Migration and Religion
Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
based on a paper presented at the
World Conference on “Religions, Creeds and Value Systems:
Joining Forces to Enhance Equal Citizenship Rights”
Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, 25 June 2018
Panel on Equal Citizenship Rights and Vulnerable/Disadvantaged/Discriminated Social Segments:
Case Study of Migrants, Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons
As we address the complex issue of migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons, it is important to place migration in its proper context. The human race has always migrated, from the first migrations out of Africa, to the gradual colonization of all the inhabited places on Earth, even to the most remote Pacific islands. The great religions, too, have always spread by migration. Moses led the migration of the Hebrew people out of Egypt. Islam spread out of Arabia to Spain and Indonesia. National borders changed often in the past, and passports for travel are a very new phenomenon dating from only the last hundred years. Up until recently, great economies like that of America and Australia were largely built through the hard work of migrants, and even today, with many countries experiencing ageing populations and birthrates below replacement levels, their future will depend on migration. Migration therefore can be a positive phenomenon for receiving countries, even if it results from trauma for the migrants.
Two things have changed in recent years. A reaction against globalization, with the rise of nationalisms for political ends built on nativism and xenophobia, coupled with the revival of ancient tendencies to racism, have led to increasing divisions and social fragmentation, if not violent rejection of those who are different, even in places where peaceful coexistence had long been the rule. The resulting negative view of migration is quite recent. The original tendency of religion to accept and appreciate every human soul regardless of the outside form has unfortunately also too often been turned into an additional reason for rejection and discrimination. Religious intolerance and persecution are today a leading cause of forced displacement by denying equal citizenship rights on religious grounds.
Second, the rapid growth of the human population pressing against planetary limits and globalized with the support of new technologies is stressing if not seriously eroding the carrying capacity of the planet. There is no place left to migrate to that is not already well occupied. Furthermore, our environmental impacts, first among them accelerating climate change, are going to displace hundreds of millions of people in the decades ahead, forced permanently from their homes by rising sea levels, increasing drought, agricultural failures, violent storms and other catastrophes. In these situations, it is always the poor who have the fewest options. These displacements do not fall under the criteria for refugees, since they have no hope of returning once the cause of the displacement is removed. The most extreme case is that of the Small Island Developing States on low atolls that risk losing their entire national territory, and thus not only their homes and occupations but their culture and national identity, becoming citizens without a state.
All of this is in addition to the migrations and displacements caused by social and political factors, from war and violence to terrorism, failed states, and persecution of minorities, covered by the present refugee conventions. We must anticipate greatly increased flows of migrants.
The contribution of religions
From the perspective of our religions, creeds and value systems, this inevitable rise in migrations raises a series of issues, and potential solutions that we can offer.
First, from my perspective as both a scientist and a Bahá’í, our Earth has become one country with all humanity as its citizens. Every human being is a trust of the whole, to be treated with respect, dignity and solidarity. All forms of prejudice, whether racial, political, religious, of gender or other differences need to be abolished. Extremes of wealth and poverty have no place in a world where there is enough wealth to meet everyone’s needs if distributed more equitably. An economic system therefore needs to be devised that is socially just, altruistic and cooperative, creates meaningful employment for all, and eliminates poverty, starting at the community level.
All this applies equally to migrants. In Paris in 1911, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, talked about our duty of kindness and sympathy towards strangers:
“Let not conventionality cause you to seem cold and unsympathetic when you meet strange people from other countries. Do not look at them as though you suspected them of being evildoers, thieves and boors. You think it necessary to be very careful, not to expose yourselves to the risk of making acquaintance with such, possibly, undesirable people. I ask you not to think only of yourselves. Be kind to the strangers, whether come they from Turkey, Japan, Persia, Russia, China or any other country in the world. Help to make them feel at home; find out where they are staying, ask if you may render them any service; try to make their lives a little happier. In this way, even if, sometimes, what you at first suspected should be true, still go out of your way to be kind to them—this kindness will help them to become better.”
In all our religious traditions, we can find similar expressions of the values we should apply to the vulnerable, disadvantaged and discriminated groups in our society. The wonderful response of our faith traditions to climate change, as demonstrated by the Pope’s Encyclical Laudato Si’, the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, and similar initiatives from other faiths, shows what is possible. The migration crisis gives us the opportunity to take similar initiatives for those now being displaced on a massive scale, where the human dimension and dramatic suffering are even more obvious. We should be at the forefront of positive responses to this crisis.
Second, many human rights violations today are against migrants, and illegal migrants are often denied even the most fundamental human rights protections. The label “illegal” from the simple fact of crossing a border withdraws their right to exist as human beings, and is thrown up as a barrier to defend a “national interest”. Even those who are legally in another country face discrimination. At the 2010 Human Rights Council Social Forum on Climate Change and Human Rights, the International Environment Forum raised the need to extend concern beyond those migrants who are victims of climate-induced violations of their human rights, to focus on the education of receiving communities. All the great religions have traditions of welcoming guests. The spiritual nature of human beings is the same regardless of race, colour or creed. Also, we are all, through our lifestyles, part of the cause of climate change and environmental degradation, and have a duty of solidarity to those who are its victims. By educating those in the communities receiving migrants to have sympathy for their plight and a sense of responsibility towards them, welcoming them and assisting in their settlement, many human rights violations could be avoided. Faith-based organizations are well placed to take a lead in these efforts.
Third, since environmentally-induced migrations can be anticipated, they should be planned for and well organized, not waiting until a natural disaster or catastrophe forces the displacement in great misery and suffering. This also means determining where such migrants could best be settled where adequate resources are available, and perhaps with a situation and climate not too different from what they have known. Where whole communities are displaced, it should be possible for them to migrate as a unit, keeping families together and retaining as much as possible of their social capital. Globally, this could be a responsibility of an appropriate United Nations agency, but this should not stop our religious communities from assisting with positive responses at our own level.
Then there is the issue of assimilation or cultural preservation. Should migrants be forced to abandon their culture, traditions and faith and assimilate completely into the receiving community? Should they be allowed to cluster in their own in-group, maintaining their differences in a kind of cultural ghetto? Neither extreme is desirable. If the receiving community is welcoming and offers all the necessary opportunities for education, employment and participation, each migrant can choose the balance they feel comfortable with. Ideally they should see the culture and faith that they bring with them as enriching the diversity in their new community, something to offer on equal terms as they also receive new perspectives from the community they have joined. Children can share the richness of multiple heritages, and young people, as they intermarry, will pass this human richness to their offspring. Learning diverse languages as infants has been shown to increase intelligence.
Finally, given what we now know about the changes coming in the world, not to mention other potential crises and catastrophes that past experience suggests could well be on the horizon, we could all find ourselves as migrants, refugees or displaced persons. The golden rule of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us certainly applies.
Last updated 4 July 2018