Letzte Woche habe ich eine der berührendsten Reden gehört, einer Veranstaltung, bei der ziemlich viele gleichgesinnte zusammen gekommen sind. Umso wichiger finden wir, diese Worte zu verbreiten. Also teilt gerne!!
Musa Okwonga is a poet, author, sportswriter, broadcaster, musician, public relations consultant and commentator on current affairs, including culture, politics, sport, race, gender and sexuality. A scholarship student at Eton College, Musa studied law at Oxford University and then trained as a solicitor in the City before leaving the legal profession to pursue a career as a poet.
“Immigrants Are Human Beings Too”
Speech at Urban Diversity Conference, Schloss St. Martin, Graz, Austria
I am very happy to be here today, and I am very thankful for your very kind invitation. At the same time, though, there is a sense in which I should not be here. Some might say that, in 2017, a conversation about the benefits of diversity should not be happening. But, of course, these are unusual times. Across Europe, across the United States, we are seeing a very particular political trend; one where voters are increasingly uncomfortable with diversity, with difference. This saddens me, from both a personal and professional point of view. It saddens me personally because, to many white European and American citizens, I represent a threat: something new, something unknown, something coming to conquer or colonise or overwhelm. Or simply someone coming to change the life they already enjoy. From a less selfish perspective, it saddens me professionally. Because our civilisation it is about to face a series of challenges the scale of which it has never seen, and it is not going to face them successfully unless it faces them together.
It might sound like a cliche, but the situation we are in now reminds me of one of those superhero movies; probably the Avengers. There’s a huge threat coming from outer space, but all the people best equipped to face that threat are busy fighting each other. And what makes me so frustrated about the current environment is that there is so much fear. People are so, so afraid.
Several months ago, a good friend of mine became annoyed when I drew comparisons between Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. They were completely different scenarios, he said. Brexit was about reclaiming the sovereignty of the UK. Trump’s election was about shaking up the established order. I disagreed. I thought that there was a deep common thread – one where significant parts of both societies, frightened of the future, wanted to retreat within themselves. I think that many Brexit and Trump voters have had enough of diversity, which is of course their right. I think that this is their loss, because – in the end – I think that it is diversity which will save us.
That is a dramatic statement to make, so let me continue with another one. Immigrants are human beings too. Let me repeat that: Immigrants are human beings too. I only say this because it is very easy, in all the news about immigration, for people to forget that. Sometimes I forget it. I forget it because I have so often been called upon to prove my worth to the country where I was born. As someone from an immigrant background – my parents are refugees from Uganda – I frequently felt, when growing up, that I was on trial. On trial to deserve the respect and dignity given to white English people. Today, I think it is fair to say that Muslims are on trial. They must prove themselves to be progressive, capable of integration in Europe and America. Even when they do prove themselves, they must still apologise for the behaviour of those who have not proven themselves. Human beings don’t have to prove themselves like this; and immigrants should not. Because immigrants are human beings too.
But, having said that, let me prove myself; and let me make three cases for diversity. One of those cases relates to the economy; the second, to morality; and the third, to community.
Immigrants are normally tolerated by many people so long as they bring money into the economy. The prevailing narrative is that they do not: that they arrive in new countries and suck its resources dry. That is what colonies did, and that is what colonies still do; but immigrants do not arrive in new places to colonise them. They arrive in order to have better lives than they could have in the places they left.
So, the first case. It always feels vulgar to say that you should like immigrants because they bring you money. It feels demeaning to argue that a key reason you should like immigration is because it makes your country richer. It implies that people like me are only useful as economic units. At the same time, the economic case for immigration is a strong one. We can look at the research, published in November 2014, by Professor Christian Dustmann and Dr Tommaso Frattini of the UCL Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration. I quote: “Immigration to the UK since 2000 has been of substantial net fiscal benefit, with immigrants contributing more than they have received in benefits and transfers. This is true for immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe as well as the rest of the EU. Over the period from 2001 to 2011, European immigrants from the EU-15 countries contributed 64% more in taxes than they received in benefits. Immigrants from the Central and East European ‘accession’ countries (the ‘A10’) contributed 12% more than they received.”
