Too often, when we speak of migrants, we find ourselves having to speak about moments of extreme hardship, caught up in a narrative of crisis. Those who find themselves in detention in Libya, trafficked in the back of trucks, having sought new lives away from failing states, conflict and disaster. Today is International Migrants Day, a day to remember these individuals and reiterate the need to respect the rights and dignity of all. It is a day set aside by the United Nations to recognize the estimated 272 million migrants that are integral members of all our societies today.
But it is also a day to recognize the generosity and warmth of the host communities that have embraced newcomers arriving with little or nothing to their names. In Colombia, in Germany and across the globe, we have seen examples of communities that have shared their homes and lives with those less fortunate. Many of the communities into which migrants arrive already are fragile, limited in resources and struggling to flourish.
This year on International Migrants Day, IOM has chosen to focus on social cohesion, in recognition not just of migrants, but of the communities in which they can and do flourish. Our societies are not static; our networks of community are constantly fracturing and rebuilding when faced with change, whether due to economic recession, aging populations or the tensions of different political world views.
Too often, when we speak of migration, we debate whether it is good or bad, costs too much or pays out too little and the precise contributions that migrants make to our lives. But to view migration as an accounting practice is to reduce it to a fraction of its whole. It is an evolving –often challenging—yet integral part of our societies, enriching them in multiple, intangible ways.
Too often, we forget that migrants are quietly already part of our lives, their contributions woven into our daily interactions. Some are scholars studying to acquire new skills. Others are workers seeking to leverage their expertise for better pay or a wider range of opportunities. Some are family members who have joined loved ones, to care for them and start new chapters in their own lives.
Many migrants have crossed a nearby border for opportunities in countries not very different from their own. Indeed, more and more, we see workers routinely crossing borders, living in one country, working in another. Others cross continents or oceans, taking giant steps—and giant risks—to join new societies with different languages, religious practices, foods and cultural norms. They risk a great deal to succeed among us.
Migrants need to change to cope with the challenges of adapting to a new social and cultural environment and respect the values – gender equality, for example – of the communities which they have joined. Mutual respect for diverse beliefs is a cornerstone of a social cohesion that works for the benefit of all.
The communities that thrive are those that embrace change and adjust to it. Migrants are an integral and welcome element of that change. Migrants can also become — often surprising — champions of resilience when times are tough, when a community experiences unexpected shocks, including environmental change and disaster, unemployment, and political turmoil.
But communities cannot adapt alone. They need support from governments and organizations such as IOM, to ensure adequate provision of public services, orientation and language support, human capital investment, and broader strengthening of community infrastructure.
Today’s political climate is challenging; oftentimes migrants make for an easy scapegoat for all the ills of society, rather than one element of a cure. Thus, on this day, we need to constantly remind the international community of the reality — both historic and contemporary – that when well managed migration works, closed societies can become open, and political tensions fade away. Whether we are living, working, loving or building, we do so together.
António Vitorino is the Director General for the International Organisation for Migration.