Why do people hate the poor? Why do people find so many reasons to put down and degrade the most unfortunate and woe-begone among us?
Think of what you hear about the very poor, in particular migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers. They are “dirty”, “smelly”, or even “rapists”, “thieves” and “animals”. Those are the very words I’ve heard recently in reference to immigrants and refugees in Malaysia, Europe and the United States. Racial prejudice partly explains the intolerance, but not entirely – how come we fawn over rich expats?
The US President himself, Donald Trump, recently described migrants as “animals”. And people crossing US borders do seem to be treated like animals, locked up in steel cages and torn away from their children, even toddlers and infants.
Last week, a heartbreaking recording of pitiful young voices crying for “Mami” and “Papa” at a US immigration facility provoked outrage. “Blanket detention” of asylum seekers, who may well be traumatised, also goes against international law.
Trump bemoaned migrants “infesting” the country. Wait, infest? That classifies people akin to insects, pests, vermin – who presumably need to be controlled or exterminated? It is very disturbing for human beings to be referred to this way. And ironic in a country of immigrants.
Before we get on our high horse, our own record isn’t exactly stellar. We have not been entirely welcoming to Rohingya refugees. And remember the “death camps” discovered at the Thai border in 2015?
That migrant workers get short shrift here was evident in the comments on Facebook to The Star’s story last Monday on poor living conditions of migrant workers in Butterworth. (“Foreign workers found living in poor conditions”, The Star, June 18; online at tinyurl.com/star-workers.)
The story was actually about an inspection by Federal Labour Department officers, who found the workers’ employer guilty of some violations, including issues with wages and accommodation, which are common violations.
Evidently, if foreigners are brought here to work, employers must comply with all relevant laws. The government should come down hard on employers who don’t comply. So, this isn’t an issue with workers, right?
Yet many readers targeted the workers in their comments. Some readers were vehemently against helping them rather than locals, others screamed “send them back”. A woman who argued all should be accorded dignity was disparaged nastily.
There was even ugly vitriol about the workers being smelly and dirty. It’s about “attitude”, said one reader. No, it’s not – aside from your attitude! It’s about poverty and circumstance.
So often we look at the poor with judgment, as if their situation is their fault when, in fact, the reality shows otherwise.
We need to get a few facts straight.
First, people don’t choose poverty. There is no guaranteed magic wand of meritocracy that unfailingly lifts people out of poverty. In fact, the system is often stacked against them, while the reverse is true for the elite.
Second, migrant workers are a critical part of the economy, particularly in the construction and plantation industries in Malaysia, and in some households and restaurants.
It’s the same in the United States, where 5% of the national workforce is undocumented – a figure that rises to 26% in agriculture, according to the Pew Research Centre, a nonpartisan American fact tank.
Whether we have too many migrants here is another issue, which our government is trying to work out. But we should recognise the contribution of those currently here. They often do arduous and even dangerous work that locals won’t do.
Third, the movement of people describes the history of mankind. It’s been happening since the first humans left Africa. We are all, arguably, migrants.
Since 1960, about 3% of the world’s population have been international migrants, a Dutch sociologist says. But now, migration is tightly controlled.
Last year, a record 68 million people had to flee their homes due to war, violence and persecution, but only 100,000 were successfully resettled, the United Nations reported on Wednesday. Most came from a handful of countries, notably Afghanistan, Myanmar, Palestine and Syria.
Clearly, we need better efforts – including collective agreements – to handle this influx, as well as concerted efforts to build peace in these countries. Asean’s non-interference policy is not helping the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.
Fourth, many countries can afford to take their share of refugees, but few have followed Germany’s lead. The United States reportedly only accepted 11 Syrian refugees in the first four months of this year (according to US National Public Radio, npr.org).
Finally, the world is inching towards greater equality, which is beneficial for many reasons, including the economy and security. Plus, it’s not morally right that people should be born into and condemned to misery. Every human being deserves a fair chance at life. Who wants to go back to the feudal age?
Last Wednesday was World Refugee Day. Put yourself in the shoes of refugees. Some have fled horrific circumstances and suffered harrowing journeys. It is simply unconscionable that we turn our backs on them. They need a world that offers hope and humanity. Don’t we all?
Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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