International Migrants Day usually comes as a placid reminder of the contributions that immigrants make to our national life. It merges easily into the Christmas celebrations with their emphasis on universal good will and peace.
This year, however, the celebration of migrants has a touch of defiance. In Europe political parties that oppose immigration have gained support. Nations are barricading themselves against Syrian refugees. In Australia our Muslim brothers and sisters face increasing discrimination and denigration, often from people holding public office. So to speak with gratitude and respect of migrants is done in the teeth of the prevailing wind.
Migrants Day invites us to enter the lives of immigrants. They initially experience displacement, having lost the grounding they take for granted in their own lands through language, familiar relationships, customs and a shared culture. To be so stripped is a hard experience. Immigrants need strength and welcome if they are to build new connections and find in their host country a new home.
But we don’t simply feel sympathy for immigrants. We should also be grateful to them for what they contribute to our society. Even on the surface level of society we can see the gift they are to us. If you think back to a time in Australia when there were no Italian, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, African or Indian restaurants, not to mention Asian markets, and you can see how much poorer we would be without the people who have come here as immigrants.
At a deeper level, too, those of us privileged enough to form friendships with people from other cultures have been prompted to reflect more deeply on what matters most deeply to us in our own lives. For Christians who remember the rhythm of Lent and Easter, to rediscover it through their Muslim friends as they move from Ramadan to Eid may lead them deeper into their own history.
Our world has always been a world of migration. Today migrants everywhere have special needs; many live in a world of disadvantage. In some countries migrant workers are savagely exploited and unprotected by law.
In Australia, too, they can be isolated and discriminated against and feel that others see their culture as a burden, not as something to be proud of. And of course if they come by boat seeking protection they are sentenced to trudge their tortured way through the circles of hell. They need our advocacy and support.
International Migrants Day and Christmas are both about connection. Most of our descendants came as immigrants to a land that already had its traditional Indigenous owners. So we are connected with them and with other immigrants. We are invited to deepen our connection.
Migrants Day and Christmas are also about celebration. Both invite us to recognise the unique value of each human being in our world, and to insist that this value be respected.