‘Shocking’ political rhetoric on refugees aims to poison debate, UN official warns

Special representative Louise Arbour attacks politicians’ anti-migrant language and lack of awareness on issues such as remittances, worth $429bn in 2016

The language used to describe people caught up in the migration crisis has been attacked by a special representative of the UN as “deliberately invidious” and aimed at poisoning public debate.

Using terms such as “illegal” rather than “irregular” migrants, or “hordes, waves and swarms” rather than simply “large numbers”, conveniently obscures the vulnerabilities that come from being a foreigner, said Louise Arbour, the UN secretary general’s special representative for international migration.

Giving a speech at the Overseas Development Institute in London, before member state negotiations on the first global compact on migration, Arbour said it was “quite shocking to see how use of language in an invidious way has poisoned the debate”.

British politicians were accused of using racist language about migrants and migration during last year’s referendum on leaving the EU, while former prime minister David Cameron provoked international condemnation when he described migrants in Calais as a “swarm”.

In the US, Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has gone even further. Two years ago, he claimed Mexican immigrants were rapists, drug dealers and criminals, a view recently countered by the acting director on immigration and customs, Thomas Homan, who said undocumented immigrants do not commit more crimes than native-born Americans.

Arbour, a former UN high commissioner for human rights and former chief prosecutor of war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, said she believed 2017 had brought the “beginning of a change of narrative” on migration. “In this field, as in many others nowadays, reality is much better than perception,” she said.

But she criticised “political decision-makers” who were “not particularly well informed” about important, positive aspects of migration, in particular remittances sent home by migrants working overseas. Remittances compete with foreign aid as one of the largest financial inflows to developing countries.

“Outside informed circles … knowledge about the impact of remittances, for instance, is often limited,” she said.

Politicians often did not know that remittances amounted to more than 20% of GDP in some countries, she said. Neither did they know that in 2016, migrants contributed $429bn (£325bn) in remittances to developing countries – a sum that represented more than three times the total official development assistance.

They often had no idea, she went on, that the cost of money transfers could be reduced from 7.5% to 3%, that the UN had promised to achieve that, or what the impact would be of such an achievement on developing countries.

“This is something that political decision-makers should be right on top of,” she said. “But I believe this is now starting to be good news. Because this reality, among others, brings the conversations about migration to much better place. In making sound policy, the foundations have to be fact, not perception, fiction myths and stereotypes.

“Migration is here to stay and, in absolute numbers, it’s here to grow – and it has to be in everybody’s interest that human mobility is better managed than it is today.”

Negotiations on the global compact on safe, regular and orderly migration, one of two compacts agreed by member states as part of the New York declaration in 2016, will start early next year, and should be agreed by July. It is set to be adopted an intergovernmental conference in December 2018.

Source: The Guardian

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