A Reflection of Progress

(First published in "G7 Italy: The Taormina Summit", May 2017 issue)

The world’s experience with globalisation — the widespread transfer of peoples, technologies and cultures — did not begin in our time. Scholars argue that it dates back to 1492, when European migration, together with movements of Asians, Africans and Native Americans, forged the global relationships that help shape life to this day.

This centuries-old process has led to ever freer trade networks for goods and services, and ever increasing human mobility — the labour and intellectual property components of our codependent economies — to raise prosperity globally.

Migration embodies all we have accomplished in responding to human ambition and promoting the dignity and freedom of men and women worldwide. Yet it is that progress — which has lifted billions from poverty — that now is being shaken to its core, with a return to antimigrant nationalism. This is a threat we cannot ignore.

Fighting fear of change

The forces doing the shaking arrive under different names: ‘populism’, ‘xenophobia’. Each is a side of one coin: fear of change on one side backed by susceptibility to media images that pound away at only negative tropes, often having little basis in fact.

‘Your jobs are deserting you’, goes one trope, as corporate growth is thought to flee to other countries. Or ‘your country is disappearing’, as foreigners teem onto your shores. Or ‘these newcomers just won’t beassimilated’ — as if such criticism was not levelled at, and debunked by, every wave of ‘newcomers’ that ever arrived before.

Nonetheless, we have to face these fears and push back. We must all — be we leaders in government, civil society and the corporate world — demonstrate the many ways we can communicate a different message. At the International Organization for Migration (IOM), communicating this message is one of our core missions.

One way we do so is with the United Nations ‘Together’ campaign, which combats stereotypes of migrants and refugees with positive stories that reveal the energy released to benefit us all when newcomers renew our cities, establish new industries and create opportunities for all in their new surroundings.

Great successes

IOM’s ‘I am a migrant’ campaign profiles individual migration success stories online. For example, Jim Yong Kim, the Korean preschooler whose journey through a Texas and Iowa childhood led ultimately to Washington DC, where today he is President of the World Bank.

Or Cecilia Violetta López, the daughter of itinerant farmworkers from Mexico, who from a childhood in Idaho rose into a classical music career, performing in La Traviata and Madam Butterfly on the world’s great opera stages.

A universal movement

Of course, we must do more than demonstrate how migrants triumph over adversity to join us. We need to show how they make us all — whether we come from countries where our family roots extend back generations or whether we are still waiting for the children who will be the first to claim our ‘native’ status.

The ‘us’ I am speaking of are those thriving within any free society that welcomes the talent of the young. The foreigner who arrives as a restaurant worker but becomes an award-winning chef. The sian website designer whose talents are spotted by a recruiter far away in Europe, who then sends the designer to join a start-up in California. Or the entrepreneur who travels ‘here’ to earn a fortune, gain skills and, through both, enrich those ‘back home’.

I speak here in generalities to demonstrate just how universal this movement across has become. Any of these examples play out across boundaries that barely existed a generation ago.

Remarkable stories

These are not journeys that occur solely between poor lands and richer ones, but anywhere. We could be talking about the Nigerian trader now working in Guangzhou, which is home today to nearly 200,000 West Africans. Or the Ethiopian jazz musician who has won legions of fans in Johannesburg. Or the Sénégalais who in 2016 won Best Paris Baguette prize for his exquisite baguettes. Or the turban-wearing fan who has become a sensation in Canada doing Hockey Night in Punjabi broadcasts from his new home in Vancouver.

Just as remarkable, and possibly more important, are the hidden stories that affect all of us: the thousands of migrant health workers filling crucial labour shortages everywhere from Iceland to Zimbabwe. Or those risk-resistant new homeowners who relentlessly restore abandoned neighbourhoods in cities such as Liverpool, Detroit or Dresden.

There is a proverb: as long as books stay open, minds cannot be closed. We might say something similar about the future of our planet: as long as borders remain open, humankind must remain free. Let’s work together to make that hope real.