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new internationalist
issue 350 - October 2002

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Human Tides

An estimated one billion people will flee their homes by 2050...

What'sthe most urgent threat facing poor people in developing countries. War?Climate change? Mega-development? A recent report says it's the resultof all three - that people are being forced from their homes. Oncurrent trends a staggering one billion people will flee their homes inthe next 40 years - the majority because of climate change and thebuilding of mega-projects like dams and mines. Today's co-host, JohnDavison - one of the authors of the report Human Tide: the realmigration crisis - joins Radio New Internationalist's Chris Richards tovisit some startling scenarios and meet the people who are affected:

• Ten years after Cyclone Mitch hit Honduras, Juan Almendares from Friends of the Earth reveals how displacement and disruption still endures.
• Development projects like dams displace 15 million people a year. Medha Patkar - the leader of the Save Narmada Movement - recounts how the World Bank helps fund them.
• Two hundred and fifty million people are going to be displaced because of climate-change through floods, droughts, famines and hurricanes between now and 2050. That's more than double the entire populations of Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Ibrahim Togola - from the Mali Folke Center - explains how it's already happening in Africa.
• Professor Walter Kälin, Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, presents compelling reasons why the Rich World should pay to climate-proof the Poor World.

In today's CD - UrbanGypsy performed by the Romanian-born Shukar Collective - traditions ofthose perennial refugees - the gypsies - meet the electric sounds ofmodern musicians.

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Frontline Bangladesh

I remember when I first visited Dhaka it was as though the world had turned upside down. Below us a spangled galaxy of lights danced  in the darkness. As we got lower and prepared to land I could see the inky darkness was water, the lights, signs of habitation on the many islands and promontories that make up the delta. Such a profusion of human life – in an environment that seemed wondrous and precarious in equal measure!

Bangladesh has an estimated 162 million people squeezed into 145,000 square kilometres, giving it one of the highest population densities in the world. To an attentive audience, Vigya Sharma of the University of Adelaide is showing us a map of the country projected on to a big screen. She is talking about the way in which climate change is likely to affect its growing population.

Her presentation is not just couched in, it’s almost smothered by, academic caution. ‘It’s hard to predict... Migration is a very complex process... The exact degree with which climate change impacts is not clear...’

But gradually the map tells its own story. The light blue area is that affected by river flooding – and it is enormous, covering most of the inland part of the map. Not surprising when you consider Bangladesh’s position at the confluence of three major river systems: the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna.

Most of the land-mass lies fewer than 10 metres above sea level with considerable areas at sea level, leading to frequent and prolonged flooding during the monsoon seasons. Already, rising sea level is causing yet more flooding as storm surges rise, pushing further inland. These inland areas are home to the poorest people, those most vulnerable to change and least well-equipped to adapt to it. There are a great many of them. Despite the drift to the cities, more than 75 per cent of the country’s people still live in rural areas.1

The pale green on Vigya Sharma’s map shows the coastal areas affected by sea rise. Here salt-water is already entering fresh-water aquifers and estuaries, contaminating drinking water and farmland. A one-metre rise in sea level – not as improbable as it once seemed – would shrink the country by 18 per cent.  

Then there are typhoons, cyclones and storms, made more intense by warmer ocean water, to contend with. Not for nothing does this country top the Global Climate Risk Index of 2009, followed by North Korea and Nicaragua.

Sharma concludes that ‘approximately’ 99.9 per cent of the country and 100 per cent of the population will suffer from these various effects. And with the  population predicted to rise to 240 million by 2050, the future looks even more daunting.

Escape routes

‘Suggestions that millions of environmental migrants are poised to flee developing countries to permanently seek safety and new lives in industrialized countries are misleading,’ says the latest report from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).2

It goes on: ‘Overall, environmental migration is – and is likely to continue to be – mainly an internal phenomenon, with a smaller proportion of movement taking place between neighbouring countries, and even smaller numbers migrating long distances beyond the region of origin.’

For rural Bangladeshis, however, upping sticks and heading to the cities might not be such a workable proposition if the cities in question are coastal ones battling a rising sea. The ensuing loss of land can only intensify existing social and economic pressures. 

