Why should I care? – 5: Immigration (and refugees)

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July 27, 2017 by Cláudia

Right now, we are living scary times in which attitudes towards immigration have radicalised, nationalism is heightened and border control has become a much more controversial discussion. When fear is heightened, attitudes and beliefs also change and behaviours that wouldn’t be acceptable in the past are now much more common than I would imagine. I never thought I would read deeply xenophobic comments online with no dissident voice, or blatant unapologetic associations with Nazi ideas or a recurring defence of genocide. Because of all this radicalisation that I would never expect to see, I think it is crucial to address immigration and keep speaking up for people that have been demonised and put all in one box. If you also believe in Human rights and in immigration rights, then I think this is the time to speak, write and act about it before we see more people unfairly mistreated and further rise of racism and xenophobia.

But, as always, we shouldn’t oppose “good side” to “bad side” and we need to see the other side’s perspective if we don’t want to create more misunderstandings. I understand that some really severe problems have arisen from the Syrian massive migration and I will never defend violence, rapings or homophobia. These are unacceptable and need to be addressed. But they don’t represent the 99% of the other Syrian refugees and I will never defend turning our back on people who need it either. People who, let’s not forget, are trying to escape horrors that we can thankfully probably never imagine.

A big thing that crosses my mind is that Europe appears to have lost memory of our historical past. There have been no major armed conflicts in European territory for the past 70 years and we have clearly forgotten what it is like to live in the middle of a war. I, myself, have never lived something like that but by studying History, reading testimonies and just using my imagination, I can easily conclude that it is a situation I never want to be in. I don’t want to see my life being destroyed, my city being destroyed, Humanity decaying, loved ones dying, I don’t want to see my life as short term or fear to leave the house. I don’t want to see the news every day wondering if someone I know was killed in an attack.

Refugees are escaping dire situations (and I don’t mean only Syrian refugees but also African refugees) and, despite cultural differences, no one deserves to live in that situation. This is obviously not the optimal multicultural integration – thousands of people are flooding European countries which makes it harder to integrate these people, prompts their organization in marginalized ghettos, which in turn favours criminality and mutual lack of understanding. This is not an ideal situation and there will be needed several readjustments and efforts to make it work in the end.

To me, accepting refugees, and immigrants in general, is a matter of fairness of opportunity. People right now are feeling very protective of their countries as if a country could be any sort of property and as if they built the country as it is and people “from the outside” were walking in with the sole purpose of destroying everything that was created. However, none of us should feel entitled to keep the country just for ourselves – we were born where we were arbitrarily and we most likely did little to make the country the way it is. Accepting immigrants is not about tolerating criminality as many people have suggested, and me defending refugees is not about me supporting Muslim ideals or practices as many other people have suggested. I may not agree with deeply rooted misogyny, but I will never disregard an entire culture because of some aspects that collide with my values. If Europe boasts to be built upon freedom and tolerance, then it makes no sense to reject the possibility of coexisting with different cultures. If we are tolerant (and we should be) towards more progressive lifestyles, how come we are intolerant towards more conservative societies? Can we only accept ways of living we agree with? How can someone be tolerant if they only tolerate people who live according to their values? Accepting someone you agree with and understand is easy, the real challenge when it comes to tolerance is to accept that other people will live in ways that you don’t necessarily understand.

This post has a longer introduction than the others from this series because lately I’ve seen so many comments, policies and attitudes filled with hatred and I can’t shake the feeling that we are regressing. History shows what happens when people are moved by nationalism. History shows how many organisations were created to prevent a World War from ever happening again. Are we forgetting all of this already? Are we being so moved by fear that we don’t care about people just because they are far away, have a different culture and we have learned to see them as “the other side”? People are moved by fear and it is easier to reject than to accept difference. It’s easier to demonize than to have paradoxical and conflicting feelings. It’s easier to disengage than to care and risk being in danger.

Terrorist attacks have highly contributed to the fear of refugees. It’s not that people don’t care about other people – in the beginning, attitudes towards refugees were much more tolerant and compassioned. But when problems started to arise and refugees were beginning to be associated with terrorism, responses changed because fear is sometimes bigger than other human feelings – fear makes people dehumanize other people because they perceive them as a possible threat. In defense mode, we find ways to make our coldness acceptable. I really hope perception starts to shift as I fear an escalation of violence and hatred with harmful consequences for everyone.

Here are some common objections to welcoming refugees:

1. These people are not valuable for our country.

How do you know?

Because they’re immigrants?

Or is it because they’re Muslims?

Do you assume they have no education and no qualifications?

