Diversity matters: people’s lives depend on it

When it comes to refugees and migrants, society’s tendency to generalise can be highly detrimental

It is not just for political correctness’s sake that we should avoid language that lumps together different people – the formal recognition of refugees saves lives
It is not just for political correctness’s sake that we should avoid language that lumps together different people – the formal recognition of refugees saves lives

Have you noticed? Conversations about migrants and asylum seekers often bring to mind a uniform mass of people, without names or faces, allegedly all with common traits. There is common disregard of the fact that people arrive in Malta for a range of reasons, with different needs, hailing from various individual backgrounds.

Perhaps this tendency to generalise reflects a wish to box in the migration issue, to define complex challenges in simple terms – and to seek equally simple solutions.

History has shown that societies all over the world have at times resorted to defining people’s value merely on the basis of origin or appearance, with the most tragic of consequences.

Of course one should not confuse stereotyping with racism; migrants and asylum seekers are not the only targets of simplistic rhetoric. Categorizations are commonly used to label groups of people, in Malta and elsewhere, who according to prevailing perceptions are all of the same ilk. Many of us tend to pigeonhole those who we do not know.

And this is my main point: when it comes to refugees and migrants, society’s tendency to generalise can be highly detrimental.

Refugees are not just another category of people on the move. Fleeing from persecution or war, they cannot return home in safety. It may sound like a cliché, but the hard reality is that it often is a matter of life and death. Today’s Syria is a case in point – one of catastrophic proportions.

This is why an asylum seeker’s access to safe territory, and protection against forcible return, are recognised and regulated in international law. A state may also allow any migrant to enter and remain in their territory, but this is ultimately at their discretion.

So it is not just for political correctness’s sake that we should avoid language that lumps together different people, whether they have entry documents or not.

The formal recognition of refugees saves lives, and provides opportunity for a new start when there is no alternative. The term ‘illegal migrant’, or other derogatory labels such as ‘klandestini’ or ‘suwed’, do blatant injustice to this important fact.

Words matter. The way migration and asylum issues are addressed by authorities, in the media and among the public has an impact on how society is able to offer protection to those who need it the most.

And let’s not forget the obvious: among migrants and refugees there are age, gender and diversity variations, just as in society at large – people who arrive in Malta have different strengths, beliefs and orientations. Some require our immediate support, while others are ready to contribute from day one through their skills and determination. One size does not fit all!

Not everyone will remain in Malta, but no doubt this country will benefit if more people among those granted asylum here are successful in engaging with Maltese society – in legal, economic and socio-cultural terms. Indeed, in her first address, Malta’s new President spoke with strong conviction about nurturing values of “respect and inclusivity, tolerance and diversity”.

Acknowledgment of this manifold reality has to be the starting point, not only for laws and policies that regulate the situation of migrants and asylum-seekers, but also for how broader society interacts with people arriving here.  In fact some of these people’s lives depend on it.

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