Speech Impediment: The Darkness Lurking Behind our Migration Governance Efforts, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Apr

Migraton II

The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us. Michel Foucault

A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim. Maya Angelou

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. … Every separation is a link.  Simone Weil

All of us with multiple settings and contexts for our lives understand that forms and contents of our communication tend to vary with our audience.   Few people taking the stage for a presentation use the same language that they would use in a conversation with a loved one or with a familiar shopkeeper.  We don’t often communicate the same around children as we do around those closer to our own demographic.  We don’t generally use the same language in our houses of worship as we do at sporting events. We don’t communicate the same on the streets of places like New York – filled largely with inattentive strangers – as we do back home around people who stake a different claim on the contents of our self-definitions.

Hopefully, it is context and not a will-to-deceive that lies at the heart of these linguistic variances.  In our best sense, we try to establish connection in part by sharing with people what we think they need or can tolerate to hear as a precondition for a deeper and hopefully more trustworthy transaction.  In this current age given to collecting trivial “data” about each other and over-sharing what we think others need to “know” about ourselves, there is perhaps even greater value in mastering the rhythms of transaction, of withdrawal and return, of discerning how best to connect to others, including those most troublesome to ourselves, through attentive and persistent practice.

In our communities of faith, the task is much the same: acquiring diverse tools and strategies to communicate with a range of “others,” trying and failing (and trying again) to establish or regain trust, providing a consistently more comprehensive narrative of meaning to replace the often-petty sound-bites that we seem so reluctant to abandon.  It is a challenge indeed to find the right formula to communicate successfully through the walls that divide us, including and especially walls of our own making. I know of few persons in and out of faith communities who are sufficiently skilled at this.

Of course, communications-related challenges abound in our large public institutions as well. One of the things that you have to get used to around the UN is the sight of diplomats articulating progressive norms – or at least contributing to discussions about such — while events back home in the countries these diplomats represent are sometimes tracking in a very different direction.

While there are certainly “unreasonable” things proposed at the UN – including many statements inside and outside of the Security Council that are less about clarifying policy truths and more about convincing those open to being convinced– the multilateral contexts of the UN suppress somewhat the degrees of aggressive and ethno-centric rhetoric now emanating from more and more global settings.  Statements by diplomats, as we have noted on other occasions, might be redundant and irrelevant, might disrespectfully neglect both established time limits and the obligation to listen to others, but they don’t generally offer rhetorically-direct challenges to core Charter values even if the behavior of states they represent or of a growing number of their constituents suggest something different.

One instance of the divisions between UN diplomacy and national practice was provided during this week’s discussions — kindly and effectively led by the Ambassadors of Mexico and Switzerland — towards a consensus draft of the Global Compact on Migration, a Compact that is being negotiated alongside its “partner” Compact on Refugees, and which represents a potentially important antidote to the chaotic basket of laws and protocols that at times do more to confuse and frighten people than provide predictable pathways to services, employment opportunities and community integration.

As delegations to these Compact discussions surely recognize, their often-“enriching” efforts come at a time when anti-migration sentiment seems to be growing in many parts of the world, including in areas of Central Europe which have spurred numerous news reports of highly-disturbing, public rhetoric promoting “ethnic purity” and in at least one instance disparaging persons co-occupying national territory as “ferocious humanoids.”

Inside the UN, there has thankfully been far less virulent blowback to a largely progressive, non-binding Compact that seeks to regularize migration in ways that work for migrants and for states involved in one or more segments of migration pathways.  Reproaches have largely taken the form of assertions of sovereign interest and have included requests for clarification regarding distinctions between migrants who “choose” to leave and those who do so “irregularly” based on considerations as broad and discouraging as climate impacts (as noted by Tuvalu) or the conflict “refugees” for whom settled international law already exists (if not adequately implemented). There have also been requests for better data on how migrants, in the words of the Compact draft, create economic benefits in both origin and destination states.

If only such benefits were clearer and sufficiently compelling for more people.  If only people like me who attend these meetings could do a better job of both communicating migration benefits and offering solidarity with and support to the growing number of skeptical people worldwide who are being asked to make way for newcomers while too many of the rest of us piously go about our all-too-regular business — bending the arc of what little remains of our global resource base to the benefit “of our own.”

In our policy bubbles and urban penthouses, it seems that some of us  have managed to convince ourselves that, regarding the acceptance and care of regular and irregular migrants, others should “take one for the team,” in too many cases a “team” that has thoroughly marginalized local interests and otherwise failed to honor the promises of a globalized order, a “team” thas has too often acquiesced to an “order” characterized by gross inequalities and equally gross (and mostly unpunished) lapses in judgment by more than a few who benefit most from current conditions.

There is no justification in this (or any other) time for the racist and hateful rhetoric to which we are now witness in settings from Warsaw to Virginia.  But neither is there justification for gas attacks on Syrian citizens, for starvation and siege tactics in Yemen, for snipers shooting unarmed civilians on the borders of Gaza.  Neither is their justification for vast concentrations of wealth and power that offer distractions rather than genuine participation in matters that affect community health and well-being.  While maintaining our lagely respectful and even constructive rhetoric in New York, we have been maddeningly idle as the UN Charter is sliced up by rich and powerful elements to suit their own appetites, persons who then hand the leftovers to “we the peoples” for whom the Charter meal was ostensibly and originally intended.

The UN Migration Agency IOM has rightly called migration governance “one of the most urgent and profound tests of international cooperation in our time.”  And they aptly point to the Compact on Migration as one key promise of effective global governance that can help to establish viable norms for enhancing migrant access and protecting migrant rights. Such rights include access to employment opportunities for adults and public services for children (as highlighted this week by Panama and others) and (as advocated by the Holy See) persons with disabilities. They also include transparent standards for and access to the remittances and pathways to family reunification essential to the well-being of both migrants and persons still residing in countries of origin.

But let’s be clear:  We are much closer to a negotiated Global Compact than we are to finding something closer to common ground with those many thousands marching around the world under banners of hate-filled rhetoric, banners that communicate disdain for our “liberal” priorities and institutions every bit as much as rejection of the “other.”  This represents a massive challenge to the values of many, including most all diplomats here in New York, but even more to the communications skills needed to dialogue effectively with that anger.

But if we are to truly and “profoundly” to cooperate on migration governance, if we truly want to support and maintain healthy flows of people in and out of our societies, then we must do more to identify and address the diverse community contexts and policy uncertainties identified in the Global Compact itself.  And that entails a stronger commitment to adjust our language – even if it means banging on dividing walls – to fulfill the hope articulated within the Global Compact draft, the hope that migration properly governed can truly “unite rather than divide us.”

For those of us for whom repulsion rushes to the surface at the news of yet another “hate rally,” communicating across divides of global policy and angry local marchers is likely to be the hardest bridge to cross. But if we don’t try, if we don’t extend hands of greater opportunity and responsibility, if we fail to use our leverage to recover the human face of both migrants and those determined to reject them, there might well come a time in our not-too-distant future when the walls around us grow so thick that no sound, no matter how wise or conciliatory, will be able to penetrate.


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