Nearing the end of my internship, I find myself thinking a lot about what I’ve learned and what I will take back with me to Canada. I feel like I cannot adequately communicate the lived experiences and realities of migration that I’ve seen so many people experience…that I cannot do these stories & realities justice. As the dominant narrative in the West regarding migration largely lacks compassion and is focused on fear and othering, it is important to consider how I communicate what I’ve learned and what I’ve seen in order to have some sort of positive impact on the perception of migration and freedom of movement, especially for those currently affected by negative rhetoric. I feel that I, and my fellow interns, must challenge this troubling narrative and actively engage those promoting it in critical discussion.
Why is the current narrative so problematic?
While it may differ depending on the country, the dominant narrative in the West paints migration as an epidemic, like it is something that must be appropriately managed or eradicated altogether, as though those coming into Western nations will cause irreversible damage to the country and its people. Many newcomers are viewed as dangerous or taking away jobs from “real” Canadians, or Americans, or Europeans. In essence, freedom of movement and migration is the exclusive right of a select few, depending on the country in which they were born. The most apparent problem that this poses is that it creates a negative, unfair, and quite frankly the wrong perception of migrants. It influences public perception into something distorted that encourages othering, fear, and hate. This affects how the general public treats newcomers and subsequently their emotional and physical safety. Further, the current narrative influences policy. It affects how the nation moves forward in regards to rules and regulations bringing in newcomers. Lastly, this narrative grossly lacks compassion. It does not humanize these individuals and fails to consider that actual lives are affected by it.
How can we influence/ shift the current narrative?
All of us have had these experiences where we have been exposed to individuals who are directly or indirectly affected by this sort of rhetoric. We were a part of organizations that worked to amplify these peoples’ voices, as well as enhance their rights as workers, their right to mobility, and their right to information. We have heard stories of struggle, ambition, success, and hard work. We have come to better understand the circumstances that push people to leave their home countries, the fear involved with doing so, and the hope of a better future. As such, we are equipped with real cases that embody the intricate stories of a migrant. We have facts on our side that can help instill compassion in individuals who do not see migration in a positive light in order to shift the dominant rhetoric into something that is less hateful and more accepting. Strategies for doing so may include open-minded, insightful, and critical discussions with different groups of people. It is important to actively engage individuals who may not agree with us in order to better understand where their thoughts stem from and to provide them with information they may not receive from anywhere else. Something else we could do is make the information available through other avenues, such as our local newspapers or news stations, radio stations, community/ city meetings, or school presentations. Further, we have the option to engage directly with our country’s leadership. Why not set up a meeting with our respective mayors or MPs? Or write them letters? Or even encourage our family and friends to do the same? This would put pressure on leadership to shift the narrative into something more positive in the mainstream as well as a shift in policy that is more welcoming.
The conversation does not begin or end with us. Rather, our words and actions are only a small fraction of what is required to instill change. That is not to say that it is not important. Everyone has a responsibility when it comes to social change, and that responsibility is translated into different forms of action depending on circumstances. I think it’s so important to always remember our common humanity and let that shape our lives and how we perceive the world.
BOMSA is mainly focused on external migration for economic purposes- women leaving Bangladesh for work in order to supplement their income. As such, all of the work that I have been exposed to concerns this form of migration. However, it is impossible to ignore the rampant internal migration within the country, specifically that which is heavily influenced by climate change, and the subsequent problems that it accompanies. A few weeks ago, I met a woman who had written her PhD thesis on this topic, which sparked my interest in further researching it.
Climate-change induced migration describes those who are forced to leave their homes temporarily or permanently due to environmental circumstances that jeopardize their existence or seriously affect their quality of life negatively. Climate-change induced migration disproportionately affects the poor, which adds significant burden to a demographic already struggling, as climate shocks often increase existing problems. Further, this contributes to the rapid urbanization taking place in certain areas of Bangladesh, which cannot meet the demand in capacity to adequately provide access to sanitation, health, education, and employment. There are about 35 million people that live on the coastlines of Bangladesh, which make them the frontline victims of climate change. If the sea level were to rise by one metre, this would affect roughly 15 million people within this cohort. Many of these individuals will have no choice but to migrate while their homes are destroyed.
Moreover, roughly 63% of Bangladesh’s population is employed in either agriculture, forestry, or fisheries, which are heavily affected by environmental conditions and access to natural resources. With the increase of climate disasters, survival in certain parts of Bangladesh has become increasingly difficult and expensive. These areas of Bangladesh are densely populated and experience coastal flooding, river erosion, and saltwater intrusion. Extreme climate damages shelter, affects livelihoods, decreases access to safe water, and weakens embankments for coastal defense. This is a problem very large in nature, and as such, it is difficult for the government and civil society to address it without appropriate resources and support.
As with any migration, the question of choice always comes into play. When is migration a choice, and when is it forced upon individuals? For climate change induced migration, do people choose to leave their homes? While there are many cases in which people do choose to stay in adverse conditions, despite the increasingly challenging circumstances presented to them, it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which a choice is available. When choosing between a familiar place with near impossible living conditions and an unfamiliar new life plagued with uncertainty, where is the choice, really?
Ahsan, SM Reazul ‘Climate Induced Migration: Lessons from Bangladesh’ 2014
Kartiki, Katha ‘Climate change and migration: a case study from rural Bangladesh’ 2011
Below, I have shared some of the thoughts I have had since starting my placement with BOMSA. Any reference to migrant workers refers only to domestic migrant workers. While I do discuss gender in this blog post, please note that I do not touch upon non-binary aspects of gender and how this affects migration, as this is something I have yet to learn much more about. Thank you for reading!
