When we heard that the most important factor explaining the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom last month was immigration, it emphasised to us the importance of cultivating good host-migrant relations. As experienced humanitarian workers know, the attention afforded vulnerable migrants by humanitarian and development agencies, often rouses deep resentments in those sections of host populations that come to see themselves as under-served, neglected and at a disadvantage to the migrants.
It is important to always be vigilant about possible resentment, and to remember that although agencies may supply relief, protection and other forms of support, the most important refuge for the displaced is the society in which they find a new home - no matter how temporarily. In a country like South Sudan, traumatised by conflict, famine, extreme hardship and biting poverty, host populations are themselves vulnerable to the very stresses that pushed forced migrants out of their homes. They may still be at home, but host communities are not immune to the stresses of the surrounding countryside and often sense themselves as not privileged over those they welcome into their midst.
HDC's approach in managing host-community relations has followed the UNHCR model. Working both preemptively and to manage existing antipathy, HDC has sought to ensure that host populations are apportioned a share of the benefits of any interventions aimed at the migrant populations. Whether in material goods, or emoluments accruing from serving in the humanitarian sector, host communities need to see themselves as co-participating with the relief agencies in the hosting of the new migrants. This often involves employment opportunities, or even temporary labour, in construction, aid distribution, security and other aspects of relief work that give host communities a material interest, and a sense of improved welfare in return for their generosity as hosts.
Integration of migrants into the host population takes time, and might not be desirable to either group. Assimilation might threaten elements of both groups, and segregation/separation only leads to a heightened risk of conflict between strangers. As communities work out for themselves the nature of their relations, external actors work in the intervening period to foster opportunities for peaceful interaction between the two populations. This helps reduce the sense that strangers are dangerous, and gradually introduces the migrants to the prevailing customs of the space they now inhabit, and allows an organic generosity on the part of the host population.
HDC's is particularly interested in creating spaces where community leadership and opinion shapers become aware of differences, and the implications of their shared occupation of space. As an organisation, we desire to give these leaders channels for the peaceful co-management of inter-community relations, for the address of grievance and the cultivation of shared customs. We want to work together to reduce the likelihood of conflicts between the two groups arising from
a) spatial constraints
b) scarce resources/ strains on natural resources
c) cultural differences
d) migrant interference in local traditions of resource exploitation
This is hard work, and we try to learn from our experience everywhere we work. Perceptions of bias aren't always based in fact, but perceptions as in the Brexit case, can have truly deleterious effects. No two migrant-host settings are similar, but it remains important everywhere to adopt a flexible and community-led approach to sustained peace and good neighbourliness, building communities of care that both migrants and their hosts feel invested in.