Keep an open mind and heart to the strangers among us, says Alice Nah

  A Chinese migrant looks at a mini Christmas tree he received and decorated during a Christmas party held at a Singapore parish. A Chinese migrant looks at a mini Christmas tree he received and decorated during a Christmas party held at a Singapore parish.OUR societies are undergoing rapid change. Our shops are stocked with an increasing number of goods assembled and transported from all over the world.

The films, television shows and documentaries we watch bring us into the lives of other people and places. Our tastes – in music, art and food – are evolving as we are more exposed to different cultures.

Such change can be liberating. Such change can also bring fear – fear that our fundamental values will be challenged, that the newcomers in our communities will have what is ours, that there will not be enough space or jobs for everyone.

We may like travelling abroad and experiencing life elsewhere but we also become cautious when foreigners come and stay with us.

God is not opposed to the movement of people. He instructed Abram (before he was renamed Abraham) to leave his country, his people and his father’s home and to settle permanently in a foreign land (Genesis 12:1).

He led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt into their promised land. He instructed Joseph to seek refuge in Egypt with Mary and Jesus (Matthew 2:13). He brought Paul through missionary journeys across the Mediterranean Sea.

God has much to say about how we should respond to foreigners. He tells us to have the same laws for them as for our native-born (Leviticus 24:22) and to treat them as we treat our own (Leviticus 19:34). He tells us to love them, for He too, loves them and defends their cause (Deuteronomy 19:18-19).

God also instructs us not to oppress foreigners (Exodus 22:21), not to mistreat them (Leviticus 19:33-34), or deprive them of justice (Deuteronomy 24:17).

God judges those who do so (Malachi 3:5), warning that those who withhold justice from them are cursed (Deuteronomy 27:19).

MIGRATION has increased tremendously over the past two decades. The number of migrants in Southeast Asia has more than doubled from 1990 to 2010, climbing from 3.06 million to 6.71 million according to the United Nations.

The World Bank identifies the two largest “migration corridors” in the region as being Malaysia-Singapore, with around 1 million documented migrants, and Indonesia-Malaysia, with around 700,000 documented migrants.

Migrants have also had a significant impact on societies in Thailand and Brunei. In contrast, Indonesia, Burma, the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam are primarily “sending countries”, with policies that promote emigration for economic gain.

Migrants in Southeast Asia face a number of challenges in their host countries. They are susceptible to cheating by agents and employers. Those who suffer grievances – such as unpaid wages, difficult work conditions, work-related accidents, and physical or sexual abuse – find it difficult to gain justice through the courts, which is often costly and time-consuming.

They do difficult jobs shunned by locals and face xenophobia and isolation. Those with irregular status are at threat of arrest, detention, punishment and deportation.

It is easy to ignore migrants in our societies. It is easier to walk on by than to stop, talk, find out about their lives, and befriend them. It is easier to let governments set the laws, policies and practices that shape their lives than to advocate changes that promote justice and equality.

However, God has set us a high standard by which He will judge us – He urges us to love foreigners as we love ourselves, to treat them equally and to ensure that they have justice.

This will not happen if we keep to ourselves; it happens only when we reach out in love. Let us keep an open mind and open heart to the strangers amongst us and to love as God loves them.

The writer is a Malaysian who conducts research and advocates the rights of migrants and refugees in Southeast Asia. This article was written for the Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants & Itinerant People (EMI) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

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