‘We can expect that with increased landlessness due to climate change in Bangladesh,’ says Sharma, ‘people will use established social networks to move along corridors to other places.’

Bangladesh does have a wide network of communities around the world and many established routes of migration to them. The Middle East, Canada, Australia, Britain, India and some countries of the European Union are the most likely destinations.

But given the choice, the vast majority of people would rather stay at home and find ways of adapting to their changing environment. Adaptation on a limited scale is already happening. For example, some coastal farmers are growing vegetables on raised beds to mitigate erosion and avoid pollution by sea water. But adaptation costs money – in a country where poverty remains widespread and around 39 per cent of children under five are malnourished.1

On the move: current trends

There are around 195 million migrants in the world today, a fifth of them in the US. Global numbers are likely to increase, but the rate at which migration is increasing has slowed down from its peak in the early 2000s. What’s keeping numbers high is not economic migration, which was declining even before the recession began, but the number of refugees from conflict-torn parts of the world, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the global financial crisis attitudes towards immigration have soured in receiving countries, especially in the richer countries where fears of scarcity are enflamed by racist politicians. There has been some voluntary state repatriation of economic migrants – for example of Ecuadorians from Spain – but no evidence of large scale return. For many migrants the better option is to hang on in there, take lower paid or informal work if necessary, or get temporary support from families back home until the situation improves. Migration is always an unpredictable and politically charged element in the science of demography. But the looming prospect of environmental migration is especially fraught and hard to forecast.

Source: UN Population Division, October 2009  www.unmigration.org


Bangladesh is reaping the ills sown by others, the industrialized polluting nations which have shown little sign of changing their ways or paying the climate debt they owe the world. Fine words have come from the European Union which says it will ‘stand by Bangladesh’. But little of the adaptation money rich countries promised under the 2001 Bonn Agreement actually found its way to poorer countries.3 A new US plan, unveiled at the Copenhagen summit, to set up a $100-billion-a-year ‘climate fund’ could well be heading the same way.

Bangladesh obviously needs the best in modern flood defence technology. But also of primary importance is the development of climate-resistant agriculture as local  farmers struggle with the double whammy of increased water-salination – caused by rising sea levels – and shortage of fresh-water as the Himalayan glaciers that feed the great river systems shrink.

‘The impact of climate change on agriculture is undeniable and will most certainly worsen if governments and donors fail to take appropriate steps right now,’ warns Ghulam Mohammad Panaullah, former research director of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute. Already, in coastal areas cocoa and betel nut trees do not yield half as much as two decades ago, while banana groves are dying out in their hundreds. Vegetables sold in the urban markets of Dhaka, Khulna and Rajshai are rendered tasteless by salt-water and fetch low prices.4

Much is lacking, at every level, and no-one, it seems, is prepared for what is to come. According to the UNFPA: ‘Relief organizations, policy-makers, donors, host nations and affected countries themselves are ill-equipped for environmentally induced population movements, partly because of a shortage of credible data and forecasts, which are essential for raising awareness and mobilizing the political will and resources needed to tackle emerging challenges.’ It also notes that more detailed information on which areas and populations will be affected most, is urgently needed.

Demographers have a responsibility to provide that information, says one of the participants at the Marrakech population conference.

As she leaves the hall, I ask Vigya Sharma whether she or any of her research colleagues have looked at the connection between population and environment the other way around. That is to say: the impact of population growth on the environment. ‘No,’ she says. ‘But thank you. It’s a good subject for a future project.’

I don’t think that the environmental activists crying out for population reduction would be very impressed with that answer.

Time to listen to one of them now...

  1. Simon Angus et al, ‘Climate change impacts and adaptation in Bangladesh’, Monash University, July 2009.
  2. UNFPA, State of the World’s Population 2009.
  3. BBC World Service, 23 November 2009.
  4. IRIN, ‘Bangladesh: battling the effects of climate change’, Dhaka, 16 December 2008.


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Living (and lying for) the American Dream

Jose Antonio Vargas was 12 years old when his mother packed him off to the United States.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist wrote in a gripping confession for The New York Times about the day his mother woke him up and put him in a cab to the airport. She handed him a jacket to protect him from the cold weather, and sent him out of the Phillippines to get the chance of a better life.