This is not the picture that is seen in the media. The newspapers are filled with stories of immigrants coming to towns and putting an outrageous burden on local resources. Let’s not be naive here. Of course there are huge logistical issues when a local community absorbs a large number of people at once. But we so rarely hear the success stories. I suppose the comparison I can draw is with the way the Western media covers Africa. You can tell that an African country is peaceful because it is not in the Western news. Successful community initiatives are rarely reported upon. We are in a world where unpleasant headlines attract the most clicks. That is our current and unsettling reality, and we must fight to change it.
I would like to step away from this first argument, for two reasons. The first reason is that immigrants are not merely to be assessed upon their value as economic units: it is that kind of colonial thinking which created the present mess in the first place. The second reason is that many people have already stopped listening. The economic case for diversity has been pleaded for years: and, as we can see in recent election results, it has not been very effective. So let us proceed to my next argument, which is about morality.
This argument will again be short, because it is even more ineffective than my first one. This argument is that there is a strong moral case for allowing our nations to become more diverse. By allowing immigrants into our countries, we allow the wealth that was taken by some nations to be redistributed among those immigrants from poorer nations. We allow that wealth to be shared more fairly, more equitably. By allowing refugees into our countries, we allow them a chance at a better life. This argument, as heartwarming as it is, has increasingly been rejected by voters. We saw this recently in Germany with the recent election, where the far-right and anti-immigration AfD party took 13 per cent of the vote.
So let us go to the third and final case for diversity, which is community. And this is my favourite argument. Because this involves, I think, the best thing about we immigrants. It is not our skills, or our money; it is our positive outlook. We arrive in a new place to seek a better life than the one we had before. We are not complacent about our new surroundings. We are here to make the best of them. That is the best thing about us, as immigrants. It is our spirit, our optimism. We believe in a better world. That is why we are here. That is why I am here.
At this point, some may say: well, what about people from foreign cultures. From Muslim cultures. What about people who want to bring their repressive religious values and take away our freedoms. To that, I would reply: to say that people from those cultures are incapable of causing radical and positive social change is a repressive attitude in itself. That is the kind of attitude which would not have allowed Malala, now a Nobel Prize winner, into the United Kingdom. With that kind of attitude, we would not have Dr Faiza Shaheen, a brilliant Muslim woman, as one of Britain’s leading voices against social and economic inequality. Instead of closing the door on these communities, we should be seeking out and supporting the most forward-thinking voices within them. Instead of treating them as the question, we should be treating them as the answer.
I have criticised conservatism. Some of you might be thinking: „but what’s wrong with being conservative“? Well, you are welcome to be conservative, as are many members of my family. I only ask you to acknowledge that you also enjoy many of the rights and freedoms that progressive activists fought so hard for. Because that’s what being progressive means. It means that we fight for the basic rights and freedoms of everyone, even if they hate us.
I think that diversity has never been more important than it is now. I mentioned this before, but we are facing some of the most severe problems that modern society has ever seen. Just this year, climate change has caused storms in California and fires in Portugal that are some of the worst on record. On a closer, more personal scale, we are seeing people struggle to find jobs, to find affordable housing. These are complex problems and to solve them we need to ask as many people for solutions as we can. I do not think that we can afford to keep closing our minds, and closing our borders.
Call me naive. But if we look at some of the greatest achievements in human history, we owe them to diversity. White men would not have walked on the moon without the incredible work of black female scientists. Men get much of the glory for discovering DNA and for fighting cancer but so much of the key research is being done by women. This is what diversity is about. It is about collaboration between a range of people to make the world better for everyone.
Diversity is why I am standing here today. Because a complete stranger, hundreds of kilometres away, said to themselves: there is someone who knows something about a subject that I do not. Let me have the humility to ask him. Please, let’s keep that humility. Let’s keep working with each other, because we need to. In a world where borders are closing all around us, please: let us not close our minds.