I have spent the last few days at the 7th United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) Global Forum “Living together in inclusive societies: a challenge and a goal” in Baku the capital of Azerbaijan in the company of 3000 delegates from across the world. Never before have I encountered such a mix of people – from heads of state and leading figures from all the world’s major religions through to tiny NGOs and young people sponsored by UNAOC to attend. The opening address brought together the President of Azerbaijan with the High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, the United Nations Secretary-General, the Foreign Minister of Spain and President of Turkey. Such occasions are frequently an opportunity for politicking as well as showcasing national achievements and this was no different. Critical points were raised about the importance of taking internally displaced persons (IDPs) into account when thinking about the refugee crisis, concerns about developed nations “cherry-picking” the most skilled Syrian refugees and leaving others in camps in countries with minimal resources and the need to move beyond applauding Turkey for taking 3m refugees to providing tangible assistance. What was not said was perhaps as telling as what was, with human rights and freedom of speech off the official agenda yet important topics of discussion in panels and throughout the informal networking conversations that were an important feature of the forum.
Some questioned whether Azerbaijan, which was positioning itself as a leader in the promotion of multiculturalism given its self-proclaimed “tolerance” of many ethnic minorities and religions, was indeed the right place to hold such a forum. Certainly the recent upsurge in violence in Nagorno–Karabakh, the failure to permanently settle 1m IDPs, human rights abuses and constraints on press freedom gave us plenty to talk about. Despite these concerns we were able to engage in frank discussions with many of the civil servants in attendance as well as young professional locals we befriended in the wider city. All had different versions of the “truth”. Holding the forum in Baku brought a very different mix of people than events held in Europe and the US with Russian and Arabic languages dominating conversation and the opportunity to meet people who are generally unable to travel to West. These perspectives were thought-provoking and sometimes perplexing.
Much of the discussion on living together veered into the issue of terrorism – with definitions of what constitutes terrorist action sometimes conflated with separatism or dissent or stretched to encompass the opposition party of the moment. Thus much of the emphasis was on helping people to live together peacefully after internal conflict and preventing young people from turning to terrorism by ensuring their inclusion. A youth event opened the Forum with discussions about how young people can support inclusion – although some young delegates complained that they had been given no role in shaping the event which was not as participative as they would have liked. In the main forum a wide variety of organisations shared their ideas demonstrating and describing the different ways in which they support living together – through films, apps, awards, sport and music. The UNAOC Plural + scheme alumni – 100 film makers from across the world showed some of their award winning films including a comedic take on the ridiculous and sometimes downright offensive questions a young woman had been asked about her hijab – a film that she now uses to educate young people about hijab.
The panel which I joined was facilitated by Daniel Denvir, staff writer at Salon, with a mixture of academics and practitioners: Ashraf El Nour (IOM), Juliana Kerr (Chicago Council of Global Affairs), Audrey Singer (Urban Institute), Kristen Surak (SOAS), and Dana Wagner (Global Diversity Exchange). Our focus was global migration and cities with a specific emphasis on integration. We explored different influences on integration – with panellists arguing that regardless of how anti-integrative national immigration policies are, integration happens locally and can be facilitated by local action. Examples were given of how, in Chicago, undocumented children had been connected to social services and education with 25% of students at some universities sans papier. We disagreed on the importance of language with some of us arguing it was necessary to forward inclusion, certainly my research indicates that migrants consistently seek to learn the language because they know they will be more successful if they improve their English language skills, but others providing examples of neighbourhoods and economies, such as those in Toronto, that thrive despite many people unable to speak English. Much emphasis was placed on using the economic benefits of migration to win over local people and encourage them to appreciate and accept immigrants. Perhaps this works in Canada and the US, but I argued that evidence in Europe shows people are rejecting the economic argument and focussing more on security and culture. One delegate suggested that we should not continually defend migration – in doing so we build on the myth that it is a problem that needs defending. With the rise of the new right, anti-migrant rhetoric in the media and politics (and Trump came up a lot) the panellists were concerned about the implications of not challenging negative rhetoric.
Some delegates pointed out that as a panel we were clearly adopting a global north perspective – in Africa and much of the Middle East migrations exceed that which the EU is labelling “crisis” with people just getting on with life and adapting in an organic way. Certainly the huge migrations into Johannesburg were seen to have been absorbed without overt conflict but the race riots in Durban suggested that too much change too quickly may be greeted with the kind of negative responses currently being witnessed in Europe.
Questions from the audience enabled the panel to examine a range of moral issues – how many refugees is too many? Should governments let refugees go where they want or forcibly disperse them in order to “share the burden”? The notion of refugees as a burden and the emphasis on tolerance rather than acceptance were seen as problematic. The discussion focused upon the necessity to consider the moral implications of turning people in need away – if, like the UK, we refuse to offer refuge even to children just 25 miles from our shores – who might we turn away next? One delegate asked if the people of Lebanon, lacking the resources of the west, can open their doors to millions of refugees why can’t we. Later in conversation with a delegate from Canada I heard how refugees in Germany, awaiting processing and dispersal, and not permitted to work or study and becoming increasingly disillusioned and depressed at lacking purpose. Dentist, doctors, engineers and students wanted to work and were unable to. She told he how one young man felt totally out of place, completely unprepared for the “me” culture of the west. He wanted to return to a place where people put others first arguing that in Syrian culture the comfort and wellbeing of others was always the priority. It seemed to me that when questioning how to justify continued, and as I often argue, inevitable immigration, and encourage people to appreciate the full worth of migrants who are already an integral part of our societies, we might begin to think about the moral values brought by newcomers and how they offer us the possibility to learn to live, and interact with, everyone in new ways, rather than just sticking with tired and ineffective economic arguments. By over-emphasising the economic value of people we lose sight of human value – this further enables “crises” such as that which is so panicking the EU to be constructed as a matter of numbers and costs rather than of moral imperative to offer refuge.