Five years ago, when 12 staff were killed and 11 others were injured in a terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris, a worldwide movement ‘Je suis Charlie’ emerged online backed by supporters of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
Now, as the world faces the challenge of overcoming the coronavirus and when borders around the world are being closed, it is time for a new rallying cry, ‘We are all Migrants’. We need to pledge that we won’t let the flame of humanity in our hearts die even when people live in fear of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I write this from Cotonou, the largest city in Benin, which is under lockdown. I was studying in Milan when the virus began to tear through northern Italy, and I decided to fly home to find safety with my family.
This journey set me thinking about what happens when a new and untreatable virus leads to panic in the developed world. We have witnessed extraordinary things, including Cuba sending 53 medics and nurses to help the Italian people cope with coronavirus pandemic. In fact, Italy was the first developed European country to accept help from Cuba. Ten doctors from China also came to Italy’s rescue.
So, migration means compassion, generosity and solidarity.
It also means safety and survival. As the coronavirus crisis sent shockwaves around the world, some Italians tourists had a small dose of what life is like for a migrant. In Ethiopia, 35 Italians holidaying there refused to return home despite their visas having expired, preferring the safety of Africa to the dangers of virus-ravaged Italy. In another case, 40 tourists from northern Italy who flew into Mauritius were told they need to go into quarantine. They refused and decided to fly back home after 24 hours at the airport.
The Italians said they had been caught up in a ‘nightmare’ but, bearing in mind that the Italian government has closed its ports to ships full of rescued refugees, one could comment: ‘What goes around comes all the way back.’
Finally, the women and men who enable our society to continue functioning through the COVID-19 crisis, the often-stigmatized migrants, need to be rewarded. Yes, look no further than hospital floor cleaners, usually in western Europe with Black, Arab or Asian faces, the cashiers at supermarkets, the roads cleaners at night in the big cities. They have continued doing their jobs despite the high risk of exposure to the virus. And those benefiting from their services have been happy to see that some people are taking care of them. Let us face the truth: the developed world needs help from the least developed places.
Whether you are based in East Timor, Macao, Iceland, Australia, Geneva or London let us make a statement together for more inclusion, equality and diversity.
At this time, what we need is more stories to help bring about change in the future – stories that invite us to accept the unfamiliar and to re-discover ourselves through the faces of others and the places we travel to.
After my travels in America and Europe, I understand the words of the French novelist Gustave Flaubert, ‘Travelling makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.’ Let us make each of the tiny places we occupy better places for humanity.
Stephanie Kotchofa is a member of the Common Futures Conversations community, which is supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung
For more interesting perspectives, explore the Living with coronavirus full collection.