Commentary: 91st World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Commentary: 91st World Day of Migrants and Refugees

Michael A. Blume, S.V.D.
Undersecretary, Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

Helping immigrants discover 'healthy integration'

It is fairly well known that about 175 million people are migrants in a country other than their own. It is estimated that there are about 56 million immigrants in Europe, whereas there are approximately 50 million in Asia, 41 million in North America, 16 million in Africa, 6 million in the Latin American and Caribbean countries and the same number in Oceania.
The host countries that have welcomed the greatest number of immigrants are: the United States (which easily outstrips the others with about 35 million), the Russian Federation (13 million), Germany (7 million), India and France (6 million), Canada (about 6 million), Saudi Arabia (5 million) and Pakistan (over 4 million).

It would be interesting to examine the composition of immigrant population in each of these countries, but because of the difficulty in obtaining reliable statistics, as for example, for the Russian Federation, I limit myself to just a few.

In the United States, it is possible to identify at least 40 of the countries from which immigrants have come. These include Mexico (9 million), China/Hong Kong/Taiwan (about 1.5 million), the Philippines (1.4 million), Vietnam (986,000), Poland (480,000), Japan (about 346,000), and even Germany (712,000) and Italy (about 474,000). The
number of emigrants to the latter two countries, however, is dwindling.

Germany, on the other hand, has a foreign population from 18 nations, including Turkey (about 2 million), the former Yugoslavia (about 662,000), Poland (more than 301,000), Russia (about 116,000), Iran (about 108,000), Afghanistan (72,000), Sri Lanka (about 51,000), Lebanon (more than 51,000) and China (about 51,000).

Japan, instead, receives immigrants from at least 10 countries. The largest groups in 2001 came from China (about 86,000) and the Philippines (about 85,000). The other nations from which people emigrated were Brazil, Korea, even the United States, Indonesia, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation and Vietnam.

Approximately 38 percent of immigrants in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States come from Latin America and the Caribbeans, whereas about 24 percent are of Asian origin or come from Oceania, and 21 percent are European.

Meaning of true `integration'

What do these figures tell us?

They clearly show that contemporary societies now consist of people from various places with their different cultures, traditions, languages, customs, religions, values, etc., as the Papal Message for the 91st World Day of Migrants and Refugees for 2005

Consequently, host countries cannot fail to realize that they no longer have a homogeneous population. An integral part of their populations is now made up of people from abroad who are willing to do jobs that locals are generally no longer able to do (for example, either when the local population has no resources of personnel to fall back on, or no inclination), in order to cope with the country's current needs.

Only think of the immigrants, often highly appreciated, who nurse the sick,
look after the elderly or the children of working mothers, or the professionals from the poorer countries who are recruited by the industrially developed countries for their own projects.

Then there are those who seek refuge in a foreign country after fleeing persecution or other threats to their lives and to their human dignity. And this raises a question: what should be the relationship between foreigners and the society of their arriving country?

We all have some reply and a certain amount of experience in this regard. We also know that the word "integration" sums up the answer, and that in many peoples' minds this concept is often synonymous with "assimilation".

In this sense, immigrants "integrate" by adapting to the local model of life and acquiring a certain resemblance to the local people, at times, as it were, forgetting their own cultural roots. It is generally younger immigrants who feel drawn to this type of "insertion".

Since the immigrant's cultural and human contribution is minimized, this means that assimilation in this sense is an impoverishment for the host society. Naturally, immigrants must take the necessary steps for social inclusion that the Message points out, "such as learning the national language, and complying with the laws and requirements at work, so as to avoid the occurrence of exasperated differentiation" (n. 1.).

This should be done, however, by developing the cultural inheritance that everyone brings and not by discarding it.

On the other hand, the opposite of assimilation can occur: contact with the new environment can heighten immigrants' awareness that, in their families and society of origin, their own particular identity was what gave life meaning.

This experience can lead them to seek company and security among those with the same national or cultural background. And if they do not succeed in gradually opening themselves to the broader social reality in which they live, they run the risk of forming a ghetto with the consequent marginalization.

Indeed, integration is not a one-way street that is the responsibility of the immigrant alone. It is also the responsibility of the host society to discover the "secret", as the Holy Father writes, of those of its members who represent other cultures; this leads to enrichment, and not only in the financial sense.

Integration also depends on the country the immigrant reaches.

Some countries have a policy of openness to other cultures and recognize the contribution of other cultures to their past and present development.

Others, however, are prepared to accept immigrants as manpower but are little concerned about their cultural contribution and limit their length of stay.

Then there are those that accept only the highly qualified and not the "inconvenient" foreigners such as refugees, for example. These restrictions can also drive immigrants to illegal activity, which may benefit the local economy but offers them almost no opportunities for integration into the country where they are working.

Cultural interaction via dialogue

True integration takes place when the interaction between immigrants and locals is not only financial but also cultural. Both parties must be willing to initiate a dialogue, for dialogue is the vehicle of integration.

Here the Christian community's mission comes into play. It is called to make its own contribution so that relations between indigenous people and foreigners may be marked by that "dialogue between people of different cultures in a context of pluralism that goes beyond mere tolerance and reaches liking" (n. 3).

The Catholic-Christian attitude to integration, in its true sense, is born in this context. It implies mutual esteem and sympathy, mutual appreciation and a cross-fertilization of cultures in a context of "true understanding and benevolence" (n. 3). It aims, with the help of all, "to shape societies and cultures, making them more and more a reflection of the multi-faceted gifts of God to human beings" (n. 1). This obviously goes far beyond assimilation.

Integration is therefore a long-term project that involves both migrants and locals in an "atmosphere of 'civic reasonableness' that permits friendly and serene coexistence" (n. 3). Recognition of the beneficial contribution that the presence of immigrants with their cultures and talents can make to the host society, encourages them to seek a high level of interaction with the society they have entered. It is then that healthy integration occurs.

Immigrants can thus develop their own social and cultural identity without the fear that they will lose It by adapting to the host society. Reciprocal enrichment is thereby brought about and society becomes a kaleidoscope where every culture falls into its place, composing from the multiplicity of cultures a single, ever more beautiful design.

Let us not forget here the missionary aspect of integration, both by the host country and by Christian immigrants. "Christians cannot give up proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to all creation (cf. Mk 16:15). Obviously, they must do so with respect for the conscience of others, always resorting to the method of charity, as St Paul had already recommended to the early Christians (cf. Eph 4:15)" (n. 3).

All believers are therefore called to be "morning watchmen" who are expected to discern in history the presence of God, "who wants to gather every nation and every language around
him" (cf. n. 4).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 January 2005, page 8

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