Sunday, August 20, 2017

Migration – a journey we take together

We are almost at the end of the year. For many, it’s the start of a journey, home to see the family, to be with friends. A journey that ends in reunion, togetherness, sharing. Even if we travel alone, we travel hopefully, knowing that there will be a warm welcome at the end of the tiring journey. It’s the time of the year when strangers help one another, when we smile and exchange greetings with people we don’t know.

A worker attached to a single rope washes glass walls of a high rise in Haikou, Hainan province, China in 2004. Photo: EPAA worker attached to a single rope washes glass walls of a high rise in Haikou, Hainan province, China in 2004. Photo: EPA

Our journeys may be short, but they are long enough for us to reflect on the millions who have set out this year on less happy travels. Asia may be one of the more peaceful continents on our planet, but is it one with some of the biggest disparities between rich and poor. Millions are on the move, seeking work and comfort for their families.

International Migrants Day, December 18, is celebrated every year under the United Nations theme of togetherness. Our welcome for migrants, our togetherness and solidarity with them must extend further than simply benefiting from their contributions. We must also accept them into our society and assure them of the rights that we take for granted.

Asia and the Pacific hosts the largest migrant population in the world. According to UN data, between 2000 and 2015, Asia added more international migrants than any other area of the world – 26 million in total, or 1.7 million additional migrants per annum.

Asia’s prosperity and growth are built on a culture of migration, on the life stories and contributions of migrants. Asia can lead the world in celebrating this narrative, in realising that extending the hand of welcome to migrants brings economic and social benefits.

The migration journey will not always be smooth, but host societies will never benefit if they neglect the welfare of migrants. Nothing increases the stigma that migrants face like diseases, ghettoisation and poverty. Conversely, nothing increases the value and contribution of migrants than ensuring they have good healthcare (including mental health), housing, nutrition and working conditions.

Very often, we send our young, talented, and educated people not only within our region but also to other regions. We expect their right to health and access to education to be ensured as it should be under the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. We need to demand that these rights be protected for all migrants, not just the ones we are connected to. If we don’t care for the migrants in our midst, how can demand the same for our children overseas?

The contribution of migrants is interwoven in our daily lives. Our shopping is totted up and bagged by migrants. Our meals at restaurants are served by migrants. We wear clothes that were made by the hands of migrants. Our office buildings are often built by migrant workers. The elderly in our ageing societies are supported by migrants. Migrants are among the best and brightest of their communities, and quickly rise to become doctors, lawyers, community leaders, tech innovators.

Why do we stigmatise a group we benefit from so much? Migrants are too often perceived as “they”. “They” are the ones who take the job from us or increase the crime rate or ‘they’ bring diseases to our workplace and communities. This prejudice cannot be reconciled with the valuable role migrants play in our daily lives.

Migrants sacrifice the one thing that we cherish above all other – their homes. We need to recognise this, and ensure we value their contributions while appreciating what they have given up to be with us. Migration is a journey, not an escape. It’s a quest for sanctuary, work, a second chance, a new dawn. We can walk that path together.

Nenette Motus is director of the International Organization for Migration’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific, located in Bangkok, Thailand.