New Internationalist

Fear eats the soul

Issue 350

Radical filmmaker Rainer Fassbinder gave this title to his haunting 1970s movie about a love affair between a young Morrocan migrant worker and an elderly local cleaning woman, set in an ordinary German town riddled with ordinary prejudices.

Dominic Ridley / Lorena Ros / Panos Pictures / www.panos.co.uk
African exodus: sub-Saharans land on the shores of Fortress Europe, seeking safety and a better future. Dominic Ridley / Lorena Ros / Panos Pictures / www.panos.co.uk

Today Fassbinder’s title can just as easily be applied to an issue that’s been occupying news and political agendas in most countries in the rich world: the ‘problem’ of refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented aliens, unauthorized economic migrants. There isn’t just one single fear eating souls in the rich world, but several interconnected ones.

Fear one: Numbers. There are too many refugees trying to come into our countries. It’s a crisis. We are being invaded.

Fear two: Resources. Refugees fill our hospitals, classrooms, take our jobs, use our social welfare systems. What will be left for us?

Fear three: Crime. We don’t know who these people are. Many have entered without documents. They might be criminals – or, worse, terrorists.

Fear four: Disbelief. Many claiming asylum may not be real refugees. How do we know we are not being duped?

Fear five: Culture. They are different from us. They don’t share our values or customs or language or religion. They will swamp our own culture.

These fears can be heard all over the rich world these days, on the streets, in bars, across kitchen tables or while watching the news. They are fed by mass media warnings of a ‘tidal wave of bogus asylum seekers’ or of ‘illegal aliens who may be terrorists’. The phrases are picked up and echoed by politicians.

It’s pretty primal stuff, touching on basic concerns about security, survival, scarcity, the threat of unknown others. It may even sound like ‘common sense’– that ultimate survival tool.

But that does not mean the fears are rational – or wired into the reality of today’s world.

Let’s look at them a bit more closely.

1 Numbers Of the world’s population only three per cent live in countries other than where they were born.1 If you add in estimates for the number of undocumented migrants it rises to just seven per cent.2

In countries where some of the biggest fuss is being made about the influx of refugees, the intake is puny. At the start of 2002 Britain had 61,700 refugees – equivalent to just over 0.1 per cent of the country’s population. Australia had a similar percentage. If you want a ‘refugee crisis’ you will have to look somewhere other than the rich world. Asia and Africa receive four fifths of the world’s refugees. Iran began 2002 with 2.5 million, Pakistan with 2.0 million, Jordan with 1.6 million, impoverished Tanzania had half a million – beating even that great country of immigration, the US.3

2 Resources Several studies have examined the economic impact of immigration on host countries. The picture they paint is hardly that of migrant as parasite. Migrants tend to make less use of welfare services than local populations; they are overwhelmingly young, highly motivated to work and tend to create as many jobs as they occupy. Many rich-world economies depend on illegal migrant labour to do the work no-one else wants to do.1,4 Moreover, the birth rate is falling in the rich world – especially in the European Union. Populations are ageing. Welfare systems are based on an assumption that the ratio of retired to working people is 1 to 5. The actual average ratio is 1 to 4. And it is predicted to drop to 1 to 2 by the year 2050.5 This is unsustainable unless there is a big increase in immigration – or births, as one Italian Catholic cardinal is urging, without noticeable success.

3 Crime During recent election campaigns in France and the Netherlands, which saw gains for Far Right candidates, rising crime rates were invoked as a reason for putting a halt to immigration. The elision of the words ‘crime’ and ‘immigration’ is a common ploy of Nationalist parties – but rarely can it be proved. (Crime figures for Rotterdam, a city of high immigration, showed a decline over the period that Pim Fortuyn’s party was proclaiming soaring rates.)

What is evident is that refugees are being criminalized by the detention system. The only difference is that criminals have more rights: they have to be charged and brought to trial within a certain time. Some European countries do put limits on how long an asylum seeker may be detained. But Britain and Australia have no such limits and detention in prison-like conditions may last for years. The despair of inmates at Australia’s Woomera detention centre is visible in their protests, such as sewing up their own mouths. In spite of serious human-rights implications more detention centres are being built around the world, several to be run by the booming private security multinational, Group 4 Falck.

