A conversation with Hammoud Gallego — Global Issues

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Omar Hammoud Gallego
  • Opinion by Jan Lundius (Stockholm, sweden)
  • Inter Press Service

Populists have convinced voters that immigration is the greatest threat to nations, not inequality or climate change. Politicized storytellers have found that fear of “the other” can be a means to gain power. This fear is not a concern. You can also find out more about the following: “other” – respected professionals who move to another country are usually not labelled as “migrants”, neither are wealthy businessmen who acquire new passports as easily as they move their money around the world.

Jan Lundius, a fellow of the London School of Economics and Political Science, met Dr Omar Hammoud Gallego to gain some insights into the often-overshadowed phenomenon of global migration.

Hammoud GallegoLike many of my friends and colleagues, I am a son of migrants. My parents met in different parts of the globe, married, and settled themselves in a tertiary country. It was not my main motivation to focus on migration during my research. While working for UNHCR, I found that there was little research on migration in Latin America. I began to read more about regional migration. I decided to do a PhD on the topic.

Was it the specific situation of Colombia that caused you to shift your primary interest from internal migration towards regional migrations?

Hammoud GallegoYes, Colombia has seen a large influx of Venezuelan migrants and refugees over the past few years (although they’re only recognized as refugees in a small number of countries). A phenomenon that is not going away. More than 7,7 million migrants and refugees have left Venezuela as a result of political turmoil, socio-economic instability and an ongoing humanitarian crisis, roughly a quarter of the country’s population. While democratic backsliding in the country began with Hugo Chávez, the situation worsened considerably during the presidency of his successor since 2013, Nicolás Maduro. More than 6,5 millions refugees are currently hosted in Latin American countries and Caribbean countries. Close to three million of them live in Colombia, 1.5 million in Peru and nearly half a million each in Chile and Ecuador.

IPS: Is the main cause of this exodus political?

Hammoud Gallego To a certain degree – yes. The Venezuelan government’s inept and corruption handling of the economy, combined with the plummeting of oil prices, caused the PDVSA to drastically reduce its output. This led to lower government revenues. Venezuela, like many other countries with large oil reserves, has developed into a rentier stateThe majority of the country’s income comes from oil exports. Since 2013, the country’s economy has suffered greatly. In 2018, inflation was over 63,000 percent higher than the previous year. Nearly 90 percent of the country’s population lives in poverty. Estimates by the UN and Human Rights Watch indicate that under Maduro’s administration close to 20,000 people have been subject to alleged extrajudicial killings.

Is Venezuela still in a state of agony?

Hammoud Gallego Yes, and the current geopolitical landscape seems to have favoured Maduro’s regime rather than debilitated him. The country is Russia’s largest trading and military ally within South America. Due to the energy crisis linked to Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, the US government in October last year lifted sanctions on the Venezuelan oil and mining sector, which had been in place since early 2019. Despite this influx in money and support, Venezuela’s situation remains severe. Few Venezuelans return to their country of birth. Many are now making their way north through Panama, the Darien gap and the United States. Venezuelan elections are set to take place this year. However, it is not clear if Maduro allows them to be conducted fairly and transparently.

How is UNHCR managing the Venezuelan Refugee Crisis?

Hammoud GallegoThe UNHCR depends almost entirely on contributions from voluntary sources. The UNHCR’s funding is based on the results of its annual audit. Global AppealThe process through which the government asks some private donors and governments to contribute to the support for refugees. In 2023, 74 percent of this funding came from only 10 donors, with most of the funds earmarked to specific crises, and only 15 percent consisting of multi-year funds. Commitments are constantly changing and crises in different parts of the world compete with each other for limited resources. When a refugee crises erupted in Ukraine due to the war, less funding was allocated to Latin American countries that hosted Venezuelan refugees as well as UNHCR’s commitments in other parts around the world. There are also many NGOs that make a real difference in the lives and circumstances of many refugees. For example, NGO VeneActivaThe fact that it was founded by Venezuelan women migrants and operated in Peru is one of Latin America’s best examples of civil society providing the support that refugees need. Its digital platform provides key information to help Venezuelan nationals restart their lives in Peru. The NGO provides a variety of services, including psychological support and advice on how to regularise one’s migratory status.

IPS: As in other European countries, you live in the UK where migration is a high priority on the political calendar. Can you give us some insight into how the UK deals with the migration issue?

