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HomeFeaturesSpeaking of Migration

Speaking of Migration

A recent linguistic discovery prompts Daniel Ward to ask that we reexamine our attitudes to migration.

The recent discovery that Japanese, Korean, and even Turkish all evolved from language spoken by millet farmers just 9,000 years ago in what is now northeast China (see World, p. 16) demonstrates not only how advances in science can enable us to pinpoint migratory flows of people but also how migration has always been natural human behavior, long before it was even considered a right or a privilege. All of which makes the increasingly hostile attitudes and policies toward migrants, and especially refugees, seem even more inhumane. I’d go so far as to say barbaric, but the Barbarians themselves were immigrants often blamed for upsetting the status quo.

At a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, where thousands of refugees from the so-called cradle of civilization in Iraq sit in limbo, the Pope has called the migrant situation a “shipwreck of civilization.” Further north on the Belarusian border with European Union (EU) countries Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, migrants have been used as pawns in a diplomatic war between the EU and Belarus, which could have been defused had the European bloc stood behind the principles on which it was founded. Instead, anti-immigrant positions have become entrenched in many member countries, including Austria, Hungary, and France, where an extreme-right-wing radio host whose comments on immigration verge on the criminal is the latest candidate for president of the republic.

Post-Brexit UK has even resorted to paying French security forces to block refugees from entering its waters—a policy which failed tragically when a small boat sank last month, drowning at least 27 people, after which British prime minister Boris Johnson had the audacity to make public a letter sent to President Macron asking that France take back migrants who had successfully crossed the Channel into the UK.

Here in the US, despite Lady Liberty’s pledge to welcome the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” from “ancient lands,” President Biden is set to restore and even expand the “Remain in Mexico” policy of dumping asylum seekers in dangerous, unsanitary encampments on the other side of the border where they can be kept out of sight for months, with little access to legal assistance, until their cases are heard.

A federal court in Texas ordered the administration to continue forcing migrants to wait in Mexico until it expands its capacity to detain migrants in the US. However, Biden is not just reinstating the policy; he’s extending it to cover non-Spanish speakers from Western Hemisphere countries, including speakers of Indigenous American languages and Creole, like Haitians. Somewhat absurdly, non-Spanish speakers, with the exception of Brazilians, were not previously subject to the program, on the presumption that they would have difficulty finding work in Mexico and would have no realistic means of sustaining themselves while pursuing their asylum claims in the US.

We think of the global village as a relatively modern concept and it may be only recently that we’ve recognized that shared global challenges, like the pandemic and climate change, unite us, so it’s good to be reminded that all of us share a history of migration, no matter our nationality, race, creed, color, or language. Refugees and other migrants should be welcomed and given the tools to turn their journeys into success stories.

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