The anti-immigration crusade in the West reached new levels in recent weeks. On July 12, the liberal government of Britain finally got its wish when it reached an agreement with the conservative-dominated government of France to close down the Sangatte Red Cross camp by April 2003. Months of fierce negotiations and lobbying came to an end. The camp will be no more. The asylum seekers_nearly 1500 Afghanis, Kurds, Iraqis, and Iranian_will be “voluntarily” returned home.
A bill passed in the lower house of Italy early last month is to make fingerprinting mandatory for non-EU immigrants. Of course, provisions are being made to exclude those holding a U.S. passport. The anti-immigrant forces gained momentum after the arrival here of 1000 mainly Iraqi-Kurd asylum seekers in March. Similar tough policies enacted in Denmark, Spain, and elsewhere in Europe. In England, isolated camps are built in remote areas to house those seeking refuge from unbearable economic and political conditions at home. An educational apartheid is proposed in England by the labor government efforts to build separate schools for the children of asylum seekers.
Though directed against asylum seekers from the Third World and former Soviet-block countries, migrants from Moslem countries are at the heart of this continent-wide policy. Moslem migrants are increasingly the targets of the “war against terror” in Europe. Afghani and Iraqi terrorists are claimed to have infiltrated refugees and asylum seekers: living among them, crossing borders with them, and seeking refugee status in the West.
The new policy is leading to unprecedented human rights abuses and the mistreatment of those already subjected to extreme forms of political and economic violence. It is closing doors to those desperately in need of protection: the victims of war, fundamentalism, and economic violence.
While war and instability continue in Afghanistan, Afghani asylum seekers and refugees are “voluntarily” sent home. With the downfall of the Taliban, Afghanis lost all opportunities for gaining refugee status in the West. Over night, nearly three million displaced Afghanis were transformed into “economic migrants,” lacking any legitimate cause for asylum. The violence-ridden Afghanistan was now a sanctuary for the displaced in the eyes of the West. Extreme poverty, post-war devastation, hunger, and the repeated U.S. bombing were no longer sufficient for granting Afghanis a home away from home. They are now considered human shield for the terrorists.
The Iraqis face similarly hostile situations. War, political dictatorship, economic sanction, and poverty have caused the dislocation of a growing number of Iraqis in recent years. The continuous threat of a U.S. invasion is already causing more stress and the possibility of a new Iraqi exodus. Preparing for the new influx, the UNHCR and the Iranian government have been shipping blankets and other supplies to border areas with Iraq. A disastrous human movement similar to the 1991 mass escape by the Kurds is expected to occur. But, this time, the uprooted people carry with them a stigma deeply engraved in European attitude and policy: they are potential terrorists; among them are the enemies of the West. Driven away from their homes, they will be kept outside the fortress Europe.
The displaced Iraqi and Afghani people are expected to be joined by tens of thousands of Iranians. An unprecedented number of educated Iranians have been leaving home due to political repression, unemployment, decline in standard of living, and the lack of hope for economic revival and political opening. The continuous hostility between the U.S. and Iran, and the declaration of Iran as an “Axis of Evil” by George Bush have produced a new wave of Iranians leaving home in fear of a possible U.S. attack. Once again, war has become a daily preoccupation, a worry, and a cause of fear by a population already subjected to extreme forms of political and social instability.
Fleeing home to find a sanctuary away from war and economic malaise, the Iranians are interrogated, criminalized, and treated as potential terrorists. They are fingerprinted in the U.S., Germany, and Italy. Iranian passengers of Turkish Airline are routinely removed from the plane, asked to stand by their luggage on the runway while the anti-terror forces search for explosive sand other life-threatening objects.
Palestinians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Algerians, Moroccans, and immigrants from other Moslem countries are treated with similar discriminatory policies. The continuation of this situation is expected to lead to new forms of violence. Many will use the services of smugglers and human traffickers to escape their devastating conditions and reach Europe. The Middle Eastern migrants are trafficked through Turkey, the Balkan States, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Poland to Western Europe. Having survived the Sahara, the North African migrants continue their great escape on flimsy fishing boats through the turbulent waters of the Strait of Gibraltar. They pay their life savings to smugglers to take them to freedom on the other side of the Strait_only 14 kilometers away. Many never lay foot on soil. The short distance to Europe becomes their last journey.
The closing of borders will increase the dangers of the journey of migration. The future is bleak for many.
Behzad Yaghmaian is a Professor of Economics at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is the author of Social Change in Iran: an eyewitness account of Dissent, Defiance and a New Movement for Human Rights (SUNY PRESS, 2002). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org