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new internationalist
issue 260 - October 1994

Illustration by LIZ PYLE
There’s no refuge in Fortress Africa. For whites fleeing from civil war in famine stricken
Europe the door is firmly shut. A table-turning fable by Urvi Patel.

5:00 am, October 16: the long corridor. Soft plum carpeting stretching as far as the eye can see. The electronic walkway rolls alongside, with barely a purr.

On the walls flash pictures of the host country. The plains so wide, lush and green that the combine harvesters moving across them form little abstract patterns. Then aerial views of Kinshasa – gleaming glass-fronted high-rises towering beside the river, a sprawl of parks, then tidy combs of suburbia, cottages in brilliant white with patches of lawn.

Next follows a melange of ‘life’ – a shot of Parliament in session; Kananga Cultural Centre, home of the State Opera; a family in their yacht grinning into the sun; office workers swarming hotly in their smart city gear; computer factories; the army-navy-airforce in appropriate action; and finally the Prime Minister mouthing sounds before a sea of proud citizens.

The screens go blank for a few seconds before pronouncing, WELCOME TO ZAIRE. This message appears three times, as though the emphasis were necessary. Then the pictures start again.

To the rush of exiting passengers from British United flight 209 the screens are an irrelevance. They nudge and hurry down the walkways, while only a sporty few negotiate the carpet with brisk strides.

Darting now behind one person, now behind another, is Jan Smith. She carries an old, well-scrubbed tote bag. She walks as straight as she can, avoiding the electronic gaze of the security cameras, trying to look as if she were out shopping. Her clothes are simple but neat and in her pocket is a passport with a Zairian visa. It has cost her all her life’s savings.

Now the passengers are diverging. African Nationals Only are breezing past the customs inspectors who seem hardly to glance at their documents. She must join the other queue, which has squads of staff but barely moves.

She is looking at herself from a great distance. A scared middle-aged woman with a pale grin plastered on her face. Beneath her tan she is still white. Her darkened hair and tight curls are fake. She is unreal.

Meanwhile in Terminal 2 Luc Vermeer is being walked down a corridor by two security guards. His hands are tied behind his back. His mouth is behind the leather strap that muffles all sound.

An hour earlier he was told yet again that his second appeal had been rejected. This time they meant it. The only words he recognizes the guards saying are ‘milkface’ and ‘spook’.

The lawyer provided for him by a refugee organization has new plans for a fresh appeal. But it is five in the morning and she is at home, asleep.

All the other passengers are already on board, when he is led on to the plane. He is being deported to the Netherlands. The Dutch authorities know he is coming. They have more than a few questions to ask him.


An extraordinary meeting of the Alliance of African Nations (ANA) is held in Kinshasa. The previous one was on tackling the recession. This meeting, it could be said, is more of the same. The ‘refugee crisis’ is a good way of getting people’s minds off things.

The following decisions are arrived at: asylum seekers from Europe are not fleeing real persecution, though the warfare in Britain, the Netherlands, Italy and Franco-Germany is acknowledged. Their real reasons are economic. Visas are henceforth mandatory for all Europeans. Airlines are to be fined heavily for carrying any passengers without documents or with bogus documents. Police training is to be made available for airline staff to detect possible ‘illegals’. Asylum seekers without proper documentation may be deported immediately.

Asylum seekers must register their request at the first port of call. The post-communist states of the Middle East are to be given a special trading status vis-à-vis the Alliance of African Nations if they agree to screen potential illegals.

Some asylum seekers may not have the right to appeal. All must be fingerprinted. Computer filing of data on applicants is to be left to the discretion of member states, but is highly desirable.

Before she steps into her limo at the end of the meeting the Zairian Prime Minister has these remarks for the Press: ‘I think these measures were essential and indeed some members would argue they don’t go far enough. If we go on as we are, by the end of the century we could have four million people from the European Union here. Now that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really afraid that this country may be swamped by people whose culture is completely alien. Zaire has done so much for democracy, for law and for the world in general that if there is any fear that it may be swamped, people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.’

Currently, five percent of the population of Zaire is white. Most of these people are second or third generation Zairians and not recent migrants. The country’s main newspapers carry reports under the following headlines: ‘Human rights low on the agenda in Fortress Africa’ (Le Guardian). ‘The boat is full – send scrounging whites back’ (Le Soleil).