It was the start of his journey as an undocumented immigrant, marked by anxiety and backed by an intricate web of lies.

Vargas outed himself as 'illegal' last week. There is no news yet as to how US authorities will treat his case. The possibilities are countless – he may be put in jail, deported or given a rare amnesty by the Obama administration.

Reading his story reminded me how bad the situation has become.

Back here at home, at the Philippines’ main airport, throngs of Filipinos continue to send off their loved ones to different corners of the world every day. Some use fake passports while others bribe immigration officials to get past the control gates. Most still do it legally, but the number of people who resort to illegal means to work overseas still runs into the millions.

Some stories are worse than Vargas'. But their lives are as difficult and painful. I remember one incident back in my high school years, many moons ago. A classmate’s sister had died in a car accident.

Her morbid death was made more tragic by the fact that her mother could not make it to the funeral because she was toiling on American shores as an illegal immigrant. There was no way she could come home because she did not have the right papers. So she couldn't pay her last respects to her eldest child, or send her daughter to her final resting place.

Another story is that of a close friend who went to the United States in search of a better life for himself and his daughter. A famous actor over here, he opted instead to live an illegal immigrant’s life, going from one job to another. He worked as a carer, a truck driver and a domestic help.

At night, he would drink gin to drown out the pain of his reduced circumstances.

This is the reality of Filipinos seeking better opportunities to feed their families. At home, they’re called heroes by the same government whose inefficiency has forced them to leave their loved ones in the first place.

They are heroes indeed for a government whose actions are far from heroic.

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The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration

Author of our No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration, Peter Stalker discusses the complexities of international migration in the wake of the Arab Spring. Chapter 1 and the foreword are available on our website and you can also view all of the weekly No-Nonsense guide blogs.

No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration coverThe No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration
by Peter Stalker

An embrace from Silvio Berlusconi is generally best avoided, at any age. But one of the more dubious welcomes he extended earlier this year was to 20,000 or so migrants from Tunisia in an exodus following the Arab spring. In this case his friendship came with an imminent expiry date. The Italian government issued the visitors with residence permits, but only temporary ones, and firmly pointed Tunisian and other travellers in the general direction of the Alps. After all, these permits, although festooned with Italian stamps, should also entitle the migrants to move freely within the ‘Schengen Zone’, a group of 25 European countries between which there are no passport controls. Unfortunately for Silvio, and the migrants, France saw through this ruse, promptly rounded them up at the border and despatched them back to Italy.

These manoeuvres have now thrown the future of EU migration policy into question. In proposals to be discussed by the EU’s home affairs ministers on May 12, the Schengen Zone rules would be altered so that in ‘exceptional circumstances’, a member of the zone judged not to be controlling its own borders with sufficient diligence or ferocity would see passport controls reintroduced. Just how exceptional even these circumstances are is open to question.

While Italy may complain about people coming from Tunisia these numbers are minor compared with arrivals in Tunisia itself. As Bjarte Vandvie of the NGO network, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, has pointed out, Tunisia has welcomed some 300,000 people fleeing the fighting in Libya: ‘It is Tunisia that needs help handling its refugees, not Italy.’ It should be noted of course that the UK is not even a member of the Schengen group so there was little chance of any Tunisians making it across the channel.

Doubtless, many of these migrants would be classified as economic refugees. Unemployment in Tunisia is officially around 13 per cent, but probably much higher. Indeed, the original trigger for the Arab unrest was the cry of pain from a desperate young Tunisian man, not even allowed to sell vegetables by the roadside. At that point, he would have been unable to migrate to Italy, thanks to a series of agreements through which the Italy effectively bribed the repressive governments of Tunisia and Libya to ensure that their citizens, however unhappy, stayed firmly put. With the regimes disintegrating, these dubious pacts have also been unravelling and restless people have at last able to leave if they are desperate enough to take to the fishing boats.

