The world has a serious refugee problem. An unprecedented 65.3 million people have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees and of these, over half are under the age of 18. People move mostly for economic as well as security reasons. Many diasporas have been formed across the world by people looking for security or in search for better economic opportunities. The largest post-World War II movement took place in South Asia when 14 million people crossed the newly created border between India and Pakistan. Eight million Muslims left India for Pakistan while six million Hindus and Sikhs moved in the opposite direction. In the 1980s, Pakistan hosted four million Afghan refugees who left their homes to escape the war against the Soviet Union. While some Afghans have gone back, most remain in Pakistan and Iran.
The continuing civil war in Syria has caused enormous human suffering. Close to half a million people have died while half of the country’s population of 21 million has left home. Some six million Syrians are now in several neighbouring countries. More than a million of the people displaced by war have headed for Europe causing a major crisis for that continent. Had the refugees not gone to Europe, the suffering of refugees around the world would not have received global attention.
Three city-leaders in the West came together and contributed an article for The New York Times on immigrants. The article titled, “Our Immigrants, Our Strength” appeared on the eve of the United Nations’ summit on international migration. Held in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the summit was attended by several world leaders, including President Barack Obama. The authors of the article included Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City, Anne Hildago, Mayor of Paris, and Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, who is the descendent of Pakistani immigrant parents. New York and Paris suffered terrorist attacks carried out by foreigners and by people of Middle Eastern descent. Meanwhile, a day before the article was published, an American citizen of Afghan descent was alleged to have placed three home-made bombs in different locations in the states of New York and New Jersey. One of the bombs in New York City’s Chelsea area injured 27 persons. There were other incidents involving migrants living in the United States. These attracted considerable attention as the contest for the country’s presidency heated up.
“The United Nation’s Summit for Refugees and Migrants and President Obama’s Leader’s Summit on Refugees represent a watershed moment that is putting a global spotlight on the need for an effective response to a growing humanitarian crisis,” wrote the three mayors. “Our shared perspective is informed by the sober awareness of the dangers we face. In the aftermath of an explosive device going off in the Chelsea neighbourhood of New York last weekend, and other attacks in cities throughout the world, we recognise that the security of all our residents is paramount in large, open, and democratic societies. But it is wrong to characterise immigrant and refugee communities as radical and dangerous; in our experience, militant violence is vanishingly rare.”
The three mayors provided some insight to the programmes their cities had initiated in order to bring about greater integration of immigrants into the local economies, cultures, and political systems. In New York, nearly half of all business owners are immigrants while London has three million citizens who were born abroad. Counting those who were born to immigrants, the proportion of immigrants in the city is estimated at close to 40 per cent. It is not surprising that after a hard-fought campaign the city of London chose Khan, from an immigrant family, as its mayor.
Several major cities with large migrant populations have launched programmes to better integrate new comers. New York has begun an identification programme that is increasing a sense of belonging among immigrants. In 2015, London boroughs provided support to more than 1,000 unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children. Paris is one of the major cities to open a refugee centre in the heart of the city. Programmes such as these are needed and are producing impressive results. “We must continue to pursue an inclusive approach to resettlement in order to combat the growing tide of xenophobic language around the globe. Such language will lead only to the increased marginalisation of our immigrant communities, and without making us any safer,” continued the mayors.
These sentiments notwithstanding xenophobia abetted by Islamophobia had entered the mainstream of politics in the West. Donald Trump, the representative of the Republican Party in the US presidential contest, had deliberately taken anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim positions. His “make America great again” campaign slogan was clearly meant to cleanse his country of all presence of foreign elements. While the hunt for the person behind the New York attacks was still going on, Trump and Hillary Clinton, his rival from the Democratic Party, took opposite positions. The Republican blamed Clinton and President Obama for adopting immigration and foreign policies that brought terrorism to American shores. Trump called for vigorous police profiling of people from the Muslim world living in the United States and drew a direct equation between immigration and national defence. Clinton took the opposite position, arguing that immigrants will play an important role in the development of the United States. This debate will continue while continuing turmoil in several disturbed regions of the world will go on adding to the pool of refugees.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2016.
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