Spirit of ‘Ubuntu’ called for at World Social Forum on Migration

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The 6th edition of the World Social Forum on Migration (WSFM), the very first on the African continent, took place earlier this month in Johannesburg, South Africa and featured a number of seminars which centered around this year’s theme – Migration in the Heart of our Humanity: Defending our freedom and re-thinking mobility, development and globalization. The use of the word “our” is telling as it reinforces the unified motif that follows South Africa’s historic designation as the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ “at peace with itself, and the world,” as Nelson Mandela would proclaim during his 1994 inauguration speech.

The diversity of the WSFM was represented through its six pillars, covered during the forum:

1. Asylum seekers, refugees and forced migration, 2. Migration, social cohesion and integration, 3. Migration, globalisation and crises: trends and alternatives, 4. Globalisation, migration and gender, 5. Human Rights, citizenship, 6. Migration, environment and climate change.

Among those attending the forum was general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Zwelinzima Vavi, who delivered the opening address, and renowned poet Zolani Mkiva, also known as the Poet of Africa, who recited at the ceremony for the release of Nelson Mandela in 1991 and who was subsequently named “Imbongi Yesiwe, i.e. Poet of the Nation.” Organizations from across the globe, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), emphasized the interconnectedness of migrant struggles that exist between Africa and the rest of the world. According to the WSFM press release some 4,000 delegates “from civil society organisations, social movements, migrant and Diasporas organisations, trade unions” went on to share experiences and build solidarity around its primary objective: “to contribute to the strengthening of civil society organizations and social movements working on human rights and migration on the African continent.”

The opening of WSFM, as described by Dr. Stefan Rother, Senior Researcher on Migration, Development and Human Rights at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany, on his Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD) blog, took place “on the first anniversary of the passing of Nelson Mandela” wherein “several speakers called upon the spirit of Ubuntu (humanity towards others) which they found missing in current migration policies – in particular the ones of the host country South Africa.” Dr. Rother’s updates from the forum incorporate observations as well as stunning photographs, including those of attendees wearing the keffiyeh, the traditional symbol of Palestinian resistance.

Dr. Rother tells Al-Akhbar English that the World Social Forum on Migration gave migrants a voice in regards to the “(global) governance of migration” and that WSFM gave them an opportunity to create their own spaces. According to Dr. Rother the subject of Palestine was “very dominant during the whole forum”:

“There were speakers in most plenary sessions, many statements, material was distributed etc. [in regards to Palestine]. They even made their own keffiyeh with the WSFM logo printed on it. This strong showing was new to me, but apparently Palestinians are very involved in the ‘main’ World Social Forum as well. Plus, the struggle against apartheid has often been linked to the situation in Palestine – the Palestinian delegates were very pleased to find a Mandela quote on this issue on a billboard when coming in from the airport.”

One of the seminars, as reported by an attendee at WSFM, which took place December 7, covered the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions movement (BDS) and featured Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, lecturer and researcher at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities, and on December 8, Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), was part of the session on human rights and citizenship. Palestinians remain one of the most vulnerable displaced groups, and the Palestinian refugee crisis remains the most protracted in recent history; the right of return has yet to be implemented and Palestinian refugees face a sort of displacement within a displacement in the refugee camps of Lebanon and Syria. According to a report released in 2013 by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), Palestinian refugees “constitute 44.2 percent of the total Palestinian population in Palestine.” “United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) records showed that there were 5.3 million Palestinian refugees registered in mid-2013, constituting 45.7 percent of the total Palestinian population worldwide.”

When asked about accomplishments, struggles and the lasting impact of WSFM Dr. Rother explains that the forum faced a number of obstacles, which included the city of Johannesburg withdrawing its support “a mere two weeks before the event”:

“What was less successful was connecting the meeting and discussions to all the previous events and resolutions. There is a need for more continuity in the way migrants organize and voice their demands (as well as in the content of these demands). This is something that needs to be worked on seriously before the next such event. On a plus side, in particular the delegates from 27 African nations learned more about their respective work and might form closer collaborations in the future; there was also strong critique on the border policies of the EU which reach far into Africa (externalisation of borders) and the xenophobic treatment of migrants in South Africa – according to one speaker, life was better for African migrants in South Africa during apartheid.”

Mandela’s inaugural address was clearly part of the fabric of the World Social Forum on Migration. His calls for justice, “...work, bread, water and salt for all,” and the reinforcement of a unified “inalienable right to human dignity” were woven into every seminar and indigenous performances.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist and commentator. She tweets @roqchams and writes 'Letters From the Underground.'

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