The Role of Parliamentarians in Global Migration

Commentary | April 05, 2013

The following are adapted remarks offered by EWI Program Coordinator Agnes Venema as part of a round table discussion at the 19th Casablanca Book Fair. Venema offered remarks on the subject of "Migration, Identities and Foreign Relations."

I would first of all like to thank the organizers of this event, CCME (Council for Moroccans Abroad), for providing me with the opportunity to speak here about such a current topic. Having recently emigrated myself – albeit within the European Union - and working in the field of international relations, I feel today’s topic of ‘Migration, Identity and Foreign Relations’ is close at heart.

But allow me first to say a couple of things about my work, so as to give a background to the discussion points I would like to raise. I am the Program Coordinator for the Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention. This Network celebrates its 5th anniversary this year, as it was launched at the European Parliament in 2008 by the EastWest Institute upon the recommendation of a high-level task force. This task force existed of seasoned diplomats and politicians, who are convinced that parliamentarians are in a unique position to not only identify the early warning signs of civil unrest and looming conflict, but that they are also capable of acting upon such early warning and respond with preventative measures.

So today we have a network of nearly 100 parliamentarians from all over the world dedicated to prevent conflict. Conflict in the traditional military or armed sense, but the network also tackles more contemporary sources of conflict, such as access to water, food and energy, as well as issues of cyber crime. And although many of these sources of conflict are addressed by parliaments individually, bringing parliamentarians together to force joint strategies is often times more effective, given the fact that these threats will not stop at any country’s border. This is the reality of globalization in which we live; we cross borders for work, we travel for pleasure, and our governments increasingly need to look outwards for partners to cooperate with. New cultures and countries are only but a click away.

But how do we make sure that in this interconnected world, we stay true to our culture and values? This can be a particular challenge for people emigrating. The new culture in which they will be absorbed might not seem welcoming and it might be difficult to overcome the language barrier. It is therefore very positive that organizations such as CCME exist in order to assist those who have moved abroad, as a focal point, ensuring they have a voice as well.

In my professional capacity, I meet parliamentarians on a daily basis and some of them worry about the amount of immigrants their country is taking up. They worry about the fact that large scale migration might change their culture and some might blame domestic issues, such as unemployment, on the immigrants. Yet other countries struggle with actively engaging immigrant communities, because they live secluded by their own traditions, hardly interacting with the host country’s culture. Many large cities have a China town, where the Chinese population lives in relative solitude, protecting values and customs from outside influences. Many of these countries struggle with being able to provide the immigrant communities with a sense of belonging. Most of these problems can be overcome, for example by providing language courses which also touch upon cultural aspects of the host society. Religious and cultural organizations, or indeed organizations such as CMEE, can also play a key role in fostering understanding and can act as a focal point for authorities to approach. The goal is to create social conditions in which people from different background can live together in harmony and enjoy their fundamental freedoms.

We encounter potential dangerous conflict when either group wishes to force their identity upon the other group, demanding assimilation. In the aforementioned scenarios dialogue might overcome misunderstanding and misinterpretations. When the host or the immigrating community insist upon the assimilation of the other is when we experience conflict. Insistence of the host community might lead to even more seclusion by the immigrant population and can lead to a strengthening of their native identity, even radicalization in extreme cases. Insisting on assimilation of the host community to accept norms and standards of the immigration community might lead to discrimination and that crimes based upon the notion that the immigrants are intruders out to destroy the values of the host community.

We believe parliamentarians have a key role to play in ensuring that the debate is taking place. Not discussing problems arising from migration does not solve any problems, but it makes them fester in society until there is a – usually violent – eruption of the build up pressure this has caused. In both the host country of the immigrant, as well as the home country parliamentarians can hold open dialogue and engage with parliamentarians on the other side of this dialogue to help foster understanding.

But also the migrating communities themselves have a large role to play when it comes to parliament. Immigrant communities with a strong sense of identity have in the past successfully lobbied parliamentarians for recognition of their particular problems. And in countries where we speak of ‘second or third generation’ immigrants – a group which often feels disenfranchised with links both (or neither) to the host county’s culture and that of the country of origin of the previous generation(s) – it is key to have political participation by the immigrant communities. As they often have grown up in the host community, we need to encourage them to vote, elect officials who advocate their cause within the host community’s culture and eventually elect role models of these groups as elected officials.

A good example of such integration where the cultural identity has not been lost is that of the Indian community, the Sikhs, in the United Kingdom. This community at first was viewed upon as foreign and almost as one encroaching upon British culture, although India had been a dominated by the British empire. By now, however, the British parliament has an ‘All Party Parliamentary Group for British Sikhs,' which deals with issues relevant to the Sikh community. That does not mean that all problems have been solved and everyone in the British society is just peacefully living next to one another. 2011 saw the first Sikh Member of Parliament wearing a traditional turban in parliament. The Sikh community found this ‘too little, too late’ whilst for many British this was already going out on a limb to give a cultural minority the right to display a religious symbol in parliament. Many European countries share this rigid separation between religion and State. Only in recent years have European societies come to accept that immigrant communities have become such an inherent part of their national identity that allowances should be made for their traditional garments. This is not something which can be changed with one single generation of immigrants though; it takes decades for such change to be broadly supported by and indeed incorporated into the culture of the host community.

I feel it is my duty, however, to point out that this is not an issue dealt with merely in Western Europe, as we sometimes are inclined to think. Let me cite another example: In Turkey the separation between religion and State may be even stricter than in some Western European countries. In 2011 it was the APK party of the current Prime Minister Erdogan who placed a female candidate on its list for the district of Antalya who was known to wear a headscarf. Now, the APK knew that the candidate in question had no chance of winning in this district, thereby preventing a full-blown parliamentary crisis, but it still caused quite the commotion. This goes to show that whilst our discussions mostly focus on Moroccans abroad and that the majority of those who emigrate to (Western) Europe, these are not issues unique for this relationship between Moroccan immigrants and European host communities.

I will leave it at that for now, but I would be delighted to continue the discussion after the interventions of the other most honorable speakers on the panel and I would welcome any questions there might be afterwards.

Thank you.

EWI's Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention mobilizes members in parliaments across the globe to find pioneering ways to prevent and end conflicts