Recently, I discussed migration issues in a few articles, in particular with reference to Europe. In today’s article, I shall take up some issues that shed light on vocabulary, administration and politics, and I shall underline how important the use of language is in not alienating migrants or labelling them “the other.” As always, anecdotes will shed light on issues; this time about strangers, acquaintances and friends.

The field of migration is vast, with large movements of people all over the world, historically and at present. At any given time, many people move, travel and settle in places other than where they were born, within their countries or across borders.

At the same time, most people do not move at all; or do so only temporarily over short distances. Many seek greener pastures abroad, as foreign workers and immigrants. Millions of Pakistanis for example, send home important remittances to their families and homeland. Some who travel are forced migrants, notably refugees fleeing manmade conflicts and wars or natural disasters. Thousands of people are trafficked and smuggled, desperate to settle away from home, hoping for better lives; alas, often in vain.

In the future, more people will move due to climate changes and environmental degradation where they live. As the world becomes more urban, people will be forced to move when large old and new cities expand. Agriculture and food production will also change in the decades ahead, becoming more efficient and technologically advanced. Again, this will influence settlements and migration.

When I consider the field of migration studies, and in particular practical migration administration and practices, I often find that we have not defined properly the concepts and terms that we use. And sometimes, to use common vocabulary is a hindrance in understanding people’s daily lives and their struggles to improve them. For example, a European immigrant’s success can be hindered by being labeled an immigrant, especially if the term is used over a long time (some times they are used over several generations). The term ‘refugee’ is equally or more problematic. We must be careful placing newcomers in sub-groups that make them look more like second-class citizens rather than equal members of their new homes.

In Europe, there are currently restrictions on migration from outside the European Union. Since the economies are not growing, (at least not as fast as before), and there is serious unemployment in many countries, such as Spain and Greece, people accept that fewer labour migrants, immigrants and refugees are allowed to enter. But it is also likely that ageing European populations in a few decades, or sooner, will need important labour from abroad. The current policies, political vocabulary and slogans, not only from the right wing parties but also the mainstream political establishment, are not helpful in making newcomers feel welcome and included.

Vocabulary and administrative practices lead to negative attitudes towards newcomers, especially if they come from afar and appear different to indigenous populations. In Europe – like in America – we will soon be unable to use physical appearance as an indicator of belonging. In Norway, for example, where there is a large community of Pakistani immigrants, a ‘Pakistani-looking’ citizen is already as Norwegian as a blond ‘home grown’ citizen. The newcomers’ Norwegian family histories may be relatively short, (just dating back to the 1960’s or 70’s), but they have already grown roots and most of them do well.

I am sure that very soon, Pakistani-Norwegians will resent that they are termed ‘Pakistani-Norwegians’ and demand that they should be known only as Norwegians. I hope though, that they will still take pride in their ancestors’ land. I believe that America has been much better than Europe in making newcomers feel like equal members of their societies (with some setbacks after 9/11).

 It is essential that when people move from one place to another they are welcomed and included wherever they settle. It is important that the authorities put in place administration and support that helps the newcomers fit in, and avoids any negative effects on existing populations. When refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) arrive and stay for long, it is indeed important that the host communities are assisted along with the newcomers. In Pakistan, I believe that much more should have been done for the Pakistani host communities where Afghan refugees stay – and in Europe, too, efforts should be made in turning over the opinion that immigrants and refugees “take away” jobs from the locals.

If policies are good and fair for all, I believe that people all over the world will accept newcomers and would like them to live fulfilled lives. People generally feel empathy with the difficulties that newcomers face, whether they are refugees, economic migrants or have moved away from home for other reasons. If tensions and discrimination develop between different groups, it is usually because the government has not done its work well – or is placing the blame on newcomers for shortcomings in its own policies. Also, the way newcomers enrich host communities should be given attention.

At the same time, there will be some ‘natural’ suspicion and tension between groups who do not know each other. A Canadian friend recently told me that when he and his wife moved to Greece, they won a big lottery prize. Following this, some people grumbled about foreigners, (‘xeni,’ equivalent to ‘gora’), going off with their money. But then somebody else was quick to say that David and Susan were not ‘xeni’; that they were their acquaintances and friends, living in the nearby fishing village of St. Luke.

‘Tribal adoption,’ as my friend called it, is based on mutual curiosity and respect, and a common responsibility for each other. And if the newcomers want to stay different in certain ways without keeping away from the hosts, that is also understood and appreciated. Integration doesn’t exclude diversity. Multiculturalism enriches our societies. That is also why a country such as Canada, with a high number of immigrants, is officially and legally a multicultural country. People should be part of the society and land they live in, but they should also have the right to practice their own religions and cultural traditions, and so on. Indigenous groups too should be encouraged to emphasize their specific backgrounds, history, opinions and so on.

This leads me to conclude that if there is tension between newcomers and the indigenous inhabitants in any area, then there is not enough communication between the groups. The government and opinion leaders must take the lead and set the tone and framework for the debate and ways of living together. Then we will discover that strangers can become good acquaintances and indeed good friends. It may take some time and it will take some work but surely, in the end we wouldn’t have it otherwise.

When I attended a language course in London in the late 1960’s, a teacher said she would feel very strange indeed if everybody in the city looked ‘traditionally English.’ She cherished the multicultural rainbow colours of the mega city. People should ‘live and let live,’ she used to say. Because at the end of the day, we’re all really quite similar after all.

 The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.

Email:atlehetland@yahoo.com