REFUGEE * ASYLUM SEEKER *

A refugee is defined by the UN as one with ‘a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. There are currently around 15 million refugees in the world – many fleeing armed conflict. People also speak of ‘economic’ and ‘environmental’ refugees – those fleeing poverty or environmental degradation or catastrophe, though these don’t always fit the UN’s definition.

Asylum seeker is a term increasingly used for a refugee applying for asylum in a particular country. If granted asylum they gain ‘refugee status’.

Illegal alien or undocumented alien describes a person who has entered a country without proper documentation. Some will be refugees, others undocumented workers or economic migrants. An economic migrant is a person who has come to a foreign country primarily for work purposes.

There are around 22 million known internally displaced people in the world. Though not technically refugees because they have not left their countries, their plight may be similar or indeed worse.

The UN Convention and Protocol on Refugees prohibits governments from forcibly returning refugees to places where they would be persecuted – this violation is known as refoulement.

Warning: reality rarely fits the definitions dreamed up by bureaucrats. Some migrants may fall into several of the above categories – others none.

Sources: World Refugee Survey 2002, US Committee for Refugees, Washington DC. Peter Stalker, No Nonsense Guide to International Migration, New Internationalist/Verso, 2001.

4 Disbelief International travel is cheaper and easier than it’s ever been. But unless you are very wealthy, it is increasingly difficult to enter the rich world if you are an African or Asian or Latin American. Tighter immigration controls since the 1980s have led to more people entering and staying clandestinely or claiming asylum. This means that some people claiming asylum may not be refugees in the official UN sense of the word – though they may be fleeing poverty or the effects of political systems that make life in their own countries unbearable or unsustainable.

And in recent years a culture of suspicion and disbelief, fuelled by hostile or irresponsible media, has spread. For refugees who are fleeing persecution the assumption that they are ‘bogus’ can feel like the final straw.

One of the worst things was, after all that, not being believed,’ says Esther Tshuma. ‘They tried to tell me I had come because I wanted to continue my studies!’

An aid worker from Zimbabwe, Esther had just completed her studies in Britain when she returned to her country last year. On arrival in Harare she was arrested by special police, beaten, raped and accused of being ‘one of Tony Blair’s spies’. Once released she got on a plane and came straight back to Britain, leaving husband and family behind.

She knows why Mugabe’s police subjected her to this treatment – she belongs to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and was investigating the plight of black farm workers made destitute by the Zimbabwean leader’s disastrous land-reform programme.

Esther finally managed to convince immigration officials and in June this year she gained refugee status. Plenty of other black Zimbabweans facing similar repression have been turned away.

Immigration officials are not always well-informed and assessments of ‘safe return’ can be highly subjective. In theory the criteria used by Canada and Britain are the same. But in 1996 Canada allowed 82 per cent of asylum applications from civil-war-torn Sri Lanka while Britain allowed only 0.2 per cent. Are we to believe that all the genuine cases went to Canada and Britain got mainly liars? The figures for DR Congo are similar: 76 per cent accepted in Canada, just 1 per cent in Britain.5

It took Philip Shamamba, a torture survivor from DR Congo, four years to get refugee status in Britain. He spent much of this time in detention centres and even in prison. At one point he was put in a prison mental unit: ‘That nearly drove me mad.’ Philip had witnessed a massacre of 100 people on a pro-democracy march in his native Kinshasa. His mother was shot. His father, a church minister prominent in the pro-democracy movement, disappeared. Philip was arrested and tortured. Fearing for his life, he fled the country. He landed in Britain with travel documents that belonged to the son of a South African friend.

Philip’s application for asylum was repeatedly turned down. Finally the High Court overruled a faulty appeal decision and he was granted asylum.

The trouble, according to Philip, is partly ignorance – and partly attitudes towards asylum seekers in general. At one point Philip asked an immigration officer: ‘How would you feel if you were in my situation?’ The reply, a gem of complacency: ‘I wouldn’t be in your situation.’

