“You don’t need to love anyone to help them.” Federico Magrin asks if there’s any place for migrants in the team of five million.

The clouds dissipate, revealing a dim, pink light. Today is a normal winter day in Wellington. The afternoon is coming to an end. Couples hang onto each other, hoping for a promising fate. A future dancer sings silently, his biceps bursting out of a close-fitting ivory undervest. An old man sits mutely on a central corner of the city, holding a sign that asks me to be happy.

The air is cold and the sliding doors of an outdoor shop are inviting me in: “Join the warm conditioned air, escape the cold winter!” Millennials are vaping e-cigarettes and barricading their thoughts from a foreign attack. Social life is in danger, even though social networks are proliferating, even though our age is the most connected ever. Humanity has never been as connected as today. Nonetheless, individualistic life is prevailing.

While cycling to meet Laura Veronica Moreno Duran, a lawyer and PhD student, I ponder about Aotearoa New Zealand: a country born out of immigration – as almost all countries are. In the language of the past: a colony, where pioneers docked on the shores of new land to colonise and fortify it – a land thought of as pristine and inhabited.

Laura volunteered for a company helping refugees and immigrants to settle in New Zealand, while studying for her Master in Policy and Governance from the University of Canterbury. She says that there is no such thing as ‘the globalized world’, only ‘me and my vision’, when personal interest is at stake. She is referring to the contrast between social behaviours and individual reactions.

Laura is an immigrant herself, having left her home in Colombia in 2017. Back in South America, she was a criminal lawyer. Being an immigrant in New Zealand has been tough for her: it means going through discrimination, facing grounded-in-society prejudices and exacerbation of stereotypes. “People think you are not capable enough”, her heart screams, “but there is someone behind the barrier language”.

Her words are softened by education and experience. In her tone, you can spot a not-fully-acquired British accent, as well as the limping of her Latin roots. Laura chose to migrate to Aotearoa New Zealand over Europe because of a better immigration policy. Her choice was rational, but she thinks New Zealand immigration policy can be perfected. She underlines how it still works around the principle “people are welcome as far as they can pay”.

As a criminal lawyer in Colombia, Laura was “fighting the system” from within, dealing with offences against the administration of justice. The first case she took was pro bono. Pedro was a farmer who started fighting the state back in the ’80s. In 2014-2015, she took his case filing complaints before several authorities, but the answer was that “nothing unusual had happened, and the judicial system was slow due to the number of cases they had to review”, therefore, the complaints were not investigated. Pedro waited for more than 35 years for justice and the struggle pushed him to take his life in 2017. According to Laura, justice per se is rotten and inequal.

“You have to adjust and survive”. After arriving in Christchurch, Laura experienced culture shock. In her opinion, Wellington is more diverse, or, better, there is more room for diversity. She recalls a simile used by a professor, back in Christchurch. Cultures are like quiches and coconuts: some are soft outside, but they have a strong-flavoured core; some have a thick skin, but then they are sweet inside. He was drawing a divide between Latin-rooted cultures and Kiwi culture.

Having experienced the New Zealand volunteer world from inside, she says that Kiwis value volunteers and admire the work done for the community. In Christchurch, Laura was also volunteering for an association that helps women who were victims of family violence and fights gender-based discrimination towards women and LGBTIQ+ people. She loves listening to people who can be political actors. Her main interest, nonetheless, remains working with vulnerable migrants and refugees.

Laura has a deep interest in international human rights and refugees. While volunteering in Canterbury as a home tutor, she used to visit refugees in their homes and help them with language, culture, and resettlement. Working closely with them was a turning point, she heard their stories and discovered her passion. Her mantra became: “There is no excuse to discriminate any more”. We cannot persist with the discourse of hatred and blame. We cannot fall into the trap of stupidity. Laura says that we need to shatter the barrier of alterity and to see the other person as a human being.

“Get involved in the community, get outside”, she suggests. It is the best way to tackle immigration issues. Experience allows us to relate and connect – to share. “We don’t’ need to wait until others educate us.”

