The Promise of Pluralism

December 18th, 2014

António GuterresIn May 2014, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres delivered the Global Centre for Pluralism’s third annual lecture in Ottawa, reflecting on the promise of pluralism:

Today, all societies are – or are on their way to become – multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious.

For some this is a source of discomfort and unease. In many societies, populist politicians, playing upon fears to obtain mindless votes and irresponsible media, only interested in market shares and infotainment, manipulate feelings of anxiety and insecurity, creating artificial divisions, disrupting social cohesion and, in extreme cases, provoking persecution and conflict. We can see this in my part of the world, in Europe, where, fuelled by the economic crisis and high levels of unemployment, anti-immigration and xenophobic parties are gaining influence. Mainstream parties are unable, or sometimes even unwilling to oppose this effectively. Xenophobia, racism, islamophobia or the invocation of false identities diminish us all. Not only are they unable to ease the fears of what is new and unfamiliar, they tend to exacerbate them. The reality is that with an average fertility rate of 1.5 children per woman, Europe needs immigration to sustain its economy and pay the pensions of its aging population. But this is largely an unrecognized truth.

This is an impossible discourse; an equation without solution. Immigration is not part of the problem of modern societies; it is part of the solution. Without immigration many of our communities would become completely unsustainable.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Globalization has been unfair, its benefits have been distributed unequally and many have been left out. The paradox of today’s world is that money moves freely; goods and services also tend to move relatively freely; but people cannot. People are stopped by physical and legal barriers.

One of the things I have learned in my years of public life is that markets work. Supply and demand tend to meet. In the global labour market, supply and demand will also meet, legally if possible, irregularly if necessary.

Despite barriers, millions of people move from one country to another in the hope of a better future, millions of others to save their lives. They often travel alongside each other, creating the so-called asylum-migration nexus. When international migration is managed by border controls only, in an effort “to keep people out”, human traffickers and smugglers are bound to prosper. There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where people have to risk their lives to seek safety and where at the end of a dangerous journey, they are not welcome or even turned away. It breaks my heart to see Syrian refugees being pushed back at the Bulgarian border, one of the European Union’s external borders, or drown in the Mediterranean, as they have no other ways to find asylum. We need more international cooperation between countries of origin, transit and destination and concerted efforts to identify opportunities for legal migration. We also need international trade and globalization to become true agents of development. And we need more targeted development programmes, focused on poverty reduction, job creation and the strengthening of governance, rule of law and public services. Greater efforts should be made to address the challenges of conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peace building, so that when people move, they do so out of choice, not necessity.

Irrespective of cultural, religious or ethnic differences, men and women around the world share a common humanity. Aristotle was among the first to deny that division was the necessary outcome of diversity and this concept has been followed through by many illustrious thinkers, up to today. Seeking to identify the qualities and experiences that unite rather than divide people, pluralism can be a powerful force that fosters more harmonious, peaceful and prosperous societies. A common value that can be found in all cultures is the idea of giving protection, of sheltering a stranger in need. The word asylum is derived from the Greek word “asylon”, or sanctuary, a designated space in each city, often a temple, where people could find safety.

Flight from persecution and the search for a protected space are central themes in all the three Abrahamic faiths, and can also be found Hindu mythology and Buddhist teachings. The Exodus of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt is a central story in the Jewish faith. In Christianity, the flight of the Holy Family from Bethlehem is studied by all children. And for Muslims, the Islamic calendar starts with the year the Prophet (PBUH) travelled to Medina to seek protection as he and his followers had come under threat. When some of the first Muslims suffered persecution in Mecca, they were given asylum by the Christian Emperor of Abyssinia, who withstood great pressure and declined precious gifts, refusing to return the refugees to their persecutors. Similarly, in the early Middle-ages, Jews from many parts of Europe found sanctuary in Al Andalus, where they were allowed to practice their religion and had opportunities to work and trade. In particular, there is nothing in modern refugee law that was not already explicitly contained in Islamic law and traditions, since the very beginning.

Today, an unprecedented number of people are uprooted by violence and persecution. One of most dramatic situations is Syria, which saw 3 million of its citizens flee the country in little more than three years. Only five years ago, Syria was the world’s second largest refugee hosting country, now Syrians are the largest group of refugees worldwide, followed by Afghans and Somalis. The overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees found safety in the neighbouring countries, where communities are showing a generosity that is well beyond their means… The world needs to do much more to support Syria’s neighbours, recognizing that this conflict has become a major threat to regional stability.

And let’s not forget that contrary to the populist mantra that all asylum-seekers are on their way to the industrialized world, 86% of the world’s refugees live in developing countries, compared to 70% a decade ago. Rather than seeing refugees as competitors and a burden, their presence can be an incentive to advance poor areas. We need to promote the development of refugee hosting areas, involving refugees and local communities, rather than just handing out assistance to the refugees, year after year. Stimulating self-reliance, education and livelihood opportunities for refugees and host communities are key to fostering more harmonious relations and a better protection environment. Instead of competing over scarce resources, both communities work together to improve their future. I am convinced that this will, ultimately, help stem the flow of desperate people who move on out of necessity.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Multi–cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies are not only inevitable, they are a good thing. Diversity and pluralism enrich societies and should be cherished by good governance, strong civic institutions and policies that promote respect for diversity. The recognition of our common humanity, inclusion and solidarity, tolerance and compromise are key elements of strong, cohesive and peaceful societies.

The mission of the Global Centre for Pluralism is to advance global understanding of pluralism as an ethic of respect that values diversity and to enable each and every person to realize his or her full potential as a citizen. I wish you every success in this important undertaking.

 Excerpt, reprinted with permission, from the Global Centre for Pluralism Annual Pluralism Lecture 2014

António Guterres. Forced Displacement and the Promise of Pluralism (Ottawa: Global Centre for Pluralism, 2014). 

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