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Hospitality towards foreigners as an essential element of democracy

by Richard Meckien - published Oct 29, 2015 11:10 AM - - last modified Nov 16, 2015 04:35 PM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa. Translation by Carlos Malferrari.

Debate 'O Desafio da Hospitalidade: Emigrantes e Refugiados'
Resistance to refugees: an issue of economy or identity?

Is hospitality an essential principle of democracy? This was the question that guided the second debate of the IEA's Laboratory of Global Megatrends and Challenges to Democracy, which took place on October 22 at the IEA. The theme of the event was The Challenge of Hospitality: Migrants and Refugees.

According to the coordinator of the laboratory and debate, Portuguese political scientist Álvaro de Vasconcelos, global immigration is a decisive factor in the assertiveness of identitarian currents that threaten democracies in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

In addition to Vasconcelos, who is collaborating professor at USP’s Institute of International Relations, four panelists participated in the event: Geraldo Adriano Godoy de Campos (professor of the International Relations course at Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing, ESPM), Sylvia Dantas (professor at Unifesp and coordinator of the IEA’s Intercultural Dialogues Research Group), João Alberto Alves Amorim (professor of International Law at Unifesp and coordinator of the Sérgio Vieira de Mello Chair of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR), and Larissa Leite (coordinator of the Department of Protection of the Reference Center for Refugees of Caritas Arquidiocesana, São Paulo).

Related material

Laboratory of Global Megatrends and Challenges to Democracy

1st debate

The Challenge of Identity-Based Nationalism
June 24, 2015

2nd debate

The Challenge of Hospitality: Migrants and Refugees
October 22, 2015

The laboratory is a partnership between the IEA and USP’s Institute of International Relations. The first debate, held in June, addressed the issue The Challenge of Identity-Based Nationalism.

Opening the event, Vasconcelos said hospitality is a paramount element of democracy and its principles should be incorporated into the human rights. He recalled that, addressing the matter, philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) said that one should “welcome the other without knowing their identity.”

Larissa Leite
Larissa Leite

Larissa Leite stated her belief that hospitality is an integral part of democracy, as it aims to “promote human dignity.” However, in her talk, she chose to highlight general aspects that hinder the reception of refugees in Brazil. She reported that there are about 25,000 of them in the country – including acknowledged refugees, asylum seekers and unidentified.

The main problem is that nationality is a determinant of their rights, she said:  “We try to justify the principle of solidarity in this way, when in fact we should do it through hospitality.”

For Leite, Brazil’s foremost challenge is to build a fair, transparent and stable system for people in vulnerable conditions, such as refugees and those subjected to human trafficking and slave labor.

She said that Brazil’s immigration system dates back to the final period of the dictatorship, is based on exclusionary principles and has several loopholes in the legislation. “What guarantees do people have that their case will be examined with impartiality, transparency and no pressure from international relations?” she asked.

In São Paulo, according to her, attitudes towards refugees are similar but also extreme. She said there is both hospitality and curiosity about alien cultures, and people and organizations that want to get involved and show what they are doing (“the problem is that often it is the latter element that stands out”). At the other extreme, she identified the emergence of numerous subtle reactions to the presence of foreigners. These attitudes are also “based on feelings, not on rational issues.”

João Alberto Alves Amorim said he also considers hospitality an essential element of democracy: “If I regard the equal right to participate as the essence of a democratic system, I must welcome the refugees.” However, he also chose to examine other related issues.

João Alberto Álvares Amorim
João Alberto Alves Amorim

In his view, “We live today a crisis of meaning, so there is the need to re-signify certain concepts, even that of democracy; likewise, the ‘other’ does not have the same meaning as it had in the past century.”

The news constantly mentions the barbarism and even the trivialization of the problems, he said. “The impression is that we have gone back to the early 20th century and, in some cases, to the Middle Ages. So far, we haven’t even attained equality for women in most Western societies.”

Still, Amorim believes society has been showing growing awareness of the suffering of others, although “it is not possible to know how much of this attitude is natural or concocted by the media.”

“The same people who display a heightened sensitivity on social networks, who wept for the dead boy on the beach in Turkey, are not touched by the killing of the black population in the outskirts of Brazilian cities,” he exemplified.

He warns, however, that when promoting the necessary re-signification of concepts, society should beware of those who try to impose discriminatory measures. Amorim sees a risk in an “allegedly counterterrorism bill” now being discussed that typifies these crimes and allows for the forfeiture of assets according to the norms of the UN Security Council.

Sylvia Dantas
Sylvia Dantas

For Sylvia Dantas, “nowadays, the other is seen as a threat that comes to disturb our tranquility, the life of privileges we have been granted.”

She said the problem is that “we are not asking enough questions.” As an example, she reported that at an annual UNHCR workshop in Brasilia, someone asked how the agency supports itself. “I found it curious that the UNHCR has a $3 billion annual budget and yet maintains itself through voluntary contributions from donor countries and individuals,” many of which, according to her, are not conspicuous for their observance of a humanitarian perspective.

In the opinion of Geraldo Adriano Godoy de Campos, hospitality conflicts with the principle of nationality of the modern State, for it presupposes the unconditional acceptance of the Other. This conflict “points to a problem in the relationship between citizenship and nationality, and to certain limits in the establishment of the nation-State.”

Geraldo Adriano Godoy
Geraldo Adriano Godoy de Campos

He said society exists today in a confluence of crises (institutional, environmental, of trade unions, of the nation-State), but the deepest crisis is cognitive, which leads everyone to ponder “how conceptual fields are organized and what is the meaning of words.”

Before opening the discussion to the public, Vasconcelos said that Brazilian hospitality towards refugees might be the result of their small number (25,000), whereas there are 4 million of them in the countries neighboring Syria. He said the debate in Europe revolves around the question of identity: “Finland discusses whether the presence of 300,000 refugees would alter the country’s identity.”

Another issue he raised is the contrast between the ostensible solidarity of social networks and reality. “The trend in social networks is ‘customization,’ because the information we get to see is the one we want to see. Do social networks correspond to reality or to what is important for our friends?”

In the debate with the public, Dina Kinoshita, former professor at USP’s Institute of Physics and former researcher at the IEA, said 800,000 immigrants entered Europe in recent years and she does not think the problem of accepting them is simply a question of identity, as Vasconcelos said, because “one must provide living conditions for these people.”

Álvaro Vasconcelos
Álvaro de Vasconcelos

Commenting on the religious issue, Kinoshita said that the prerogative of the secular State is strong in France and that “admitting a large number of immigrants who advocate a religious State is a problem that goes far beyond one of rights.”

In response, Dantas said that Kinoshita’s viewpoint reflected the unease many people feel toward immigrants and that leads them “to consider culture as something airtight, frozen, when in fact it is always changing,” including through the presence of immigrants.

According to Amorim, European countries are pondering the variables, because they need these labor resources but want to select the most convenient laborers. With regard to the religious issue, he finds it significant that the secular State is discussed only in relation to Islam, while in Brazil there is great clamor whenever someone proposes to remove crucifixes from the walls of public buildings.

Vasconcelos said that although economic logic indicates that Europe needs millions of immigrants, this causes reactions, “thus revealing that the central issue is question of identity.”

Photo: Leonor Calazans/IEA-USP