As I pointed out in The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration, the people most likely to migrate are not generally the poorest, but rather those whose lives have already been disrupted and who can also scrape enough cash together to pay for a voyage. Globalization and rapid economic development tend to shake people loose from their surroundings. But suddenly unlocking the political shackles can have much the same effect. As UN staff in Tunisia have noted: ‘Some villages appear largely empty of their young male population, with only women, children and elderly people remaining.’

It would be a shame if the EU commission were to start weakening the Schengen Agreement, which is arguably one of the EU’s greatest achievements. But many governments across Europe are coming under pressure from the anti-immigrant far right, whether the Northern League in Italy, or the National Front in France. The latest in this depressing trend are the True Finns who seem likely to form part of Finland’s next coalition government.

If immigration policy is contentious in Europe, it has also become increasingly polarized in the US, with aggressive state legislation, notably in Arizona, which  among other things would have made it a crime for immigrants not to carry immigration papers and allow the police to demand to inspect these. Mercifully a Federal judge stepped in just before the law was to come into effect. Judge Noonan said: ‘That 50 individual states or one individual state should have a foreign policy is absurdity too gross to be entertained.’ Unfortunately, this has not stopped other states, including Utah and Florida, from taking a similar stance.

High time that the Obama administration, mindful of its Hispanic support base, demonstrated a bit more leadership. Oddly in this case, he might do worse than follow George W. Bush. The previous president is not usually a source of inspiration but from 2004 did try to rationalize US immigration policy, even proposing to offer unauthorized migrants a path to legality. However, faced with opposition from the Republican far right he eventually threw in the towel. President Obama’s approach has been less than audacious. In fact, his administration has been deporting more people than Bush’s. However, as reported by Americasvoice.org he has been  ‘Meeting with a number of Hispanic leaders, so a more cohesive policy may eventually been forthcoming.’

Migration policy is a bit more pro-active in some of the immigrant source countries. I am  writing this from the Philippines which officially has around 2 million workers overseas and regards them as ‘modern day heroes’. The country does make efforts to protect workers through the Philippines Overseas Employment administration.

For example, it asked Saudi employers of domestic workers to submit their police clearance, and guarantee a salary of at least $400 per month. The Saudi government response? It stopped all hiring of Filipino domestics. But even the Philippines is ‘coming under fire from its national federation of migrant groups, Migrante International, for its “slow, dismaying and disorganized action’ in repatriating  workers  trapped in Libya.

The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration argues for the kind of activist support for migrants that the Philippines Overseas Employment administration at least tries to engage in. But ultimately it is the destination countries who wield most of the power – which they generally do in an erratic and often exploitative fashion. Silvio may be one of the more egregious violators of immigrant rights. But he is far from alone.

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Xenophobic attacks on the rise in crisis-hit Greece

'I cannot return back. ... For we see no future in our countries.'

Space Shoe under a CC licence.

Life is tough for the quarter of a million undocumented migrants and asylum seekers living in destitution across Athens. They are packed, sometimes 10 or 20 people to a room, into dark, dingy flats. The unlucky ones bed down in the city’s parks and squares.

Their lives won’t get better anytime soon. Greece has a backlog of around 60,000 asylum cases, mainly from Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, Iran and Iraq; they could take years to clear.

Some have already waited for up to a decade for a decision. Even if their cases are looked at, it is unlikely they will be allowed to remain. Greece grants refugee status to less than one per cent of applicants, the lowest rate in the European Union where the average is around 36 per cent.

'Sacrifice your life'

In a sign of growing desperation, in December last year, 100 Afghan asylum seekers, some of whom had waited for up to eight years for an asylum decision, set up a protest camp outside Athens University. Twelve of the group, including one young mother, sewed their lips together and went on a hunger strike.

‘The best way to get a response from the Greek government is to really sacrifice your life,’ says 22-year-old Ezmerey Ahmadi, one of the protesters. ‘Most important is getting our papers; we aren’t requesting any economic help.’ The hunger strike ended in February, but the protest continues. Six of the protesters have been granted asylum, six have been refused and the rest remain.

The current economic climate makes life particularly tough for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Greece. Financial woes have sparked a rise in support for the political far-right. And as the socialist government implements an unprecedented package of austerity measures, many ordinary Greeks are turning to fascist groups, quick to blame migrants for the country’s problems.