White worker Kurt T loses his case for unfair dismissal due to racial discrimination. His employer Walu M claimed in his defence that the dismissal was due to the disruptive effect Kurt T had on other employees with whom he was not popular. ‘Why is it wrong for me to refuse to have any of these people in my firm when the Government is refusing to have them come into the country?’ the employer asks.


Miriam Mokoko is informed that her claim for citizenship cannot be granted. She is married to a Zairian and has completed residency requirements, but has a criminal record. Police files reveal that she has not paid a parking fine levied three years ago.


The refugee centre in Djolu is firebombed by members of First Nation, a hard-core fascist group. Fifteen refugees, mainly from Franco-Germany, four of them children, die as a result. Police say the perpetrators of the attack are known to local people but no-one has divulged any details. There is a danger that leads may dry up without further information. The local council holds an emergency session to search for solutions. Their resolution is that Djolu Council cannot take in any more refugees. No one from the Government sees fit to visit the families of the bereaved.


Police statistics reveal that fewer than one per cent of officers are white and the drop-out rate for white officers is several times higher than for black officers. Police chief Austin Kiamossi answers allegations that whites are being targeted as criminals by the force. ‘The force does not discriminate against people on the basis of race. However we are not responsible for the fact that the colour of illegal workers’ skins is white. It is a nonsense to suggest that policing of immigrant areas and cafes, identity checks and the occasional raid is evidence of racism. We have a duty towards law-abiding citizens to root out undesirable elements who can damage the social fabric by their illegal actions.’


Diego Rossi, an Italian immigrant, reports an attack on his son. The police upon arrival demand to see his papers. When he complains about their attitude, the police beat and handcuff him. He gets two broken ribs and is charged with assault. The magistrate, who is black, gives him six months.


The Prime Minister is proud to announce the success of the Alliance of African Nations’ measures on tackling the refugee crisis. ‘Genuine’ refugees are now down to a third of the previous number within just a few months. ‘I am convinced that justice has been done. These improvements will no doubt foster greater racial harmony within the country.’

A spot opinion poll shows her popularity is at an all-time high.


Letter in La Dernière Heure.

Sir: Chris Johnson in his article alleges that Zaire is a racist country. For this to be true we would need the state to propagate a theory of black racial superiority, back it with legal clout and enforce it by the police force and the army. Needless to say this is not the case.

Neither civil liberties nor access to welfare are denied because of skin colour or ethnic origin. On the contrary, we positively favour our minorities by giving them protective legislation and public funding.

We live in a thriving multiracial, multicultural society and your paper has a duty to reflect this with unbiased and balanced coverage.

6:30 am, October 16

Jan Smith travels in the back of a van to the steel hotel – the detention centre. Her bag has been retained for ‘further investigation’; her fingerprints are on file.

In her mind she is rehearsing the mistakes she’s made. She shouldn’t have tried to pass the passport off as her own. Of course they would find out – they must see fakes every day. Then shouting out ‘Asylum! Asylum!’ The security woman put a hand across her mouth to shut her up.

They took her to the white room and told her she’d be on the next plane back. Crying didn’t help – ‘all white shits try that’. In her rage and fear and desperation she had lifted up her blouse so they could see. The purplish plum-coloured bruises that circled her breasts and laced her stomach, the colour of the carpet in the long corridor. And the deeper red welts on her back. ‘Another sexual pervert. How you get your kicks doesn’t cut any ice with me.’ That’s when she fainted.

And now she was in the van. Everything went through her mind at once – her lost children, the days spent in hiding, friends who risked their lives hustling her past the checkpoints in their carts, the advice, ‘When you get there you must appeal, ask to talk to a minister...’

Outside the sun had just slipped up from the horizon, firing the passing fields. It was one more thing she couldn’t see in the windowless van.

Luc Vermeer’s flight starts taxiing down the runway. He lies slumped in his seat, the strap still covering his mouth, fine beads of sweat clammy on his brow. He is listening to the chirpy music that is piping out overhead. Any minute now the cabin crew will be along to demonstrate how to save your life in an emergency.

Note: This story is based on real accounts of refugees and immigrants in Europe.

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New Internationalist issue 260 magazine cover This article is from the October 1994 issue of New Internationalist.
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