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An Urgent Need to Turn Down Rhetoric Against Migrants & Refugees

Carl Soderbergh is Director of Policy & Communications, Minority Rights Group International

Sub Saharan Africans - Israel
Female African asylum-seekers during a protest march where they called on the government to recognise African migrants as refugees, and for the release of Africans who are held in detention facilities.

LONDON, Sep 18 2018 (IPS) - Migration has become a focus of debate in recent years. From United States President Donald Trump’s vehemently anti-migrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric to Denmark’s new ‘ghetto laws’, the language has become increasingly heated.

The Danish government adopted these measures in 2018, specifically targeting low-income immigrant districts and including compulsory education on ‘Danish values’ for children starting at the age of one. In the United Kingdom, while still Home Secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May instituted a ‘hostile environment’ policy in 2012 that was intended to catch undocumented migrants whenever they came into contact with public services.

The policy particularly affected members of the so-called ‘Windrush generation’, the tens of thousands of Afro-Caribbean men, women and children who came over to the UK after World War Two and settled there legally. It is thought that the number of those deported runs into the hundreds, while many thousands more have had to live for several years in considerable uncertainty.

While a public outcry led to an official apology by the UK government, other leaders and governments have been resolutely unapologetic. Indeed, Trump’s travel ban for citizens of several Muslim-majority countries was approved as constitutional by the US Supreme Court in June 2018.

Such policies – and the often vitriolic language accompanying them – have had a direct and negative impact on migrant and refugee communities. According to data released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the annual number of hate crimes against US Muslims recorded by the organization rose 15 per cent in 2017, following on from a 44 per cent increase the previous year – an increase it attributed in part to Trump’s divisive language and the discriminatory measures put forward by his administration.

Muslim woman – Thailand
A Thai policeman checks the papers of a Muslim woman at a checkpoint in Pattani.

On 11 September 2018, Minority Rights Group International launched its annual Minority and Indigenous Trends report by hosting a seminar for journalists in Krakow, Poland. This year, we focused the report on migration and displacement. We chose the theme for two reasons.

One is what I have outlined above – the casual disregard that we have repeatedly witnessed by people in power for the immediate impact of their actions and their words on minority and indigenous communities. Whenever politicians chase voters or news outlets seek to increase their readerships and advertising revenues by targeting migrants, they ignore the very real consequences in terms of increased hatred towards those same communities.

The other reason is that we sought to reflect the lived realities of migrants and refugees themselves – in particular, how discrimination and exclusion drive many people to make the very hard choice to leave their homes. It remains very difficult to arrive at a total percentage of minorities and indigenous peoples among the world’s migrants and refugees.

This is partly due to lack of interest – after all, much of the reporting on migration remains fixated on overall numbers rather than on the individual stories. More particularly, migrants and refugees who belong to minorities or indigenous peoples may well feel a need to remain silent about their ethnicity or religious faith, for fear of further persecution in transit or upon arrival in their new homes.

However, there are many clear indicators from around the world of an immediate causal link between marginalization and movement. The horrifying targeting of Yezidis by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as more recently of Rohingya by the military and its allies in Myanmar, are by now well-documented. In both cases, the overwhelming majority of the communities have been displaced.

Migrant workers – Russia

But there are many other examples of membership in minority and indigenous populations and displacement. In Ethiopia, the government’s crackdown on political dissent, aimed particularly at the Oromo population, contributed directly to an upsurge in migration from that community. Data collected by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) showed that by the beginning of 2017 as many as 89 per cent of arriving Ethiopian migrants in the key nearby transit country Yemen stated that they belong to the Oromo community. In Colombia, displacement by armed groups has continued despite the 2016 peace accord.

This disproportionately affects Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities who made up more than a quarter (26 per cent) of the more than 139,000 forcibly displaced in the country between January and October 2017, double their share of the national population as a whole.

In fact, the Colombian example is important as it highlights how, while global attention shifts away from a particular situation, the plight of minorities and indigenous peoples continues. Here, the distinction governments and UN agencies seek to make between refugees on the one hand and migrants on the other becomes blurred and even unhelpful.

The US government denies asylum to victims of Central American gang violence. However, much of the brutal gang-related violence in Guatemala, for instance, has affected indigenous communities disproportionately: decades of conflict and discrimination have left them impoverished and marginalized, with little recourse to protection from police or the judiciary. Indeed, in many cases their situation has been aggravated by official persecution.

The discrimination that caused many migrants and refugees to leave their homes often follows them while in transit. While the abusive treatment of asylum seekers and their families crossing into the US has been widely reported, the crackdown within Mexico on Central American migrants, particularly indigenous community members, has received less coverage.

Significantly, it has resulted not only in the targeting of foreign nationals, including many women and children, but also the arrest and intimidation of indigenous Mexicans by police. Over the past year, reports have emerged from Libya of sub-Saharan Africans trapped by the containment policies of the European Union, who now find themselves targeted by security forces, militias and armed groups. There have been widespread reports of torture, sexual assault and enslavement of migrants, many of whom are vulnerable not only on account of their ethnicity but also as non-Muslims.

The situation is further complicated for groups within minority or indigenous communities, such as women, children, persons with disabilities and LGBTQI people, who contend with multiple forms of discrimination and as a result face heightened threats of sexual assault, physical attacks and other rights abuses – in their places of origin, whilst in transit and upon arrival at their destinations.

What then is needed?

Firstly, all those participating in national and international debates on migration need to tone down their rhetoric. The Danish government could, for instance, have devised policies supporting marginalized urban districts without resorting to the historically loaded term, ‘ghetto’, which immediately stigmatizes residents while giving a green light to racists.

Secondly, governments need to abide by fundamental human rights principles, including the basic right to live with dignity. And finally, all those who are contributing to the debate – including media – must get past the numbers and reveal the individual stories. In order to discuss migration, one needs to understand it fully.

While the way forward may appear challenging, I was inspired by the many Polish journalists who attended our launch event in Krakow and who are already rising to the challenge by seeking out the stories that migrants and refugees have to tell us.

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  • Trinity Holmes

    Trump is 100% right!
    Muslims for instance come as refugees and then want to introduce Shari Law and customs on their host country!
    Mexican immigrants come in and then fly the Mexican flag above the US flag!
    As for many of these Young men which in the case of Muslims is most Men few women and old,stay home and take back Your own country!