Time to Speak Up

A father and daughter at Tabarre Issa temporary camp just outside Port-au-Prince which was set up to provide shelter for some of the 250,000 people most at risk from floods, mudslides and hurricanes.

By Laurentiu Ciobanica of IOM

First it was the photos that came with my job, day in day out. They showed their hands – learning to write, clinging to their offspring for dear life, counting money to send home; their feet – often bare, ill at ease in novelty shoes, itching to be on their way; their eyes - often amazed, often sad but always intense. All told a story - or several – if you had the time to notice.

Then I got to meet them – so many and in more places than I can remember. I listened to their stories, told furtively, reluctantly in unfamiliar words – all the more authentic for that. They spoke of hardship, uprooting, loss and isolation. Few know or care to listen but migration is also, if not mostly, about this. But there was also hope, pride and the deep purpose to start anew, as often as necessary.

It’s not easy being a migrant – tough choices and sharp edges all around. We all hear the fine semantics and the labels: voluntary or forced, high- or low-skill, South-North, North-South, South-South, etc. All lines in the sand, if you look closer. Comes the time, you start by giving up on something - loved ones, cherished places, security and support systems. You have to embrace the great unknown. Comes the time, you have to be brave. (And even braver to go back, pick up the pieces and start anew – but somehow this side of the story gets lost in the backwash).

Thoko Mlungwana, a South African nurse worked in the U.K. before returning to South Africa to assist in the development of the South African health service.

Then there were the stories at the other end. They told of the quiet determination to pick yourself up, again and again, each time you fell. Of giving it all to do good at work, learn, adapt, forge your way, give it your best, come what may. It is also and, probably most of all, a story of giving, of generosity. This is ALSO the story of migration.

Yet it’s not the one we’re hearing. We hear and see heaps about migrants taking, all around: security, benefits, jobs, social peace. Sure, migrants are not all choirboys and girls. And migration can be disruptive and unsettling; there will be losses and losers in the process. But when all is said and done, it’s largely myth. The facts and the figures are there to prove it and have been all along*.

We know the usual suspects behind this and their motivations. But there’s another factor, just as important at play here. It’s one to which we’ve been accomplices to a certain extent: silence. It breeds all sorts of monsters and chimeras.

There are many ways to look at IOM - many valid. My favourite is that of an organization of migrants working for migrants. Yes, yes, we can talk about gaps in skills and education and social milieu but, right down at its core, we’re just like them. Only a bit luckier. Given half a decent chance they, too, would be like us - if not better. Their story is our story. I definitely consider it mine.

And it’s a story we have to tell.

We’re about to launch on a global campaign to show the great role and contribution migrants make all around: to their home countries, to their host societies, to communities, to families and, lest we forget, to themselves.

It will be challenging and definitely no weekend repair job. But we have a great message and great tools (see here: www.migrantscontribute.com).

And we all have a word to add, a role to play, a cause to plead. We can make it what we want it to be and take it wherever we want it to go. We can make it something really BIG. Be a part of it.

It’s time to speak up.


* (For those who want to get their migration fundamentals right, please read Ian Goldin’s excellent book: Exceptional People – How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9301.html. On the subject, it doesn’t get any better.)