Her passion is so extraordinary that she gained a doctoral scholarship at Victoria University of Wellington. A large part of her research will include listening to and engaging with people. She wants to answer questions on immigration policies and refugees, examining the narrative about migrants. Such as what is the meaning of belonging for an immigrant? Or what does it mean to feel at home in a country that is not your own?

New Zealand has a fantastic refugee resettlement program. But we have to acknowledge that if there is no clear pathway to residency, the personal life of the individual is directly affected. Moreover, given the geopolitical condition of Aotearoa, for refugees and migrants to gain entry into the country is not too easy.

“Migrants are contributing to the social fabric”, Laura says. The country is gaining human capital and diversity with a constant immigration flux. Most immigrants want to have an impact on the country; to integrate into the national community: work, study, pay taxes and fees.

According to Laura, we need to apply the international agreements that we have already. Like the international law outlined in the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. We shouldn’t need a catastrophic event like WWII to rescue the values of the past. Refugees should be welcomed and solidarity should act as the core principle for future immigration policies.

Western countries have the moral obligation to take people from countries experiencing hard situations beyond their legal obligations, says Laura. “We need to explore what solidarity means in international law”. Because we don’t have to see migrants with pity. They don’t have to be grateful forever. Solidarity is beyond. “You don’t need to love anyone to help them”.

New Zealand has a good reputation for its humanitarian approach: an advantage of being a recently new country with a low population density. Fewer than 20 people per square km of land area, according to FAO and World Bank population estimates. Richard Bedford, Emeritus Professor at AUT, reviewing the New Zealand immigration policy 20 years ago, wrote: “There seems to be clear recognition and acceptance that New Zealand society is going to become more diverse in terms of ethnic and cultural groups over the next 20 years”. His research has been confirmed over the years. But how has New Zealand society reacted?

Laura introduced me to the concept of aporophobia. The word aporophobia was coined by Adela Cortina, a Spanish philosopher who was examining social fears and attitudes in southern Europe. She connected two Greek words (aporos, the poor, the person who lacks means and resources; and phobia, fear, rejection) to create a new meaning.

Adela explains the need to create new words to signify new events. The rejection of the poor, the hostility and repugnancy felt towards the poor were social behaviours that she spotted in Europe, but that exist all over the world. Hate, disregard, fear, impatience, contempt. They are all behaviours that define aporophobia.

Laura was working as a lawyer for the Supreme Court in Colombia. In Christchurch, she worked as a front-of-house attendant first and then as a manager. While working in hospitality, she felt certain behaviours should be curtailed for good – because they could lead to subtle discrimination and degrading segregation. A cheap crack and a hateful glance might sound like harmless practices, their effects on people are not though.

The terror perceived by Bol and Rial Majur, the migrants’ characters of the horror movie His House, should not be perceived by any immigrant or refugee who is fleeing a country. Individuals are fleeing their home countries in fear of persecution. According to the United Nations Commission of Human Rights, in 2020, more than 80 million individuals were forced to leave their homes due to violence and persecution worldwide. Once they reach a safe haven, they should not experience the existential horror of segregation and discrimination.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish writer who fought the hardship of being an immigrant in a land that doesn’t welcome whoever knocks on its door – Australia – told us the tragic events a refugee might have to experience when fleeing a country. New Zealand has a different approach, but there is room for improvement.

Laura leaves me with questions, not answers. “Have you wondered whether you can make things better in your community and your world?” People have to be self-sufficient and independent, but they still have to be included in the community. We must see the capabilities, beyond the grateful and simplistic approach.

The night is descending. The clouds are amassing over the Wellington harbour. The rain starts pouring down the sky. After leaving Laura, her words reverberate around me: is there any place for migrants in the team of five million?

Federico Magrin is an Italian-born journalist, essayist and philosopher based in New Plymouth, where he works as a reporter for Stuff.

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