'Immigrants are here to stay'

October 2004 -

In recent years, the debate about immigrants has become increasingly negative in tone, with a focus on crime, unemployment and ethnic conflict. However, there are positive aspects to migration and asylum too, as discussed by three academics and 'hands-on' experts who gave a lecture on this subject recently. Their conclusion: 'Immigrants are here to stay.'

The discussion session held on 20 September at the GEM in The Hague was organised by the Prince Claus Fund. The opening speech was given by historian Achille Mbembe. 'I have been a migrant almost all my life', he says. The experience has been enriching but has also left him with awful memories. 'You feel especially vulnerable at border checks', Mbembe explains. He was born in Cameroon but currently works in Johannesburg, as a professor of history and politics.

Mbembe advances two theses. First of all: 'Immigrants are here to stay.' A strict immigration and deportation policy, like the one currently being used by Dutch Minister Verdonk, won't stop them either. Secondly, an international court to defend migrants' interests is needed.

Next, Hilary Beckles, professor of history at the University of the West Indies on Barbados, outlines the ideal of 'many people, one country'. He puts forward the Caribbean as an example, where despite the presence of multicultural societies there is still a positive community spirit. Since the rise of nation states, however, countries have been increasingly closing their borders to immigrants, Beckles notes. The historic realisation that ultimately we are all descended from immigrants may succeed in turning this particular tide.

Mamadou Diouf, professor of history at the University of Michigan and a native of Senegal, is the final speaker. He emphasises that many so-called immigrants are actually nothing of the kind, as they have already been living in their 'new' homeland for two or three generations. This is why, according to Diouf, they should be recognised as fully-fledged citizens who deserve their rightful place in the 'new ethnic and cultural landscape'.