International Migrants Day 2019: Beyond Heroism

by Milburne Line, Shared Societies Content Coordinator

Once again a migrant hero has come to our attention. Last week, In Dénia, Spain, a Senegalese street vendor, Gorgui Lamine Sow, climbed into the second story of a burning building to rescue a resident, carrying him out on his back. A petition is circulating advocating for him to be granted Spanish residency. One immediately remembers the Malian migrant, Mamoudou Gassama, who received French citizenship a few years ago for scaling the façade of a building to save an exposed child from a fourth-floor balcony.

While accolades for these selfless acts of humanity are certainly in order, merely rewarding a snapshot of altruism misses the bigger lesson and, more importantly, the opportunity for our shared future.

For millions of years, our ancestors migrated in search of sustenance, starting from Africa and populating the globe. Wandering hunter-gatherer groups developed technology, discovered agriculture and built the distinct cultures we have inherited today. Living in self-protecting groups, they also created patterns of exclusionary social behavior which have evolved into modern phenomena ranging from local criminal gangs to citizenship in the nation-state system.

Migration is our heritage. And so is xenophobia.

Yet sometimes the example of one person can shatter that layer of distance from the other. Who is not inspired by the immediacy of risking your life, however humble, to save another? But what about those that surround us every day making our lives richer, both materially and culturally?

This Wednesday, December 18, is International Migrants Day.  It is an opportunity to notice, explore and celebrate so many people with whom we interact every day who came from somewhere else, even if they remain in the shadows of the kitchen, hidden on a rural farm or in the back of the store.

Beyond individual acts of heroism like those of Mr. Sow and Mr. Gassama, and the smiling people in your very own neighborhood, it’s also important to celebrate the shared societies that have given us so many benefits of modern civilization and are our best bet for transcending the challenges of the 21st century.

Mounting social science evidence demonstrates that migrants strengthen our economies and the benefits of investing in social inclusion of new groups outweigh those of keeping them on the margins.  At the Club of Madrid, the world’s largest association of more than 100 democratic former Heads of State and Government, we have challenged national governments for over a decade to implement commitments to Shared Societies that ensure that all individuals and groups can contribute to their communities. Migrants are already doing so, even if unrecognized or unheralded except during exceptional circumstances.   

Right now in the Americas, 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled their communities, entering into an uncertain world of vulnerability, seeking respite from desperate conditions at home. Children continue to flee the violence and poverty of Central America to be separated from their families in detention on the U.S. border.

Beyond the region, migration is a global challenge and requires international strategies and cooperation. The best hope for adequate global response is to implement the standards of the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, led by the International Organization for Migration. The United Nations General Assembly endorsed the non-binding Global Compact just a year ago on 19 December 2018. 152 countries voted in favor. Unfortunately, the United States was not one of them. 

The Global Compact on Migration delineates the shared responsibilities of governments to maximize the benefits of migration, which is critical for the sustainable development of our societies and reduce the risks to migrants and host countries. It calls for the full implementation of the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and other measures to minimize the adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin.

Commenting on his noble deed, Mr. Sow was reported to have said, “I did what my heart told me to do. I have nothing, but I am strong and I can help, I don’t like to see people suffer.”

Who is not touched by the nobility of undertaking such risk for another human being?

Or cannot recognize themselves in the plight of a family far from home?

This Wednesday, on International Migrants Day, we invite you to reach out, befriend and appreciate some of those migrants you encounter each day who may have journeyed more recently than you and your family did in the past.

The rest of the year, we must commit to building a global response that protects the dignity and promotes the social inclusion of the 272 million migrants world-wide, 38 million of which are children and 32 million of which are elderly, who continue to face precarious circumstances and warrant our respect and support.