Migrants and “sons of the soil”

A country belongs to whoever has lived there long enough, but only to an extent. In actual fact, all countries are built on waves of migration, some more recent than others. Competition for land and jobs and the relative economic success of new immigrants fuels resentment amongst the “natives”, who, truth be told, are simply descendants of migrants who came before. 

(Daily Times, 21 February 2014)

The people of Switzerland have, by the narrowest of margins (50.3%), voted in a referendum to limit immigration into their country.  Although this issue was simmering for a long time, it recently was highlighted by the large number of Europeans from countries such as Portugal immigrating to Switzerland for jobs and higher living standards.

Immigration from Africa and Asia into Switzerland is already minimal because of the strict visa regime and the difficulty of entering illegally, but citizens of EU countries have had unrestricted passage into, and the right to work, in Switzerland.

Although business groups oppose imposing any restrictions against immigration, many Swiss express concern at the inundation of their country by foreigners and its effect on their living standards and cultural identity. Apparently, this is not about racism or xenophobia, but the simple desire of a small nation to maintain its cultural identity and high living standards.

Foreigners now constitute nearly a quarter of Switzerland’s total population.  Of the country’s 8 million citizens, about one in ten are former (mostly illegal) immigrants from Asia and Africa who have now become Swiss citizens. 

Businesses within host countries usually support immigration for it ensures a constant supply of labour and keeps wages down.  Others support immigration out of sympathy with the wretched of the earth, without realizing that for every genuine refugee fleeing persecution in his own country, they get many fake ones. Potential immigrants, for their part, argue that developed countries (they prefer to call them “rich countries”) have a duty to open their doors to them, for the earth belongs to all and is for sharing.     

Some emphasize the superior rights of ‘sons of the soil’ to a country or a part of it, than those who arrived later, even if they have lived in the country for many generations. Such a feeling may be justified, for a land is like a home which, like any home, belongs to its owners, not to be shared with outsiders, except with their permission and, preferably, temporarily. True, a country belongs to whoever has lived there long enough, but only to an extent. In actual fact, all countries are built on waves of migration, some more recent than others.

As far as I know, the only people who claim to have been granted a country by none other than god himself are the Jews. Their claim to what they call Judea and Samaria, but which the rest of the world knows as Palestine, is not very popular internationally.  Leave alone the Palestinians, who have counter-claims to the same piece of land, not based on divine mandate, but actual residence over many centuries.  But I would be stupid to delve into a subject which mightier men than myself fear to tread on.

Divine right is not for me to challenge, it is the more mundane claims to land that I wish to discuss.  There are very few countries in the world today that do not confront problems arising from claims and counter-claims by “sons of the soil” and immigrant populations. 

The problem is best exemplified by the fate of the Romani people, or what are generally called “gypsies”.  Known to have originated in north-western India, their ancestors moved west perhaps as far back as 1,500 years ago, settling in Europe in many waves over centuries.  They are still treated as outcastes in the East European countries and as third class citizens (if citizens at all) in most other countries, including France and Spain.

The worst recorded ethnic cleansing in modern times, after the Jewish holocaust, was the genocide of Tutsis (migrants) by local Hutus in Rwanda in 1994.  It resulted in the killing of over half a million Tutsis, or about 70% of their total population in the country, in the space of 100 days.

The Indian state of Assam has for many years been embroiled in violence involving the indigenous Bodos, Rabhas and Tiwas against migrants from Bangladesh and other Indian states.  In the Nellie riots of 1983, three thousand were butchered within a span of six hours. It is estimated that 400,000 people have been displaced as a result of the ongoing violence.

Some Pacific Island states and the Indonesian province of Kalimantan have seen some ferocious killings of settlers from other provinces of the same country.

In 1999, the indigenous Dayak of Kalimantan went on a killing spree against migrants from the neighbouring island of Madura.  It was reported that “crowds of bystanders cheered a display of severed heads of Madurese men.”  Hundreds were killed and about 100,000 were expelled from the province.

The fate of Biharis in Bangladesh and the Rohingyas of Burma are too well-known by readers to be recounted here.

In the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, waves of mostly European migrants have reduced the indigenous people to insignificant minorities.  Haiti is almost entirely comprised of the descendants of African slaves, the indigenous people having been wiped away.  In Malaysia, the native Malays constitute just over half of the population and, in Singapore, Chinese settlers are the ruling majority.  

In Fiji and Guyana, Indians comprise nearly half the population. They are the descendants of indentured labour brought there by the British authorities to work the sugar plantations.  They, like the Chinese of Malaysia and Singapore, know no other country.  They are as Fijian, Guyanese, Malaysian or Singaporean as the blacks or the whites of the United States are American.

The world we live in is the product of migration and trans-migration. By their very nature, migrants tend to be hard-working.  Competition for land and jobs and the relative economic success of new immigrants fuels resentment amongst the “natives”, who, truth be told, are simply descendants of migrants who came before.

By Razi Azmi

 

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One Response to Migrants and “sons of the soil”

  1. Nadeem says:

    Since man has been on earth, ethnic groups have again and again travelled to other regions in the world hoping to find a better basis for existence there. Also wars have repeatedly triggered mass displacements of refugees.
    Loved your concluding paragraph “By their very nature, migrants tend to be hard-working. Competition for land and jobs and the relative economic success of new immigrants fuels resentment amongst the “natives”, who, truth be told, are simply descendants of migrants who came before.” So true and we the new migrant feel it in our day to day life.

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