Migration and the Power of Culture

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  • 2016•09•08

    Megha Amrith

    UN Photo / Amanda Voisard

    World leaders gather in New York on 19 September 2016 for a summit on large movements of refugees and migrants. Through this blog series the United Nations University Migration Network (UNU MN) will reflect on the challenges and opportunities of the summit from various critical perspectives: migration governance and policy; forced migration; migration and environment; migration and health; migration and culture; and migration and development. The series will culminate in a single summary post shortly after the summit.


    In this unprecedented period of migration and forced displacement, people and places are interconnected more than ever before, whether by choice or by necessity. Culture, and how it is understood and deployed, plays a key role in shaping these interconnections.

    Yet as the world prepares for the 19 September Summit for refugees and migrants, cultural questions remain largely absent from the draft Declaration and compacts for migrants and refugees, referred to instead in implicit or tangential ways. There are, however, a few key exceptions that I will highlight, while emphasising the need for a greater focus on the important cultural contributions of migrants to societies around the world. There is clearly a great potential for culture to empower those on the move and to build bridges within diverse societies, but we must be careful to ensure that cultural narratives are not misused in divisive ways.

    Diversity enriches every society

    The draft Declaration recognises that “diversity enriches every society and contributes to social cohesion” – something that is all too often taken for granted. The cultural diversity that accompanies migration enables new perspectives and experiences to be exchanged through intercultural encounters; it allows for creative and hybrid cultural practices to emerge; and it creates a general societal openness to difference and to change.

    Societies with large migrant populations are in many ways translocal and transnational themselves, already connected to many parts of the world through migrant and diasporic practices and networks. We can see these positive impacts of migration and cultural diversity very vividly at a local level, not least in global cities such as London, São Paulo, Berlin and New York (to name just a few), but also in smaller cities with culturally plural populations.

    Many of these localities work towards sensitising basic services such as health centres, schools and public offices to the needs of diverse multi-lingual populations, as well as supporting cultural expression in public spaces. A commitment to developing such policies of inclusion is precisely what is needed to promote equal opportunities, foster social cohesion and to support the basic conditions that will enable the positive aspects of cultural diversity to flourish.

    Culture as empowerment

    Culture may also serve as a crucial means for empowerment and self-expression for migrants and refugees during their journeys, including in situations of trauma and loss. The ability to practice one’s faith, to express oneself through music, poetry, theatre or cooking, offer critical support to migrants and refugees as they build new lives and homes, while seeking a common sense of humanity with the societies to which they move. The draft refugee compact recognises that “empowered refugees are better able to contribute to their own and their communities’ well-being” – a point that pertains to all on the move, regardless of their migratory status. Indeed, cultural spaces offer those displaced the opportunities and resources to reshape identities in new environments, to connect with homes left behind, and to improve a subjective sense of well-being.

    Countering a divisive cultural politics

    Unfortunately, we are now seeing increasingly dangerous and violent uses of cultural narratives in different national contexts: in the form of xenophobia, racism and other manifestations of prejudice. The draft Declaration rightly states that we must ‘strongly condemn acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance against refugees and migrants’.

    Such acts provoke hatred and fear towards those perceived as culturally different, and are based on static understandings of culture. They overlook how cultures travel, intermingle and are constantly being remade through transnational encounters, as they have for centuries.

    It is important to counter these divisive narratives and acts of violence in order to protect and uphold the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees who face these abuses; instead, we need to make space for a politics that recognises the cultural contributions of migrants.

    One opportunity to do this is by supporting the UN Secretary General’s call for a global campaign to counter xenophobia, a campaign that also needs to involve the media to ensure the communication of evidence-based information, and the use of responsible, humane language.

    Another important factor will be to develop longer-term policies that promote intercultural dialogue and interaction through education at all levels. Engaging the educational and cultural sectors – with the active participation of migrants and refugees – will be key; because films, photography, exhibitions and performances on themes of migration and displacement can do much to inform wider publics about these pressing issues, while also fostering a spirit of empathy.

    Cultures of migration have become an intrinsic part of our global reality. Putting a cultural lens on migration will enable us to understand the aspirations and multiple identities held by so many on the move, and allow us to move forward in developing sensitive policies of inclusion, welcome and solidarity.


    Summit Series #1: What Will be the Legacy of Alan Kurdi’s Death?
    Summit Series #2: How to Walk the Talk to End Forced Migration?
    Summit Series #3: Migration and the Power of Culture
    Summit Series #4: Why Migrant Vulnerability Is a Community Health Issue
    Summit Series #5: Migration and Climate Change: Shoring Up Communities and Commitments
    Summit Series #6: Why It’s Time to Get Serious about Migration and Development
    Summit Series #7: The New York Declaration: What Next for Refugees & Migrants?