We cannot possibly know if anonymous masses of people are valuable or not a priori. Some will bring new positive things and others will bring some negative things, just like everyone else in the country.

These people are not a unanimous group, don’t have the same background, the same education, the same qualifications. Probably the only common ground we can find is how these people are fleeing from war. How these people are risking their lives travelling in fragile, overcrowded boats, leaving everything they own behind. They are risking staying in a refugee camp and never having a decent life ever again. By this we can safely assume that things are so bad at home that these are reasonable risks to take for them. This is not a job application in which we are trying to determine how much profit an employee might bring to a company – these are peoples’ lives.


2. There are too many cultural differences for it to work harmoniously.

Perhaps, if we keep focusing on the differences instead of what we might have in common and what we might learn from each other. A family was housed in Portugal and was unhappy because they couldn’t find halal meat in the small village they were living in and an effort was made to bring these products to local markets. Now, the first Syrian restaurant is opening both to share Syrian food with the Portuguese and to make other Syrians feel more at home.

Of course, I am not forgetting that the number of refugees families Portugal has taken is minimal in comparison to other countries such as Germany and so the same care and attention is impossible in other countries for now. I have already said that this is not the optimal integration situation. But if we deal with the cultural differences with patience and willingness to listen, we will find more that unites us than what separates us and our societies can only benefit and learn with new different people and vice versa.

Because of the terrorist attacks, there is a very widespread hatred towards Islamism and a very popular discourse that correlates Muslim with violence and barbarism. This is getting so natural that it is now acceptable to associate a whole religion with this characteristics as if obvious. If we actually read the founding scriptures of every religion, every single one of them can be associated with violence, intolerance and archaic thoughts and behaviours. The Bible, and I read it in its integrity, is honestly the most violent book I have ever read – God murders hundreds and hundreds of people out of vengeance and a big motto is eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Now it would be crazy for me to associate Catholicism with vengeance, as the religion has grown and now mostly preaches forgiveness. Catholicism also has some really dark burdens of the past – the Inquisition, whitch hunts, holy wars… But we cannot take texts that were written thousands of years ago literally and also we cannot take the part for the whole.

I can honestly see no reason for the East and the West not to get along. Let’s keep in mind that these people are running away from something that our countries have also experienced, but in a much smaller scale – terrorism. Refugees come in peace, with a hope to rebuild their lives. So let’s give these families and individuals a chance to live in peace, away from terror and not be the cause of more mistreatment, pain and war.

We can gain so much from interacting with different cultures: if we are open minded it can only bring new understandings and if we believe our way of living is the right for us we don’t ever need to change it. Let’s not use democracy selectively and accept that some people might have a more conservative world view than us – we might aspire a different society and work towards it, but to deny people’s right to choose is doing more harm than good, I feel.

As long as immigrants are willing to follow the country’s law, I really see no valid reason for it not to work harmoniously. Because some people pray five times a day? Because they don’t eat some meats? Because some wear a scarf to cover hair? A democracy should have space for every single practice and lifestyle as long as they are not harming others so this whole obsession with how these people may harm our “modern” culture is inherently anti-democratic.

3. There is just no space to take in all the refugees.

It’s probably not really a matter of actual space but more a matter of practical organisation. The refugee crisis is creating so many problems because it happens so fast that organisation is difficult – to have all the refugees arriving in just a few countries means obviously that these countries will be overwhelmed, people will start grouping with little conditions and problems arise. There is a plan to distribute all these people through different countries though and that will make it a lot more manageable in the future.

This fear of “there is no space” is very common when it comes to immigration. It is based on the fear of an external force that is going to “invade” the country and steal our resources. There is this recurring idea that if your country takes more people, they will steal your jobs. However, this is irrational because more population means more demand and more buyers so long term it actually means more jobs. It has potential to invigorate the economy and create new investment opportunities for different markets.

Societies, like ecosystems, are extremely adaptable as long as the people in them are willing to adapt. Different people will not mean a rupture or a collapse but instead new opportunities to grow and develop. Difference and diversity bring liveliness to a society and tolerance generates more tolerance just as violence generates more violence.

I truly believe that the way Western society deals with this crisis is vital to determine the future of democracy and ultimately of world History. Our society has been growing, has created roots to grow in the future, has developed in terms of mentality and values. This is a decisive moment, I think, in which everyone must decide if all the progress is to continue or if we are letting the fear of the unknown motivate our choices and condition us to repeat the same mistakes of the past.



Art by Banksy.


Further reading:

Is welcoming refugees good for the economy?

Why should I care about African refugees?

More on why we should care about refugees?


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