Greeks protest their government's austerity measures, May 2011.

Piazza del Popolo under a CC licence.

Last October the far-right party Chrysi Avgi, also known as Golden Dawn, won its first seat in Athens city council. Since then it has held several anti-immigrant rallies in areas with large migrant communities. Fascist activists are also alleged to have carried out random revenge attacks on innocent migrants after a Greek man was stabbed to death in central Athens in March.

‘I never come out of the house during the night, because I’m afraid of the fascists,’ says Abolzar Jalily. ‘I came from Afghanistan to be safe.’ Jalily left his home after receiving death threats because he worked as an interpreter for foreign forces. Now he faces a fresh threat from a violent fascist movement operating with near impunity in downtown Athens, where Jalily lives with his family.

‘In one attack the fascists killed some refugees and injured more than 150 people. They beat them very badly and they could not go to the police because they would do nothing for them,’ he says.

Tania, a Bulgarian immigrant who has lived in Greece for 10 years, says she is too afraid to travel downtown after hearing stories about Albanians being randomly attacked. ‘There are some fascist organizations that are trying to blame foreigners for many things that happen here, one is taking their [Greeks’] jobs.’

Conditions for migrants in Greece are likely to deteriorate further. The new austerity measures will mean greater penury for those who are already last in line for state support and living wage jobs.

‘I am a single mum and I have no help from the government,’ explains Tania, who is a maths and physics graduate, but works as a cleaner and nail technician. If you are a foreigner here, you have no social services to help you.’

Let the problem escalate

‘When Greek society is being destroyed, it is easy to understand that there will be people that treat migrants and asylum seekers as scapegoats,’ says Spyros Rizakos, who works for Aitma, an NGO in Athens. ‘This is the result of the lack of policy on these issues. The Greek government doesn’t address the problems of migrants and refugees, they let them escalate and it becomes difficult to control.’

But the difficulties bought on by the country’s economic problems are only a small part of the wider problems faced by migrants in Greece.

The country is notorious for its appalling border reception centres, where immigrants can be held for up to six months in overcrowded and dirty cells. Nearly 90 per cent of undocumented migrants enter Europe through Greece, creating tension on the country’s border with Turkey, where 45 people died trying to cross last year.

Georgios Salamagkas heads up the police directory of Orestiada, a city in Northern Greece close to the Turkish border. His officers have felt the pressure as the number of immigrants entering this tiny area exploded from 3,500 to 36,000 in the last year.

‘They risk drowning in the river to cross the border to reach a better life,’ Salamagkas says. ‘You feel sad about the drowned people but you also feel anger for the traffickers who do not take the measures to keep human life safe. If they put them in life jackets they would be safe, it costs just €3.’

While Greece’s immediate focus is on clearing its debts, what is clear is that money alone will not solve the country’s immigration problems.


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The shocking link between racism and schizophrenia

Photo by Sultan al-marzoqi under a CC Licence.

Jean fled to the UK from Rwanda in 2001. Most of his family had been massacred in the 1994 genocide. The UK was to be a fresh start for him and his wife and children. He expected people to be welcoming. What he found was something different.

‘People would call us niggers, pakis and names like this. Lads would pelt our house with stones and the police would do nothing,’ he says. ‘We were continually harassed by the locals. If my children wanted to go to the park, the other children would turn them away and say no, go back to where you come from.’

While it is easy to see how this sort of abuse would cause someone to become angry, anxious or depressed, there is increasing evidence that discrimination is a trigger for much more serious mental health problems among migrants.

‘If people feel racially discriminated against, even in a small amount, chronic stress can occur which can then lead to full-blown psychosis in some cases,’ says Susham Gupta, consultant psychiatrist, and co-editor of Migration and Mental Health (2011).

Each year, one in eight people from an ethnic minority are the victims of racial harassment in the UK, with many more reporting what is known as ‘everyday discrimination’.

And with research also suggesting that, depending on the circumstances, a migrant is up to five times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than a white British person, many are beginning to link the two.