Hammoud GallegoOver the past few years, the Conservative Government in the UK has faced a dilemma it created. Brexit was supposed to result in a decrease in immigration. However, the opposite has now been observed. Despite this, the lack enough immigrants to fill vacant positions in public sector, especially in education and healthcare, as well as to undertake seasonal jobs in agriculture and construction has limited the growth of the economy in the country. Covid and the Brexit were both extremely hard on the health sector.

How is the migration issue affecting the ruling party?

Hammoud GallegoSince 2010, the UK has been governed by a Conservative government. Conservative party leaders have made migration a major issue in their campaigns. According to the most recent polling, 46 percent of voters are expected to vote for Labour in a general elections, while only 22 percent will vote for the Conservative Party. Conservative politicians are concerned about losing votes, especially to the Reform Party. So they adopt absurd measures to discourage asylum seekers. The Rwanda asylum plan is one such scheme.

IPS: Could explain whether or not the Rwanda plan was a feasible project and why some Conservative politicians proposed such a solution to asylum seekers.

Hammoud GallegoThis proposal proposes that some of those asylum seekers who illegally enter the UK will be sent to Rwanda to be processed. Those who were successful in claiming asylum in Rwanda would remain there. This proposal is absurd and based on two false assumptions. First, the majority of asylum seekers are aware of this scheme. Most asylum seekers receive their information from non-official sources. Often, this is the smugglers, who arrange their journeys. Even if they were aware of the scheme, there is little chance that it would deter them. The choice of a destination depends on a number of factors, including the language they speak and the network they have. Also, many asylum seekers have taken risks on their journey to the UK, and have suffered a lot. So, for them, the minimal risk of being sent back to Rwanda is an acceptable risk. This plan will not only encourage people to avoid applying for asylum in the UK but to live there in an irregular status.

IPS: How do you view the future for asylum seekers and so called “economic” migrants?

Hammoud GallegoIt looks bad. Climate change will likely exacerbate conflicts across the globe, forcing people to relocate. It may already be too late to deal with this challenge, both locally and internationally. Asylum seekers are forced to take dangerous journeys because there are no viable resettlement programs and insufficient investments in green energy. One of the biggest myths about economic migration is that people will be less inclined to leave as countries get wealthier. In reality, the poorest people in the Global South are the least likely to travel because they lack the financial means to do so. The poor cannot afford moving. As countries get richer, the middle class will migrate and travel more.

What can be done about migrants who have already settled in Europe and elsewhere?

Hammoud GallegoA good place to begin would be with well-thought-out integration policies that are implemented forcefully and sensible migration policies. There are numerous examples of successful integration. Nations like the UK, which has a Prime Minister of Indian descent, as well as the Mayor of London, and First Minister of Scotland, both sons of Pakistani immigrants, are proof to some degree. In the face of sudden refugee crises the European countries’ response to the Ukrainian crisis is a good example. Let refugees go wherever they want and you can avoid a humanitarian disaster. The politics of Europe, however, seems to be heading in the opposite directions. In Germany, Sweden Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands and other European nations, anti-migration, nationalistic and anti-immigration forces are growing, especially among young people, who distrust the ageing, unrepresentative and traditional parties. If everyone who voted in the election had been aged under 35, Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) might have won even more votes. In last year’s French presidential runoff, Marine le Pen won 39 percent of votes from people aged 18-24 and 49 percent of those aged 25-34, le Pen’s deputy is the 28 years old Jordan Bardella. Giorgia Meloni’s ruling Brothers of Italy was the preferred party among people under 35 years of age. I expect that Donald Trump’s likely win in the next US elections would boost European anti-migration policies.

What can be immediately done to address the issue affecting migrants and asylum-seekers already in Europe?

Hammoud GallegoIt would be a great start if governments across Europe pursued sensible and evidence-based policies on migration instead of replicating the far-right talking point. Instead of focusing on migration as a way to gain votes, principled opposition politicians should focus on the aspects of migration policy that could be improved. Integration and inclusion is key for people who come to Europe. Integration is a duty as well as a right. This means that everyone in a society should adapt to the fundamental human rights such as democracy, rule of law and freedom of speech.
In light of the fact that migration is a highly politicised topic, it has been suggested that long-term migrants should be granted the right to vote. This would make their support more appealing to decision makers and politicians. Chile and New Zealand allow all residents the right to vote. They hope this will reduce polarisation. Under all circumstances it would be desirable if we could live in a world where migrants were considered as fellow human beings, rather than as scapegoats for governments’ ineptitudes.

IPS UN Bureau

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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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