In my experience, a woman’s voice is often silenced. She is excluded from conversations that concern her, and from being an active contributor to solutions that concern her. In many contexts, she must suffer silently, as speaking out would put her safety at risk. In others, she must bear the brunt of being labeled “bossy”, “out of place”, or “troublemaker” if she dares speak out. Her experiences, knowledge, and thoughts are dismissed. I have noticed that this is something that transcends culture and society- it is a reality for all women, though, through different avenues and to different extents.
I have always been cautious of drawing parallels between different women’s experiences in different contexts, as one’s problems in Canada cannot always be comparable to one’s problems in Bangladesh. Often times, the problems one faces cannot be compared to what another faces even within the same country. A woman’s perceived place in society is complex, and those within certain paradigms suffer more than others. This is something I have been thinking about a lot since arriving to Bangladesh and starting my work with BOMSA, and I have begun to think more and more about borders and the rights they allow for certain people while oppressing that of others. This is such a vast topic, and I cannot begin to describe all of its complexities. In this blog post, I will share an incident that challenged me to think about my words and actions when witnessing or facing oppressive environments.
On our first day in Dhaka, we had the opportunity to accompany our boss to a collaborative meeting concerning migrant workers between civil society members, government officials, and the CEO of an overseas recruiting agency. The aim of this meeting was to bring forth different points of view, and inform future policy and practice to improve livelihoods of migrants and their families. In theory, this sounds very useful, important, and necessary. I thought so too. I was disappointed to see only men sitting around the table, discussing the issues, as a handful of women observed from the sidelines. I asked my boss why she was not seated with them, and she said something about how “attempt to empower herself might disempower other women.” I did not quite understand how her being at that table would disempower others; rather, I believed it would have been a great opportunity to share an important perspective. In any case, I found that the CEO of the recruiting agency was doing most of the talking. He emphasized the importance of migrant women being trained properly before leaving for their destination countries. He stated that if this happened- if the women were trained to perfection- then there would be zero possibility of them encountering troubles once arriving to the destination country. This view completely shifted any responsibility the employers within destination countries had towards their employees, implying that any trouble or abuse that migrant workers faced was of their own doing- their lack of training, to be precise. No one countered this assumption. The subject of sexual abuse was brought forth. The CEO stated that any sexual activity that occurred between the migrant worker and her employer was always consensual- that there was no way someone would forcefully engage another in such actions because of the laws in place that would persecute them and protect the victim. From the experiences I have and the stories I heard, when he said this, I felt like he completely dismissed the reality of sexual abuse that countless female migrants face in their domestic work. He completely erased the lived experiences women have shared with me, claiming their absolute impossibility, suggesting that women with such accusations were liars. No one countered this assumption. When I spoke to the CEO moments later, and asked him whether employers were being trained on appropriate behaviour towards employees, and the rights of employees, I was told how ridiculous a question that was. He explained that no employer would agree to such a training, again reiterating that if migrant workers knew what they were doing, there would not be any problems. It was clear that he placed these employers on a pedestal well above those of domestic migrant workers. I pressed on, indicating how these assumptions were problematic. I was interrupted as I spoke, and it felt as though my views were dismissed as unintelligent. I reflected on the situation and thought that perhaps my boss did not join the table full of men to avoid exactly this. Did she believe that her attempt to empower herself in this situation, and speak out in support of these women, would inadvertently make her feel disempowered and her message futile?
I left this meeting feeling very uneasy. What was this mindset that was so deeply engrained and why was it so difficult to challenge? I thought about how it seemed as though my views were so easily dismissed, and I thought about so many other times where this has happened to me, or other women in my life. I thought of the brave domestic workers who have stood up to this mindset, and were subsequently punished for doing so. While the response I received from the CEO made me feel a sense of deep injustice, from what I understand the responses these women receive often become violent. BOMSA has been involved in cases where women have been sexually assaulted, physically abused, have had food withheld, for stating that they have been treated unfairly. While I was safe to express my views and return to my life unharmed, these women were not. How is that just in any way? My positionality as a Canadian passport-holder afforded me rights that these women did not have.
This ties back to an oppressive structure that values certain lives over others. Until people rise up and challenge this troubling perception, justice will not be brought to migrant women. BOMSA does a good job of this through their work – the training and advocacy that they are involved in informs migrant workers and their families, as well as civil society members and government officials, of the respect one deserves as a domestic worker, as well as gaps within policy and practice. However, a major challenge seems to be effectively communicating these messages to key decision makers. To be honest, I struggle to imagine a safe and effective way of doing this. I definitely think that it is a collaborative effort that requires the support of various stakeholders, where those who are traditionally silenced are given a platform to speak and are respected. And this is why organizations like BOMSA exist – to learn and unlearn, and guide others in this process.
This experience has reminded me that issues do not exist in black and white. We cannot simply identify a problem, then fix it. Ultimately, there are goals that everyone must strive towards. We must stop valuing the lives of men over those of women and others, or the lives of employers over those of employees. It is important to unlearn that certain passport-holders deserve more respect than others, or that certain professions are worthy of our respect while others are not. People must respect and listen to oppressed individuals, and award them the rights that are rightfully theirs.
I had a lovely conversation with Katherine regarding our placements. We talk about ourselves, interests, passions, our organizations, and the work we’ll be contributing to.
Check out part one of the conversation here: http://students.capi.uvic.ca/interns2016/node/463
Katherine and I had a lovely conversation about our placements in Bangladesh and Nepal. We talk about ourselves, interests, passions, our organizations, the type of work we’ll be contributing to, and how we’re feeling. Here’s part two of the conversation!
Check out Part 1 here:
***Hey Cate- please link Katherine’s blog above 🙂