Dubious theories

Rather dubious theories have been put forward by psychiatrists in the past regarding the high levels of schizophrenia among migrants. These included there being higher rates of mental illness in the countries migrants had left, that some races are genetically predisposed to problems, or even that drug use among migrants acts as a trigger. All of these have been found to be baseless upon further interrogation.

'The risk of schizophrenia actually goes up for second-generation migrants and this kind of rules out that it has something to do with the shock of migration'

There has been some focus on migrants’ difficulties in adjusting to a new culture as the possible cause – such as language problems, homesickness and lack of support networks – but in fact rates of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, are even higher in second-generation migrants who are born in the UK.

‘We see a pattern in many studies from all over the world where the risk of schizophrenia actually goes up for second-generation migrants and this kind of rules out that it has something to do with the shock of migration or that they were having problems before they came,’ says Elizabeth Cantor-Graae, associate professor at Lund University in Sweden and author of several ground-breaking studies in mental health and migration.

The reason some mental health problems are even higher in second-generation migrants, she says, could be that the rejection comes from a society they were born in, that is all they’ve ever known.

‘It is very important in human development that not only can you recognize your place in the social context but that you are accepted within it and that’s why this experience of being rejected by the group can be so distressing,’ says Cantor-Graae. ‘And this is particularly true for second-generation immigrants who really feel it is their country, they are going to the same schools, applying for the same jobs and one day, as young adults, they realize that they’re not getting the same job interview opportunities as their housemates who don’t have foreign-sounding names.’

'The stress of not being included in society can have an adverse effect on the brain itself if it takes place over a long period of time'

It has also been suggested that the higher rates of mental illness could be due to a racist or culturally biased medical system. Yet while the misdiagnosis of migrants could indeed inflate the figures, studies which have used mental health professionals from the same ethnic background as the patients seem to suggest that this is not the root cause.

But schizophrenia is a serious condition that involves major structural changes to the brain and, once you have it, you have it for life. So what is it about being discriminated against that could lead to the onset of such a massively debilitating illness? This is where many psychiatrists come unstuck.

Social defeat

One explanation that has been put forward is the ‘social defeat hypothesis’, which argues that the distress a migrant feels on being rejected by the people in the country they move to − whether social, educational and vocational − can actually cause changes in the brain that can then develop into full psychosis.

‘If migrants are exposed to what we call social defeat, and it’s not just any kind of stress, it’s a very specific stress of not being included in society, then this could indeed have a very adverse effect on the brain itself if it were to take place over a long period of time,’ says Cantor-Graae.

Refugees and asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable to a wide range of mental health problems as they not only face discrimination but the arduous asylum procedures they must go through on arrival can exacerbate any traumas they may have suffered in the past.

With deep cuts being made to services for refugees, including a 62-per-cent reduction in the budget of the Refugee Council, many fear that the stresses this group experience will only become worse.

‘The organizations that help ease our situation and set up activities and get-togethers for us are closing down. Even legal aid for refugees may be stopping, which is having a massive impact on refugees and their mental health,’ says Jean. ‘I don’t know how I would have survived without some of these organizations for guidance and help. I might have gone over the edge without them.’


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Overseas Filipino Workers – heroes at home, exploited abroad

Filipino workers in Hong Kong call home
Calling home: filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong KC Wong under a CC Licence
I woke up to a rising sun in Doha, Qatar, one warm Sunday in March and was led to the posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel where I was billeted, when I saw them. They opened the doors of the black car that took me from the airport to the hotel’s main entrance.

Kabayan,’ they greeted me, the Filipino word for fellow countrymen and women. It brought me comfort to find a fellow Filipino in a Middle Eastern country I was visiting for the first time. Later in the day, when I went to the city to exchange some dollars for local currency, I saw more Filipinos, my beloved Kabayans.

They were everywhere, sweating in the scorching desert heat, toiling a living for their loved ones at home. I saw them behind the wheels of the hotel’s shiny black Audis, behind bank counters, inside exhibition halls of Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, inside the hotel’s luxurious spa and in the hotel’s lobby lounge.

Two hours from Doha, in the industrial city of Ras Laffan, I boarded a hulking black LNG tanker and saw them staffing the kitchen, cooking for the rest of the ship’s crew.

