Let’s Make Sure We Talk About Migrants at the World Humanitarian Summit

Words are the most precious things we have. We’ve been using them pretty appallingly of late, creating a world where people are castigated for trying to get their families out of the way of falling bombs. Where chasing your dream has become a nightmarish navigation of insults and abuse.

Any attempts to ameliorate, to placate and to try to find a more inclusive, tolerant world are met with disdain and distrust. “It’s all been tried before,” say the naysayers. “We need action, not words.”

Yes, there is a lot of talk of walls and fences are going up again. The message to migrants is clear: You are not welcome.

Does it have to be thus? Words are powerful – mightier than swords. My long career has taught me that iconic moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Apartheid, and peace in the Balkans are slow and incremental in coming. They may appear to race up to us and be a moment in history as they recede but in fact they were years in the making. The process becomes the substance.

That is my hope for the World Humanitarian Summit. While the international community is, understandably, approaching the upcoming Summit with realistic expectations, I do know that the millions of words that are spoken in Istanbul will mark a shift in our world. Maybe imperceptible at first, but the dialogue we create and sustain will open new avenues, charge out direction, or keep us on steady courses.

We must hold firm to what is working and remedy what is not. Conflict and natural disasters, climate change, a deepening imbalance between the rich and the poor, new and re-emerging diseases are combining to put many more millions of people on journey not of their own making, in addition to the millions who move for work, for family or for adventure.

Everyone, regardless of their background, skin color, language, education, gender or status needs and has a right to the same opportunities. No one must be left behind; no new inequalities should be created on top of injustices suffered.

Migrants are the most determined and driven people you will ever meet. The venomous “they don’t want to work” couldn’t be further from the truth. And the associated comment “coming over there, taking our jobs” is equally fallacious – Migrants stimulate demand, they bring knowledge, skills and services; yes, migrants create jobs!

So we need to keep talking about migrants and to migrants. Face to face. That blows away stigma and inspires trust. But we need also to understand migrants and migration. We have the tools now to investigate, analyze and predict as never before. Let’s use those analytics on the big data that migration presents us.

Remittances from migrants total much more than any overseas development assistance. Migration isn’t a problem, it is a challenge. And a solution. Migration is humanity’s oldest and time-trusted coping strategy


William Lacy Swing is the Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM)