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Deported – what happened next?

A peculiar kind of programme is proving popular on European television channels. It focuses on a local family who decide to emigrate in search of another, usually better, life abroad. This is the big move as epic journey and human drama, served up for domestic consumption.

Programmes about people from poorer countries, trying to breach Europe’s fortress-like borders, are few and far between. Those journeys are perhaps a bit too knuckle-biting to go down well at dinnertime. Whereas the well-heeled European family goes boldly forward, half-starved Africans collapsing onto Spanish beaches from their puny boats are merely illegal.

Having dared this trespass, such undesirables must be incarcerated – their stories discounted at every stage and preferably booted out of the country asap. This approach is seen as fair and just in the West, and even makes some politicians who espouse it popular.

Land of the free? Juan Sacaria Lopez – here boarding a deportation flight from Arizona – is just one of 4,200 unauthorized migrants removed each week from the US.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The jackboot of the rich world is quite effective. At the end of 2008, these were the percentages of refugees in the total population: in Canada – 0.23 per cent, the US – 0.06 per cent, Britain – 0.05 per cent, and Australia – 0.05 per cent. Hardly the resource-devouring, culture-swamping flood that the rightwing press shouts about. In total, if all nations where the per capita income is over $10,000 are put together, they host a mere 9 per cent of the world’s refugees. Countries like Brazil and Ecuador make a much better fist of dealing with refugees – settling their claims promptly and not denying them the right to work to support themselves.

Undesirable migrants are seen as an economic drain in high-income countries. Thus hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in maintaining detention and deportation programmes with scarcely a murmur of dissent. If, instead, these people were given the chance to contribute to the economy, might there be a net gain?

However, to talk of people’s lives in such monetary terms is to fling out the moral compass with unnatural determination.

The rich world is willing to accept highly qualified migrants or those filling particular labour shortages. But those fleeing persecution, arriving with torture wounds rather than the appropriate paperwork, are not so welcome. They don’t settle their affairs before coming, they don’t form an orderly line. (Would you, if you were running for your life?)

These people are then subjected to a series of inimical immigration officials, and their cases will come up before judges who, in the abstracted atmosphere of the courtroom and with no experiential knowledge, will deem it is safe for a gay woman to return to Iraq or for a critic of the government to Zimbabwe. Called liars at every turn, the next step for these people is deportation.

Now there’s a nasty business, occurring out of public sight and often in complete disregard of the deporting country’s own laws. The number of stories about violence used to effect returns are too many to ignore. But who cares? These people aren’t coming back and they never counted anyway.

If we don’t want this happening in our names, we’ve got to make it obvious. Talking tough on immigration is seen by politicians as a vote winner. We’ve got to make the rational case for human rights and a truly civil society against the irrational fears of swamping and disorder set forth by demagogues.

The articles in this month's feature tell stories you were never meant to hear. They open a window on to a pretty scary place: the place where deportees end up.

Statistics from US Committee for Refugees and Migrants, World Refugee Survey 2009.

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