and jobs. It has a very hospitable approach, maybe also due to its own experience with migration.

 
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