Overseas Filipino Workers, they all are. Our government calls them unsung heroes and rightly so, because the dollar remittances they send home keep the economy afloat.  According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), recent data shows that remittances from overseas Filipino workers rose by six per cent to $1.68 billion in February from $1.59 billion in the same period last year.

The BSP expects 2013’s total remittances to grow by five per cent from 2012’s figure of $21.4 billion.

According to government statistics, there are 2.2 million overseas workers scattered all over the world, from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong and the US.

For many of these overseas Filipinos, however, working abroad is no paradise because they are separated from their children. Indeed, the social cost is high; children have to grow up without one or both parents.

Groups that promote the welfare of migrant workers have been calling on the government to provide gainful opportunities in the country so that Filipinos do not have to seek jobs abroad.

Migrante International secretary-general Gina Esguerra says the government must change its labour policies so that people can find job opportunities at home and wouldn’t be forced to leave for abroad.

What is happening, she says, is that the government is too focused on promoting labour export policies – or policies that encourage Filipinos to work abroad – instead of providing better job opportunities in the country.

And yet, the unemployment statistics in the country are stark and telling. According to the National Statistics Office (NSO), the unemployment rate was nearly unchanged in January at 7.1 per cent compared to 7.2 per cent in the same month last year.

Furthermore, the NSO noted that the number of unemployed Filipinos rose slightly to 2.894 million in January from 2.892 million a year ago.

The numbers tell a sad story, as sad as the stories of overseas Filipinos who long to be with their loved ones instead of toiling in distant lands.

But this is the story of my many kabayans, millions of them, scattered around the world. They long to come home but for many of them, such a dream remains elusive.

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‘Bongo Bongo’, racist vans and the act of ‘othering’

In the UK Independence Party’s (Ukip) conference today, leader Nigel Farage will again place fear of immigration at the heart of British politics. Ukip’s recent success in local elections has the Conservative Party running scared and the shift in the politics of immigration has been dramatic.

In July 2013, the Home Office sent out vans with billboards featuring the slogan ‘go home or face arrest’ to drive around ethnically diverse areas of London. In August, reports emerged that Godfrey Bloom, a Ukip MEP, had told Ukip activists that Britain should not be sending aid to ‘Bongo Bongo land’.

Throughout this period, Home Office officials were conducting a series of spot checks, mainly at London stations. Such has been the shift in policy, driven by Ukip’s rise, that Sarah Teather, a Liberal Democrat MP, recently quit parliament in ‘desolation’ at her party’s complicity in the coalition’s stance.

Pressure is mounting to force illegal immigrants to ‘go home’. But like all processes of exclusion, what is happening says as much about those making the rules as those being arrested.

The 2011 British Social Attitudes poll claims that over 70 per cent of people want immigration reduced ‘a little’ or ‘a lot’. Enter Lynton Crosby. Appointed in November 2012, this Tory spin-doctor-in-chief is taking the fight to Ukip over who can be tougher on immigration. And Crosby is tough.  But what is interesting about Crosby are his tactics – labelled as ‘dog whistle’ politics – of using coded language to project different meanings to different constituencies. The dog whistle can be heard in Conservative slogans such as ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ or ‘It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’. But how can we understand such tactics and their success?

From an anthropological point of view, Crosby’s ‘dog whistle’ and Ukip’s ‘Bongo’ agenda exploit uncertainties in how people understand being ‘British’. And what is key is how the anti-immigrant stance connects to these uncertainties to push a politics of what anthropologists like to call ‘alterity’, or how we construct ‘the other’, in relation to ourselves.

To single out people who do not conform is nothing new. But what is happening right now goes beyond scapegoating. François Hartog, a French historian, says that alterity is about translation, or transforming otherness into sameness. It works like this: firstly, by telling certain communities to ‘go home’, a British citizen’s identity is constructed; secondly, by grouping legal immigrants, illegal immigrants and asylum seekers and recasting all of them as a burden on our resources; only ‘authentic’ British citizens should have access to the NHS, schools, and housing. Put together, this equals an entire rethinking of who we can imagine as being a British citizen.

