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Bangladesh provides sanctuary for the thousands of Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar. PIC BY Syed Azwan Syed Ali

THERE is a line on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty that reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free”.

These haunting words, from an 1883 poem by Emma Lazarus, came to symbolise the sheltering spirit of the United States as it housed a wave of migrants fleeing from the Old World and the Russian empire.

Today, migration has become commonplace. People cross borders to flee from genocidal despots, to seek shelter after natural disasters, or because they fear political persecution. More commonly, however, migrants leave their homeland in search of a better livelihood.

“Providing shelter”, for lack of a better phrase, is not confined
to just the more affluent countries of the world. Of course, we hear of developing countries like Lebanon providing shelter to half a million Palestinians; or Turkey to more than three million Syrians; or even Bangladesh to about 700,000 Rohingya.

“Providing shelter” is also not about taking in refugees and asylum seekers and giving them sanctuary from whatever it is they are fleeing.

Widely defined, providing shelter can also be in the figurative rather than in the literal sense. This is most often the case when referring to state-to-state relations. Mingling with the international crowd in New York, I often hear lesser known stories about the political world. Some can be substantiated, some cannot, but all are based upon at least an inkling of truth, at least as they know it.

These stories tell of how countries shelter each other internationally, often even including another countries’ representative within their own delegation when all doors are shut to that representative.

A Moroccan colleague said that before Morocco was accepted as a member of the United Nations, Moroccan diplomats were already present at meetings where they had interests.

They sat with a country as part of that country’s delegation. This is why, according to this diplomat, to this day, Morocco has a soft spot for that developing Asian country.

When no one else was willing, this country stepped in and shared their seat at the UN. The country? Indonesia. It is how the bonds of lasting friendships are formed.

This story reminds me of the bilateral relations between Nami-bia and Senegal. For many years after Senegal achieved independence in 1960, Namibia was still fighting for its own independence.

Its political dissidents were in exile and trying to release the country from the yoke of oppression. Senegal was one of the countries that stood by its African brother. A Namibian colleague told me of how these Namibians could travel abroad to important meetings under Senegalese passports.

The funny thing was that Namibia is an English-speaking country, while Senegal is Francophone. So, when they arrived at the meetings held in France, there would be general confusion as to why there were some “Senegalese” who could not speak French.

The situation with Namibia was eventually resolved in 1990 when it achieved independence from South Africa.

The Namibians did not forget that when times were bleakest, there were countries willing to provide them with the means by which they could be independent.

It was the quintessential definition of seeking shelter.

The world has changed these days. If a decade before the turn of the century, Senegal provided shelter to those fleeing persecution, as well as the oppressed, these days, the foreigners who flock to Senegal are of a different ilk altogether.

For a small country with a population of 15 million, Senegal has made hospitality a major part of its interaction with the outside world. Its catchphrase word in Wolof, “Teranga”, translated means “hospitality”, but, it is argued to be so much more than that.

Senegalese hospitality has made it possible for more than 30,000 Afro-Mauritanians to seek shelter in the country.

There are also the 50,000 residents of European or Lebanese origin, and more recently, the almost 6,000 Chinese nationals who have taken up residence in this Western African country.

The spirit of providing shelter continues.

Before we assume that only the richer, more industrialised countries can afford to be benevolent, we should give some thought about how developing countries are also no less benevolent.

It is easier to give when you have much. It is more of challenge to give when you have less.

The writer, Dr Shazelina Zainul Abidin is a foreign service officer and an honorary research fellow of the University of Sheffield. She writes on international affairs, with a particular emphasis on Africa, these days. She can be reached via [email protected]

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