World Migrant Day: Don't fall into the easy trap of labelling people as 'illegal immigrants'

People, animals and birds have been migrating for millennia and yet migration is still a touchy subject, a political hot potato and a seemingly unsolvable problem. While birds and animals usually migrate for greener pastures and more comfortable weather, people migrate for several different reasons. Some people migrate for better jobs or business opportunities, some people migrate for love and marriage. So, both paisa and pyaar take you places!

However, more often than not, migration is not a choice. Many people migrate to escape persecution because of their ethnic or religious identities, for example, the Pilgrims escaping Europe to settle in America during the 1600s or ethnic Albanians fleeing their homes to escape Slobodan Milosevic’s murderous forces in Kosovo in the late 1990s.

Some people were forcibly taken from their home countries and sold as slaves to wealthy westerners. These people have continued a heroic struggle to get equal rights as despite the abolition of slavery the scourge of racism still remains. This hurts most when even though you and generations of your family are natural born citizens, your patriotism is questioned because of the colour of your skin. Barack Obama’s birther controversy has already taken up reams of newsprint despite being a non-issue. He will be remembered as one of the coolest Presidents of the United States. After all, he follows, cool people on twitter — like ‘me’.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Some people migrate to escape conflict zones like Syria, Iraq and Palestine. Some people want freedom from oppressive and toxic political regimes. All these people, who are forced to migrate, rarely find an easy way to do so. And even when they do successfully reach their destination, starting a new life is difficult. Perhaps the greatest challenge lies in finding acceptance in your new home country or city. Migrants are always viewed as outsiders. Original inhabitants often high on a sense of entitlement feel that these outsiders must integrate with local culture, instead of reaching out and trying to understand the cultures of these migrants.

These days an increasing number of people are climate refugees. Some watched in horror as entire villages were swept under water by rising sea levels or course changing rivers. Many others very driven to misery by drought, frequent forest fires and disappearing water sources. Take the case of Solomon Islands where five uninhabited islands were completely submerged and large swathes of islands which were inhabited were also washed out, forcing entire villages to relocate.

18 December is the International Migrants Day and I’m bringing this up because a migrant isn’t someone far away on another continent. I’m bringing this us because many of us are migrants ourselves. I am a Mumbaikar and my forefathers and foremothers have lived here for the past five generations, but I am still told that I am a 'madarasi', even when I say that I am a Maharashtrian. But I need to acknowledge my privilege too. While we were privileged enough to have a choice, many people who are a part of our everyday lives, did not have that choice and are struggling to find acceptance. I’m asking you to be a little more compassionate when you deal with someone you just dismiss as a “bhaiyya” or “illegal immigrant”.

It is easy to label people and speculate about the reasons for their migration, poverty and misery. It is also easy to brand many of them as terrorists just because they don’t share your religious beliefs. It is however, kinder and more humane to get to know them. Simple things like offering to help them learn the local language or helping them open bank accounts can go a long way in restoring their faith in humanity. Do business with them, hire their services. They are not begging for alms. They just want a dignified life where they can earn an honest living. While India prides itself for values of equality and athithi devo bhava, let me ask you – when was the last time you saw a black African in our country and not looked at them with eyes of doubt? I’m not asking you to do this based on blind faith. Due diligence and caution are essential. But your suspicion should not be the result of prejudice.

We already have too much hate in the world. Isn’t it time we spread some warmth and cheer. After all it’s that time of the year, isn’t it?


Updated Date: Dec 18, 2016 14:11 PM

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