This week is National Welcoming Week in the United States. National Welcoming Week is a series of local events in towns and cities across the U.S. intended to highlight the contributions of immigrants and refugees to communities, build bridges among diverse local residents, and spur local policy on inclusion. This growing message of welcome isn’t confined to the U.S. In many immigrant and refugee-receiving countries, local and national manifestations of welcome and inclusion are growing stronger. Although broader discourse may fleetingly fixate on processes of human migration as a “crisis”, often overlooked are the stories of people coming together to find common ground. For instance, the news cycle has lately featured stories from Europe’s ongoing experience with migrants and refugees. While the media may currently be shining a stronger spotlight on recent of people journeying to Europe, such stories have been ongoing as people seek escape from desperation and disruption.
Recent news headlines shape the discourse about current migration to Europe. For starters, many organizations are calling this a “migrant” crisis, while others describe the current events as a “refugee” crisis. Consider these examples from recent days:
- “From Hungary to Germany, migrant crisis is taking its toll on Europe” – CNN International, September 1, 2015
- “Europe migrant crisis: Rifts between European countries exposed by asylum seeker dilemma” – Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 2, 2015
- “Squalid migrant city rises in Budapest as Europe seeks solutions” – New York Times, September 2, 2015
- “European railways become ground zero for the migrant crisis” – Washington Post, September 2, 2015
- “EU faces migrant crisis of ‘biblical proportions’ as Germany registers 3,500 new refugees in just one day” – The Telegraph, September 1, 2015
Yet, there is a difference between “migrant” and “refugee,” as my colleague Lali Foster recently argued. In different contexts, the use of either can shape the trajectory of broader perspectives on the issue. As Jim Hathaway, the director of the University of Michigan’s program in refugee and asylum law, explained to American Public Media’s Marketplace, “In simplistic terms, the difference is between push and pull. Life is never quite that simple, but a migrant is someone who chooses to move, rather than literally forced to move.” Bill Frelick, with Human Rights Watch, notes that two-thirds of new arrivals to Europe are from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea—each a “refugee producing state” due to war and human rights abuses. Additionally, Frelick explains that “economic migrants” may also have strong reasons—such as famine, poverty, or climate change—for seeking asylum in Europe: “There certainly will be and are people who are in the mix who are economic migrants, fleeing some very telling situations of poverty, but who do not have a claim for international protection under the Refugee Convention [created in 1951 after the wake of World War II] and the other ‘instruments,’ as they’re called, for protecting people and not sending them back to their home countries.”
But as journalist and immigration attorney Lolita Brayman explains, both terms—migrant and refugee—carry potentially negative connotations. The term refugee “evokes sympathy and portrays people as victims of circumstances out of their control. From the perspective of an arrival country’s population, as is the case in much of Europe, it follows that this group of people is likely to become a public charge. Economic migrants, on the other hand, are viewed as people who could potentially contribute to society with their skills and motivations to work. Although racial and ethnic stereotypes often intensify reactions, migrants are perceived to be more of a nuisance while refugees, a burden.” Ultimately, she states that
“people do not fall neatly into the categories of ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant,’ ‘forced’ or ‘voluntary.’ People move based on diverse and converging factors that often combine economic opportunity and political motivations…There is nothing inherently wrong with either migrant or refugee labels, but the media has placed too much emphasis on the legal and social dimensions between them. The reverse terminology trend of using a catch-all refugee description just highlights a population’s vulnerability and is not an efficient way to ensure aid. The focus should instead be on the set of criteria that, if met, qualifies an individual for asylum, regardless of one’s label. We can start by underscoring humanized commonalities between all groups—migrants and refugees are all people in search of a better life.”
Brayman’s final point has struck a chord with some individuals in different receiving communities across Europe. In many ways, individuals, organizations, and communities in Europe and elsewhere are constructing a welcoming and receptive message. Despite the countless stories about the potential impacts of Europe’s “migrant” or “refugee” crisis, there has been relatively little reporting on these efforts. As is the case in other immigrant and refugee receiving countries, such as the United States and Canada, there are many examples of individuals, organizations, and government entities cultivating a message of welcome in part in an effort to strengthen immigrant and refugee integration. Consider the following recent European examples:
- “Germans welcome migrants and refugees with donations of food, clothing and toys” – International Business Times, September 1, 2015
- “Some Hungarians aid migrants waiting outside Budapest train station” – National Public Radio, September 2, 2015
- “Still more Icelandic towns want asylum seekers” – Reykjavik Grapevine, August 27, 2015
- “Iceland sees surge in public support for more asylum seekers” – Reykjavik Grapevine, August 30, 2015
- “Making refugees welcome: Citizens of Germany, Iceland show the way” – CNN, September 2, 2015
- “Why Germany Welcomes Refugees” – Bloomberg View, September 9, 2015
The above are examples of what local individuals and communities are doing to indicate welcome and receptivity to migrants and refugees. Even at the national level in Germany, German Chancellor Angela Merkel signaled support amid the broader negative dialogue, recently saying that “if Europe fails on the question of refugees, if this close link with universal civil rights is broken, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.” She also condemned recent xenophobic attacks against migrants and fear-mongering about the issue.
From the local to the national, initiatives have been gaining ground to construct a positive receptivity for newcomers and to strengthen processes of immigrant and refugee integration. Toronto-based Cities of Migration catalogues many local “good ideas in immigrant integration” occurring in a variety of immigrant-receiving countries. The Migration Policy Institute has published in-depth research and analysis on how cities and regions that are receptive to immigrants can reap a variety of local dividends. And in the U.S., Welcoming America is leading a growing network of cities and counties working to cultivate communities of welcome and inclusion. This month, for example, from September 12-20, initiatives across the U.S. are hosting National Welcoming Week. This series of many local events highlights the contributions of immigrants to communities and brings together immigrants and U.S.-born community members in a spirit of unity.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that National Welcoming Week is occurring amid a historic moment on migration for the U.S. and Europe. As Welcoming American describes, “As Europe and the US debate migration, communities small and large, rural and urban, are moving full steam ahead to welcome immigrants and expand prosperity during National Welcoming Week…Over 200 events in 33 states will honor immigrant contributions, build bridges among diverse local residents, and spur local policy on inclusion.” Furthermore, Welcoming America’s Executive Director, David Lubell, explained that “despite the divisive rhetoric of a few, this week is further evidence of the overwhelming desire of our country to be welcoming to New Americans. We are inspired by the growing global movement of welcomers and the continued momentum of civic leaders in the U.S. who recognize that our communities are stronger and more prosperous when they are welcoming.” Steve Tobocman, director of Global Detroit and the Welcoming Economies (WE) Global Network, described the economic boost immigrants and refugees bring: “No doubt there are complex geo-political issues that need to be carefully considered in resolving the Syrian, other Middle Eastern, and African refugee crises, but one aspect that should not be in dispute is the local economic benefits to economies like Metro Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Germany. Refugees bring new energy, resourcefulness, and an eagerness to pursue freedom and opportunity.”
Undoubtedly, there are opportunities for individuals and organizations internationally to learn from one another about the challenges, opportunities, and best practices of welcome, inclusion, and receptivity. These efforts should not be discouraged by the broader discourse which, as is the case with many issues, tends to focus on the negative rather than on the human good that often emerges amid events sparked by tragic circumstances.