5 Culture Generally speaking it is absurd for people in the rich world to claim they are having their culture swamped by refugees: the numbers entering are so small compared with local populations. In some cases, though, local authorities have settled large numbers of refugees in a small area and this has created problems, especially if the area is already economically deprived or lacking in services.

Providing they are not subjected to extreme prejudice or driven into ghettos, newcomers usually become assimilated into the life of their new homeland, while the host culture becomes more mixed, varied and enriched as a result.

Fear of ‘cultural swamping’ is often stoked by people who want to promote a racist agenda without using the word ‘race’. But it may also reflect the ‘gated community psychology’, the insecurity of the rich in a world of poverty and the misguided belief that high walls keep happiness in and misfortune out.

Reasons for fear

Dominic Ridley / Lorena Ros / http://www.panos.co.uk
Moroccan migrant pleas not to be deported from Spain. Dominic Ridley / Lorena Ros / http://www.panos.co.uk

So are there no good reasons for fear? Of course there are – for refugees.

In a room full of refugees and activists a man is talking. He’s a refugee from Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war and this morning he has received some bad news from the immigration authorities. It looks like he’s going to be deported. He is trying to keep his voice calm and measured, but his fear is palpable. He tells us he has witnessed too much, too many killings and mutilations of loved ones. He escaped with his wife and two of their children. ‘I didn’t come here because I wanted to,’ he says. ‘I am a businessman. I had a good business back home. I left everything.’ His voice is trembling. ‘I have got it ready,’ he says. ‘I have got the poison ready. I will do it. I will kill myself and my family rather than go back.’

He does not believe it is safe to return. The worst of the fighting has abated – but the same people are still there, he says.

Why do they do it? What possesses them to take such terrible risks?

There are reasons for fear aplenty. The situations refugees flee are often ones of extreme threat or violence. The journeys they undertake in their quest for sanctuary may be equally harrowing. Crossing deserts, mountains, seas, rivers, by various – and sometimes barely imaginable – forms of transport. Hiding in the parts of ships too tight, too hot, too smelly for anyone to think to check. (One Indian skipper found a refugee hidden inside the refuse chute, surviving off kitchen scraps.) Clinging to the undercarriages of trains.

These are intrepid survivors, their stories the stuff of heroic tales – though they are unlikely to receive a hero’s welcome.

And many do not arrive at all. Hundreds die each year trying to cross the US border from Mexico – some killed by US vigilantes on ‘hunting trips’. No-one knows how many perish trying to enter Fortress Europe or Fortress Australia but it must be thousands judging by the frequency of news reports: corpses washed up on Mediterranean coasts, found frozen on mountain passes, crushed in train tunnels, dehydrated in North African deserts, suffocated in sealed containers or refrigeration units, or packed into unseaworthy vessels, like the 350 who drowned off the coast of Indonesia in August 2001 en route for Australia.

Who are they, all these nameless undocumented people? How will their families ever find out what’s happened? The body of a young woman is found floating attached to a deflated dinghy in the Adriatic. Someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s mother? After a while 59 more bodies emerge.

Why do they do it? What possesses them to take such terrible risks? Reports of these unfortunate ones who didn’t make it to the promised land arouse pity – and blame. Directed now not towards the refugees – dead, they arouse no fear, make no claims. No, it’s the people smugglers who are to blame – the ‘coyotes’ of Mexico, the ‘snakeheads’ of China, the ‘scafisti’ and mafias of Italy and Albania.

Without question some of these are greedy, careless, even evil people. But others are doing the job they are paid to do – they are getting people to safety, to hope, to a future. It’s a service – and it costs, often a family’s life savings. From Afghanistan to Europe the going rate is $10,000; from Sri Lanka to Toronto, $17,000; Central Mexico to US, $2,000 and China to Britain $24,000; from Albania by sea to Italy, it’s $450.2

The smugglers are filling a vacuum created by the border policies of the rich world.

