By Emily House & Anna Scott
December the 18th marks International Migrants’ Day. A chance to celebrate stories of collaboration between those who are settled and those who are new in a community. This year the International Organization of Migration has chosen to focus on social cohesion, sharing personal stories using #WeTogether.
Migration is part of all our stories. If we look back far enough, nearly everyone’s ancestors have moved. Be this across the world or to a neighbouring village, movement is a natural and essential part of human life. Yet never before has connection been so jeopardised. Amidst the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, it is difficult to foster social cohesion. Confined to our homes, we must think creatively about how to sustain our communities. Given our current circumstances, the theme of this year’s International Migrants’ Day is especially pertinent.
Who is a migrant?
Today, 272 million people live outside of their country of birth, yet there is no international agreement to define who is a migrant. Often this term refers to people who choose to move across an international border (1). If this migration is in response to conflict or a well-founded fear of persecution, then this person would be classed as an asylum seeker. Only if an asylum application is successful would a person be granted refugee status.
However human experience is rarely as straight forward as a definition would lead you to believe. Perhaps a threat of persecution forces a person to flee across an international border. If they then left the country they originally fled to, they would then be categorised as a migrant despite originally leaving home as a refugee.
Whatever a person’s motives and circumstance, stories of movement share a central theme. Everyone who relocates wants to find a home, a place to feel safe and a welcoming community. International Migrants’ Day looks to celebrate stories of success as they focus this year upon social cohesion.
What is Social cohesion?
Derived from the Latin word ‘cohaerere’ (to stick, to be bonded together), social cohesion can be defined as the sense of community that enables members of a society to trust each other (2).
Nicholas Tanzler and Gianluca Grimalda of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy describe social cohesion as having two components: the “objective” component is the tendency by individuals to come together and collaborate with others and the “subjective” component is the feeling that other citizens and the government can be trusted and depended on (2).
Improving social cohesion involves developing both components, for example, by providing opportunities for widespread participation in community work whilst dispelling stereotypes towards immigrants and people of colour.
Why does it matter?
Social cohesion matters because a cohesive and unified society with high levels of trust and participation is more democratic. In such a society every individual feels confident they won’t be left behind in times of need.
Achieving social cohesion is not an easy challenge. It is built slowly by making deliberately welcoming choices and leaving no room for discrimination in all our actions.
Increased acceptance of migrants and of diversity can help heal social division, increase solidarity and uplift the wellbeing of all those who belong to the community, regardless of their race, religion or country of origin.
Upon hearing that social cohesion was the theme of this year’s International Migrants Day, Emily was reminded of her family history. This has been marked by migration, as she moved back and forth between the U.K. and Honduras several times before finally settling in West Sussex. Each journey elicited an anticipation for the chance to engage with new opportunities and to join in on the activities offered by each community. Much like Emily has come to join the Charityworks 2020 cohort, other migrants are already here, a part of our lives, building their home in this very society.
Anna, like many others, felt angry at the lack of compassion shown to migrants and refugees in the UK. Spending time in Calais with Help Refugees, she saw first-hand how hostile the environment can be for those looking to come to resettle. Despite this, she found hope in the way refugee communities and the volunteers worked together.
As with all humanitarianism it would be naive to say there was no power imbalance between the volunteers and the beneficiaries. Yet in Calais people were conscious of their privilege. Through active discussions, volunteers were able to meet the practical needs of the communities they served. For instance when people spoke with nostalgia for certain spices or teas, volunteers added these to the menu. Working together does not always have to change the system. Sometimes it is the small details where the greatest difference can be made.
In honour of International Migrants’ Day, let’s take time to recognise the incredible connections that flourish when we work together. If each of us sought out one community initiative on December 18th, imagine the impact we could have. The need for social cohesion has never been greater, it is now up to each of us to create it.