PSI/1199SEIU Roundtable on the Refugee Crisis – Uphold Our Humanity!

Public Services International (PSI), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its local affiliate 1199SEIU United Health Care Workers East held a roundtable discussion on 20 September to raise awareness and share union experiences and strategies on the protection of the human rights of migrants and refugees.

Carrying the title “Uphold Our Humanity”, the event brought together over 150 trade union members of 1199SEIU local in New York, SEIU elected leaders, civil society organisations, a representative from the US Department of Labour, PSI Secretariat and representatives of PSI unions from Germany, Sweden and Nigeria.

The event, held a day after the UN High Level Summit on Large Movements of Migrants and Refugees in New York, coincided with US President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees. PSI international delegates were in New York to participate in the summit.

“The concern towards migrants and refugees is something that all of us share,” says Maria Castaneda, 1199SEIU Secretary-Treasurer, as she welcomed the participants to the meeting.

“All human beings have human rights, whether they are economic migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, or displaced persons. Rich countries like the European Union, which have a wider obligation towards receiving refugees, are not doing their share. Instead, it is the developing countries, the poorer countries that are actually hosting the 86% of the world’s 21.3 million refugees. What we are witnessing today, therefore, is not a refugee crisis. It is a humanitarian crisis,” says Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of PSI.

Herbert Beck, from PSI’s affiliate Ver.di, shared the experience of the union and the community in welcoming the 1.1 million refugees that have arrived in Germany.

Maria Ostberg-Svanelind, from PSI’s affiliate SSR in Sweden, another country receiving the most numbers of refugees relative to its population, spoke about the importance of welcoming the refugees and ensuring their inclusion to society. She also shared the challenges that need to be addressed in ensuring the welfare and safety of the refugees, as well as the conditions of frontline public service workers assisting them.

Moradeke Abiodun-Badru of the Nigeria Association of Nurses and Midwives, spoke of the root causes that drive people to migrate, such as in the case of Nigeria, which has a population of 182 million and with a poverty rate of 71%. At present, more than 2 million people in Nigeria are internally displaced due to violence perpetrated by the Islamist group, Boko Haram.

Genevieve Gencianos, PSI Migration Programme Coordinator gave an analysis of the outcome of the UN summit vis-à-vis key global trends and presented PSI’s strategic actions around the issue of migration and refugees.

Zooming into the US, Camille Mackler from the New York Immigration Coalition, a network of civil society and labour groups, shared the experience in New York in receiving migrants and refugees, highlighting the solidarity shown by the New Yorkers. However she also reminded everyone of the spread of xenophobic incitements that threaten to divide our communities.

Robert Angelo, the representative from the US Secretary of Labour Tom Perez, welcomed the discussion and reminded everyone that the doors of the DOL is always open and accessible to all migrant and refugee workers.

Rocio Saenz, SEIU Executive Vice-President, talked about the history of SEIU and how the union itself was founded by immigrant workers fighting for justice. She said that SEIU’s fight for immigrant justice becomes stronger than ever, bringing it in solidarity with the global fight for migrant and refugee rights.

The panel presentation was followed by a lively exchange.

L.Toni Lewis MD, Immediate Past Chair of SEIU Health Care, gave the vote of thanks to all speakers and participants, with a strong reaffirmation of workers’ unity in fighting for social justice, locally and globally.