In December 2020, several Quaker organizations, including FCNL, released a joint “Quaker Statement on Migration,” which outlined a shared version for Friends’ work on migration policy. We spoke with Laurel Townhead, human rights and refugees representative for the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) in Geneva, to learn more about her work and the process behind the document. Laurel, the main facilitator of the statement, attends Geneva Monthly Meeting in Switzerland.
How did you end up at QUNO? What drew you to immigration work?
A commitment to human rights brought me to QUNO as a program assistant, which brought me back to the organization as human rights and refugees representative in 2014.
A mix of things [drew me to migration work], including growing up in the north of England in what I now know is called a “host community” in the jargon, but was just my community. Also, a strong sense of the need not to only see human rights violations as things that happen elsewhere in other places, but to be active on human rights violations in my own country.
What role did you play in drafting the Quaker Statement on Migration?
I think shepherding is a good way of putting it. QUNO took on a convening role, bringing together people working on migration in the Quaker Council for European Affairs, Quaker Peace and Social Witness (of Britain Yearly Meeting), American Friends Service Committee, and, of course, FCNL.
Working with support from our dedicated and creative program assistants, I took our early discussions as a group, turning them into a draft for discussion. [We] then worked through various iterations, bringing issues and language proposed in our regular meetings.
What was the motivation behind the statement? Why was it important to have Quaker organizations from across the world come together on this?
To strengthen the foundation of our work by linking back to the Quaker faith grounding our organizations, putting words to what was explicitly “Quaker” in our motivations, and reflecting on how that shapes the manifestations of our work.
For me, it is a source of strength and accountability that when I speak on behalf of Friends in UN meetings, I do so by drawing on a shared understanding of what sister organizations might or might not say.
The first International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) at the United Nations is coming in May. What are your hopes for the event?
If I had to boil it down to two aims, it would be that the IMRF at the global level acknowledges the harms of many migration policies and makes a collective commitment to do better for migrants and their communities.
At the national level, I hope it nudges governments to increase action to deliver on the promise of people-centric migration governance they committed to in the 2016 Global Compact for Migration.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your views on migration justice?
I think it has mainly served to bring into sharper relief many of the concerns I already had—around intersecting forms of discrimination, including racism, about the treatment of undocumented people, about what the High Commissioner for Human Rights has called lethal disregard for people on the move.
It also highlights a gap in responding coherently as an international community to public health challenges while limiting the human cost to migrants. More thinking is needed on how countries work together, in these pandemic and future pandemics, to maintain mobility in ways that are evidence-based, cognizant of the impacts of vaccine inequality, in line with international law, and which seek to honor the dignity and uphold the rights of migrants and their communities.
Is there anything unique about the Quaker faith that you believe equips Friends for work on migration?
While I don’t think it is unique for Friends, I think that the deeply held belief in the sacred in all of us and the calling to honor that in everyone gives us a starting point. [It] connects us to individual people and their dignity rather than the labels that immigration systems put on them.
There is part of an Australian Yearly Meeting epistle from 1975 that I think encapsulates this well for me: “Are we aware of oppression and injustice that denies the full glow of the inner light to so many? Do we feel the hurt within ourselves, and our own Light diminish until we take action?”