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Migrations: False Narrative, Discrimination, and Xenophobia

30 November, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

In mid-November 2023, Mayor Enrique Antía, the highest authority of Uruguay’s Maldonado Department, expressed his concern regarding union actions in the construction sector:

“They were Venezuelans, they told me. They come to work here, we provide them jobs, and yet they still set up a picket line. I found that troubling.”

His statements faced strong criticism from various political figures, trade unions, and even authorities from the Venezuelan-Uruguayan Chamber of Entrepreneurs and Professionals. In response to the backlash, Antia mentioned that while there are commendable Venezuelans, “there are others who were on the picket line, they came here because they can’t do it in their country.”

The significance of this expression does not solely reside in the mayor’s political standing or the gravity of the conflict, which, in fact, was resolved within hours of these statements. Instead, it encapsulates a series of false arguments commonly used to oppose migration or justify the violation of migrants’ rights.

Antia’s assertions are not only legally and ethically questionable but also founded on glaring falsehoods, easily verifiable but repeatedly propagated without adequate rebuttal.

When Mayor Antia implies that migrants are “given jobs,” it suggests these individuals are beneficiaries of the host country’s generosity, rather than being necessary to fill vacant positions.

Furthermore, his statement, “and they are still setting up a picket line,” insinuates that migrant workers neither possess nor can exercise the same rights as other workers. They are accepted conditionally, provided they abstain from engaging in union activities.

By distinguishing between “good” and “bad” Venezuelans based on their engagement in collective labor rights, Antia implies that a migrant’s worthiness is determined by their exercise of these rights.

The mayor aligns with a widespread chorus that propagates baseless statements globally. These “myths” influence societies, including decision-making authorities, despite being contrary to objective reality.

A common argument posits those migrant workers burden society and strain social security systems. However, the reality is quite the opposite. Most industrial economies would struggle without the contributions of migrant workers, who infuse vitality into aging populations and significantly contribute to various sectors.

Another misconception is that migrants snatch jobs from nationals, based on the erroneous belief in a fixed number of jobs in a country. Instead, migrant workers often complement domestic labor and contribute to overall productivity and growth.

Narrative falsehoods are widespread worldwide, to the extent that the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in its most recent annual report, dedicates an entire chapter to this issue. In this section, it presents several examples of recurring discourses contradicting documented reality.

In South Africa, despite consistent studies demonstrating that migration brings a net economic benefit to the country, migrants are still perceived as responsible for high unemployment rates.

In the United States of America, Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign stirred fear of a potential influx of Mexicans across the southern border, promising “the construction of a wall” to safeguard the state’s integrity. Although Trump primarily focused on Mexicans in his rhetoric, partisan media amplified these fears, encompassing Muslims as well.

In the UK, the pro-Brexit rhetoric extensively exploited migration issues from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. By repeatedly conflating legal migration to the European Union with asylum applications, the campaign advocating leaving the European Union heightened fears of an imminent influx of millions of Turks, a narrative amplified by the right-wing press.[1]

Moreover, fears regarding migratory invasions persist by disregarding concrete data that refutes such notions. The IOM report unequivocally clarifies that the total number of migrants worldwide doesn’t even reach 4% of the global population. Additionally, most migrants do not cross international borders but migrate within their countries of origin.

Uruguay, Mayor Antia’s country, recently received initial census findings from 2023: the population has remained unchanged since 2011, with foreigners comprising less than 3% of the total 3,444,263 registered inhabitants.

In October 2023, Amy Pope assumed the role of Director-General of IOM. In her inaugural public speech, coinciding with the tenth anniversary of a shipwreck off the Italian coast that claimed over 368 migrant lives, she asserted, “Migration, in general, benefits society as a whole.” Pope emphasized that without available jobs, there would be no labor migration.

Pope highlighted that over 30 of the world’s largest economies are currently grappling with labor shortages in crucial sectors such as health, agriculture, construction, and hospitality. The private sector, globally and particularly in Europe and North America, expressed a pressing need for migration to fulfill their labor market demands and continue fostering innovation within their companies.

She also referenced a recent World Bank study, reinforcing migration’s critical role in reducing poverty.

Given this reality, why do false narratives persist? It appears evident that, in most cases, it’s not due to errors or lack of information, but rather a specific interest in presenting falsehoods as truths.

Clearly, xenophobic and discriminatory speeches often underlie justifications for rights violations, if not directly promoting the exploitation of labor. Proposing that we “provide work” instead of acknowledging that “we need working people” is the initial step in endorsing or, at the very least, refraining from questioning precarious labor relations beyond basic legal frameworks.

From this viewpoint, the acceptable migrant worker is expected not to protest, accept any working conditions, and certainly refrain from unionizing.

[1] McAuliffe, M. y A. Triandafyllidou (eds.), 2021. Informe sobre las Migraciones en el Mundo 2022. Organizacion Internacional para las Migraciones (OIM), Ginebra