As migration tops the foreign policy agenda of leading nations, one expert says we need to leave behind the idea of migrants as being a negative factor. “We need to move the debate about migration from one of common identity to one of common values,” said William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration. “We need to help people and governments understand the contribution that migrants can make.”
Speaking to International Peace Institute Senior Adviser Warren Hoge, Mr. Swing said that historically, migration has been an overwhelmingly positive element in the lives of countries, as migrants bring new ideas and incentives and create jobs.
“It’d be hard to say that migrants are not agents of development, which they certainly have been in most of the multiethnic, multicultural countries of the world,” he noted, “but a lot depends on the warmth of our welcome and our ability to integrate them.”
Mr. Swing praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for publicly saying that migration is the defining issue of her time as chancellor and agreeing to take in tens of thousands of Syrians, more than all the rest of the other 27 member states of the European Union together.
“We need more voices like that who recognize the importance of managing the migration flows in a responsible, humane, and dignified manner,” he said.
According to Mr. Swing, the UN’s creation of the Global Forum on Migration and Development is an important gap-filler for a global conversation on migration. He urged different regional organizations, from the European and African Unions to the League of Arab States, to come together and have a discussion on how to manage the global phenomenon of migration in a way that will benefit everyone.
This discussion was part of a series of interviews done on the margins of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism’s sixth retreat, on forced displacement, refugees, and migration, held on July 10-11.
Listen to the interview:
You made a point emphatically that the narrative right now on migration is toxic, and you have said that we need to produce a positive narrative. What is that positive narrative on migration?
One has to say that historically migration has been an overwhelmingly positive element in the lives of countries. Migrants have brought new ideas, they very often create jobs—if you look at the small and medium enterprises, it’s usually migrants who were probably the most active in that area. They bring in incentives, they offer horizons that we haven’t thought about. So I think it’d be hard to say that migrants are not agents of development, which they certainly have been in most of the multiethnic, multicultural countries of the world, but a lot depends on the warmth of our welcome and our ability to integrate them.
Governments tend to view migration these days as a problem whereas actually it is a matter of managing diversity. If that’s the case, how can the international community assist states and governments to manage diversity?
There are a number of practical things that we and others are doing. For example, very often we offer cultural orientation to migrants who are proceeding abroad, and we do the same for receiving communities—how to deal with the persons coming in from different cultures and different backgrounds so that a certain amount of help can be offered to communities.
We need to help people and governments understand the contribution that migrants can make, and that will take them away from the idea that migrants are a negative factor. I think in addition to all of this, we need to move the debate about migration from one of common identity to one of common values because people get very frustrated when they see people who don’t look like them, who don’t speak as they do, who don’t dress like they do, and that really is not the issue. The issue is: do we have a common vision of the future of this country?
With so many migrants these days headed for Europe, Europe obviously has a problem and also has a responsibility. I thought to ask you about Angela Merkel because you said you had admired what she had done. Is what she has done a model for what Europe ought to be doing?
I certainly think it’s hitting, it’s something that is going exactly in the right direction. Why do I say that? First of all, she has agreed to take tens of thousands of Syrians, more than all the rest of the other 27 member states of the European Union together. She has spoken out publicly saying that migration is the defining issue of her time as chancellor, more so than either the Euro or the Greek crises, more so than even Ukraine.
We need more voices like that who recognize the importance of managing the migration flows in a responsible, humane, and dignified manner, and I think she’s done all that. She’s also done this against the backdrop of a very strong right wing element in the country that itself has actually been physically attacking migrants. So she’s done this with a lot of courage, and that’s what we need more of—political courage on the part of our political leaders.
Is there anything in general you can suggest in this area of migration where the UN could be doing better, what it should be doing?
I think it should continue doing a number of things that it has initiated. I think the Global Forum on Migration and Development is a very important gap-filler because, up to now, there were conversations at national, local, and regional levels, but nothing on the global level at all, so this is a good initiative.
I think the creation of a Global Migration Group was a good initiative, although it hasn’t really lived up to its expectations or purposes initially. I think that the idea of bringing together, under the convening power of the Secretary General, all of the different regional organizations—the European Union, the African Union, ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], the League of Arab States, the Organization of American States, etc.—trying to bring the leaders of all those groups together to have a look and have a long discussion themselves on how can we manage together this global phenomenon in a manner that will benefit all of our people? I think a conversation like that would be probably something whose time has come.