Columnist says Migrants Disrespect Emirati Culture

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Oct 11 2013

Migrant Rights continues to call on writers, journalists, and artists to end a dangerously dominant discourse depicting the Gulf's migrant workers as prejudiced, privileged, and opportunistic. Media reports and op-eds continue to trivialize the plight of migrant workers and to blame them for crime and unemployment rates.  A recent Gulf News column penned by Emirati writer Fatma al Falasi posited the division between 'expatriates' and nationals in the UAE,  claiming that migrants choose not to socialize or interact with Emiratis.

The columnist claims:

"many of these residents, due to ignorance or in some cases being over comfortable, fail to respect its culture and religion. The lack of interest in learning about a country’s people and culture encourages the behaviour of not respecting it."

The writer's first suggestion that migrants are "ignorant" disregards the migrants who have resided in the UAE for generations and also overlooks the cultural training programs that many migrants are required to undergo.  Her second claim that some migrants are "over-comfortable" implies that their presence is always temporary and peripheral - that they should never dare to feel they belong, a point which contravenes the author's denunciation of the divisiveness migrants allegedly create.

The 'reverse victimization' narrative prevalent throughout Gulf media takes on a new shape here; the author posits locals are merely reacting to the problems caused wholly by migrants:

"While it is unrealistic to deny that many Emiratis are socially reserved, this is just a reaction. We suddenly found ourselves sharing space with more than 200 nationalities."

The writer appears to assume that locals' superior of position of power absolves locals' of their own potential (lack of) awareness of and respect for the lives and cultures of their neighbors. For example, she does not mention the practice of some employers requiring non-Muslim domestic workers to wear hijab, or  preventing workers from celebrating their own holidays.  Though cultural days and celebrations exist for many migrants, they are often relatively self-contained.

Yet simultaneously, the author fails to admit that such socio-economic and racial stratification - many of which are structurally reinforced -  account for social divisions and misunderstandings.

Furthermore typical of this discourse, the columnist does not hesitate in considering migrants privileged, as Emiratis found themselves "in situations where expatriates are treated better by cashiers or waiters and when Emiratis were not taken seriously."

She elaborates:

"That is when we assumed we are conspired against in every situation, be it intentional or unintentional."

But locals are not "suddenly" finding their spaces are shared - large-scale migration to the Gulf has existed for decades.  Yet the author discusses migration as if it is an unexpected phenomenon independent from locals, which they are merely effected by but cannot adjust to, no matter how much they benefit.  Such xenophobic perspectives are not exclusive to the UAE or to the Gulf at all, but are detrimental in any context. These conspiracy theories -  the notion that migrants are taking over, that they already enjoy too many rights despite unequal labor laws and unequal access to health, legal, and social services  - are detrimental to migrant rights.  Speaking the U.N. Higher Level Dialogue on Migration and Development last week, the IOM  identified misleading public perception of migrants one of the greatest obstacles to procuring, implementing, and protecting their rights.

Gulf News has published equitable perspectives of issues pertaining to migrants in the past, but it also publishes a number erroneous pieces, including this one, that perpetuate xenophobic discourse. Free press is a human right, but should not be used to transgress upon the human rights - and the humanity - of others.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East