Thursday, January 20, 2011

Confronting the Xenophobes

One of the unfortunate realities of our modern era is that when the going gets tough in countries, some of us descend into the blame game finding convenient scapegoats to “explain” the problem and thereby also pointing to the elements of the solution. Whether it was the diatribes of England's Enoch Powell, the pernicious pugilism of France's Jean Marie Le Pen or the strident hypocrisy of America's Tea Party, each of these voices focused on an immigrant group as the cause of much of their countries' malaise. Each of these groups found receptive audiences in their countries.

Bermuda must be vigilant that it not descend down this path. When thousands of British subjects came to Bermuda in the 1960s they were warmly received; when, in the 1970s and 80s, hundreds of Bermudians returned from studying at US and Canadian colleges with North American spouses this was accepted as a logical consequence of studying abroad. Alongside the sporadic migratory waves of other Caribbean citizens to the island, these immigrants became interwoven into the social and cultural fabric of modern Bermuda.

For reasons too involved to explain here, about 15 years ago much larger numbers of immigrant workers outside of North America and what was once Western Europe were invited here. East European and Asian nationals came to a greater degree than other nationals. This introduced for the first time since the 1840s immigration of Portuguese nationals from Madeira new culturally distinct groups.

In essence, these groups of workers are no different than any other employee on work permit, but in the public discourse on Bermuda's challenges there is a discomforting rise in the tone of negativity directed at them. It is clear the overwhelming number of migrant workers are honest, hard-working and law-abiding. All have come here in search of opportunities not available at home and have sometimes made tough decisions to leave families behind so that they might build a better future. In most cases the work they do is work not desired by Bermudians. In this sense, Bermuda reflects the pattern of other affluent countries where locals seek more lucrative employment. It is, then, incorrect to say “they” are taking our jobs.
One of the more illogical attacks thrown at this group is that they spend little in Bermuda and send most of their money home. Think about this. We are talking about comparatively low paying jobs where one still has to pay, at a minimum, for rent, food and transportation. The relevant question, however, is why should anyone be concerned with how anyone else spends the money they have earned? Equally relevant, no one who makes these comments ever applies it to the highly paid work-permit holding executive.

These murmurs of hostility directed at new immigrant groups may simply peter out when the economy once again becomes robust. But they could also become firmly embedded in a wider discontent with politics and civil society and be strengthened as part of a political movement. That xenophobia was the singular accomplishment of Powell and Le Pen. It cannot be allowed even a foothold on our shores.

This week Monday Americans celebrated the life and accomplishments of one of the world's great leaders, Dr Martin Luther King. Let us take a page from the struggle for civil rights and call for all who live here to be treated with dignity and respect. Let us not divide based on country of origin or whether or not English is one's first, second or third language. Let us eschew mere tolerance as a viable national goal and actively embrace the diversity that continues to build this country.

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