In 2011 the Migration Observatory found that most people in Britain could not distinguish between immigration and asylum. Ukip exploits this uncertainty. In a recent campaign in Chorley, Northern England, Ukip materials directly connect ‘uncontrolled migrant labour’ and ‘asylum seekers’ to ‘the British benefits system’ and the taking of ‘working-class jobs’. Again, we see British citizens being made, and the difference between them and the alien ‘other’ rendered as sharp as an uncontrollable weed infestation on a pristine British lawn.

The worst of it is that there is an ugly nuance to this anti-immigrant rhetoric – that of ethnicity. Following recent operations, the Home Office were forced to deny that officials broke the law by carrying out spot checks on the basis of skin colour. But the areas where the vans passed and spot checks took place were undeniably  ‘ethnically diverse’ and witnesses reported that the spot checks focused on ‘non-white’ people.

The majority of illegal immigrants are people who have overstayed their visas  rather than been smuggled into the UK but there is no mention of Australian, US or South African illegal immigrants in government discourse, although statistically, these nationalities are part of the data. What does this tell us? Politics of alterity reconfigures how we imagine the ‘other’, and therefore ‘ourselves’ and these differences are racialised.

Alarmingly, this is just the beginning. Although the ‘go home’ campaign was just a pilot, there is more to come. There are plans to demand a bond of up to £3,000 ($4800) from visitors from ‘high risk’ countries such as India and Nigeria and landlords now have to check that their tenants are not illegal immigrants.

But it is not just people of a darker skin colour that are subject to the politics of alterity. In discourse surrounding disability, claimants are fraudulent, benefits are doled out without checks, and taxpayers fund free cars. Kayleigh Garthwaite of Durham University has connected such scaremongering to governmental briefings and Ian Birrell of The Observer has argued that the Department for Work and Pensions is ‘demonising the disabled’. It is not just people of a darker skin colour in ‘ethnically diverse’ areas that can be ‘othered’. What is at stake here is who is a fit-and-proper British citizen.

This populist politics of alterity delivers short-term electoral gains. The Labour Party’s shadow home office minister Chris Bryant was recently quoted as saying that ‘it is in everyone’s interest to combat illegal immigration’. Conviction politics it is not. But there is hope beyond the dog whistle. While Searchlight’s 2011 poll shows that 76 per cent of respondents see immigration as a big national problem, it also reveals that only 15 per cent see it as a problem locally. When people break the barriers separating them from the ‘other’ in local communities, fear diminishes.

What counts therefore is bridging local and national levels of community. Third sector projects like STAR’s Regional Asylum Activism programme  are creating opportunities for face-to-face contact and personal testimony to break down the ‘otherness’ of asylum seekers and refugees. And social media such as Twitter has an important role to play. Through projecting local voices into the national, the unknown ‘other’ is broken down; stats become people. Pukkah Punjabi’s trolling of the Home Office by asking to ‘go home’ to Willesden Green is an important example of this, humanising abstract debates through humour.

Mark Harper, the Minister for Immigration, recently stated that ‘illegal immigration must be tackled. If the poster campaign helps with that, why would anyone be opposed to it?’ Divisive dog whistle politics does not cut it. We need constructive pathways for undermining this tidal, and urgent, politics of alterity.

The full version of this article will be published in the October issue of the Royal Anthropological Institute journal, Anthropology Today.

Alex Flynn is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Durham University. @auxmarquises

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Fear Eats The Soul

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Refugees / KEYNOTE

Fear Eats the Soul: Radical filmmaker Rainer Fassbinder gave this title to his haunting 1970s movie about a love affair between a young Moroccan migrant worker and an elderly local cleaning woman, set in an ordinary German town riddled with ordinary prejudices.
Photo: Dominic Ridley / Lorena Ros / Panos Pictures
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

Moroccan migrant pleas not to be deported from Spain.
Photo: Dominic Ridley / Lorena Ros
/ Panos Pictures

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.


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 country's 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.'

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

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
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.

As the rich world creates more poverty in the poor, the consequence is greater numbers of refugees.
Photo: Betty Press / Panos Pictures

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.

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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