Author: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Men, women and children came over in precarious boats to our shores over the festive season. How unendurable were their lives for them to go on these hazardous journeys? This apparently was a “migrant crisis”. Sajid Javid, the son of a penniless migrant from Pakistan, had to fly back from a luxury holiday and show manly decisiveness, prove he was no soft touch on illegal immigration. He announced two additional boats would be employed to deal with such silent “invaders”. The Army is on standby. BBC broadcasts featured fuming Brits who wanted to gun down the uninvited guests. The tabloids let rip. In a tweet the veteran right-wing journalist Andrew Neil provided useful facts: Greece had sheltered over 750,000 boat people and Italy was dealing with over 150,000 arrivals. Just 220 people had attempted the channel crossing in the last three months, many of them highly educated Iranians. But, as we know, emotions now matter more than truths. Paranoia overcame common decency and good sense.
Many of us felt wretched, guilty, sorry and helpless as the latest anti-migrant drama played out. This cannot go on and on. Those dreams of life in the West will only end in nightmares as public hostility intensifies and support for hard-right nationalism grows. For the first time in my life, and for the sake of those arrivals, I found myself wishing the flows would stop. These movements are tragic and unsustainable. Celebrated artist Ai Weiwei writes in a stirring essay: “…70 million refugees have been forced to leave their homes by war and poverty. Our living environment is constantly being degraded… Armed conflicts persist and potential political crises lurk; regional instabilities grow more acute; autocratic regimes brutally impose their will.”
No more boat people As the new year began, I tried to imagine a world in which there were no more boat people, and where the skilled and ambitious didn’t rush westwards to join the brain drain. That requires a massive shift in Western foreign policies and leaders of southern and eastern nations committing to ethical governance. Some people on the left readily blame the US and UK for all the sufferings of those in, say, Iraq, Libya, the Congo and so on. Meanwhile, some people on the right believe that non-white natives are uncivilised, and should be given no sanctuary or sympathy. The two sides need to acknowledge that external as well as internal forces are destabilising nations and causing extreme distress to citizens. There were some extraordinary interventions last week on this issue. First, President Sisi of Egypt urged young Egyptians not to migrate but to make their own country great again. Fat chance of that happening while he imprisons so many and crushes fundamental freedoms. But it was a message I haven’t heard before. Then, Imran Khan implored rich exiles to go back and help develop Pakistan. Most surprising were the words uttered by John Kelly, the departing US chief of staff: “Illegal immigrants, overwhelmingly, are not bad people”. He also stated that the US had a responsibility to help central American countries to thrive and grow and so retain talent. At home Most humans feel a deep attachment to places where they were born. Giving up that birthright is incredibly painful. During the apartheid years, refugees fled to the UK from South Africa. Most went back after the unjust system ended. Although people face hardships, few now flee to the west. Well run, economically stable nations do not haemorrhage citizens. Think of Japan, Singapore, Mauritius – currently judged the best governed country in Africa by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation – or Tunisia, which has embraced democracy since the Arab Spring. Compare that to the number of asylum seekers from Iran, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Sudan.
When colonialism ended, liberated countries felt energised and optimistic. Young people were determined to make their countries dynamic. Corruption and cruel leaders killed those hopes. The developing world needs to rediscover that spirit. Currently, the West benefits from the best talents of, amongst others, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They could return to their old lands. But, not yet, says my Nigerian friend, an architect: “First, give me real democracy, rule of law, openness and opportunity. Let me live as a gay man. Then I will go. Make beautiful buildings and make Nigeria proud”. Such reverse migration would be transformative. The future would be full of possibilities and far fewer desperate souls would take to the seas to make lives in Europe and the UK. Sometimes the unimaginable can happen. I hope it does.