Humanitarian duties

Amid the rhetoric about nations having to protect themselves from ‘illegals’ its easy to overlook the fact that countries of the rich world are flagrantly breaking international agreements they have signed up to. Paragraph 1, Article 31 of the 1951 Convention Relating to Refugees says that refugees may have to use illicit means to enter a safe country – and requires that host countries ‘shall not impose penalties’ on that account. If indefinite detention or immediate expulsion at the borders don’t constitute penalties it’s hard to imagine what does.

Betty Press / Panos Pictures / www.panos.co.uk
As the rich world creates more poverty in the poor, the consequence is greater numbers of refugees. Betty Press / Panos Pictures / www.panos.co.uk

The UN Convention and Protocol on Refugees prohibits governments forcibly returning refugees to places where they would be persecuted. The UN Convention Against Torture, Article 3 states that no-one should be returned to a state ‘where there are substantial grounds for believing he [sic] would be in danger of being subjected to torture’. Rich countries do regularly deport to countries that use torture – and who are doubly likely to use it on dissidents identified by the deportation process. Britain’s Home Secretary David Blunkett has promised a quota of 30,000 deportees this year, an increase of around 26,000. This will inevitably mean some returns to torture, while the very notion of a ‘quota’ suggests that cases will not be taken on individual merit.

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is limited. It does not cover those who are being persecuted by non-state actors – for example, someone fleeing an armed fundamentalist group in Algeria. It also says nothing about refugees from poverty – although their plight may be just as dire and life-threatening as those fleeing violence.

But in 1979 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees issued a handbook for signatories of the 1951 Convention with the following advice: ‘The distinction between an economic migrant and a refugee is sometimes blurred… When the economic measures destroy the economic existence of a particular section of the population… then the victims may, according to circumstances, become refugees on leaving the country.’6

Policy-makers in ‘Fortress Rich World’ do not seem to be taking much notice of that piece of advice these days. They should. For during the past century the gap between the rich world and the poor world has grown phenomenally. According to the Financial Times, the ratio of real income per head in the richest countries to that of the poorest was 10:1 in 1900 and 60:1 by the year 2000.5

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which are supposed to be concerned with reducing poverty, have imposed structural adjustment policies on indebted poor nations that have had quite the contrary effect. They have deepened poverty. Meanwhile international big businesses squeeze producers in the South on terms of trade that are grossly unfair.

There are economic reasons why workers from the South want to come to industrialized countries and earn ten times as much as they can at home; why remittances from workers abroad are worth more to the poor world than all development aid.

There are good reasons why the flow of migrants from poor countries to the rich will continue – and if they are prevented from entering legally, they will get in illegally.

There is a ‘problem’ with refugees. But it is not being experienced by rich countries. It is being experienced by poor countries who receive refugees in their millions without the resources to deal with them.

Organizations like the International Red Cross and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees do what they can in a reactive sort of way. But much more international co-operation and funding is needed.

Today’s leaders of the rich world seem to be caught in a panic of myopic selfishness. They could be providing moral leadership and challenging the imagined fears and lies that are fuelling hatred of refugees. Instead they are co-ordinating meanness, harmonizing parsimony in the form of data systems, radar technologies and policies to stop desperate people reaching safety.

As they endlessly repeat the question ‘How can we keep them out?’ they fail to ask the question that must be asked: ’What right have we to keep them out?’

Because actually there are very few reasons why anyone should be stopped from entering a country – serious crime, war crime, or well-founded threats to security would be valid grounds for refusal.

Much has been said about the economic benefit to the rich world – the ‘bookkeeper’s’ analysis as British writer Jeremy Harding calls it – of opening our doors to those who come from other less privileged places.

But there is, too, a far more profound reason.

Refugees, of whatever kind, present us with an opportunity to act with humanity.

The choice is ours.

  1. Peter Stalker, The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration, New Internationalist/Verso 2001, quoting OECD figures.
  2. Nigel Harris, Thinking the Unthinkable, IB Tauris, 2002.
  3. United States Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2002, USCR, 2002.
  4. Teresa Hayter, Open Borders, Pluto Press, 2000.
  5. Michael Dummett, On Immigration and Refugees, Routledge, 2001.
  6. Jeremy Harding, The Uninvited, Profile Books, 2000.

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