The following essay, “Children of Storm,” is an excerpt from Ruth Padel’s book On Migration (Counterpoint Press, 2013). Please click here to read an interview with the author.
The new garden is an empty yard paved in pink and yellow stone. We’ve cut down leylandii taking all the light and there are no trees. I’ve seen a wren once, and two goldfinches. But it’s July, birds will be finding food elsewhere. We’ll have to wait till we plant trees, grass and bushes. My daughter has fitted her stuff into her tiny new room and left for work in Colombia, and there’s a lot to do to turn this into a home. But we love it; these back gardens now seem normal.
But they’re not normal – not in the age of migration with billions of people moving unhoused across the globe.
Thousands of migrations are smooth and happy, but this book is about the crossing, the journey. A million new immigrants enter the United States legally every year but thousands come in illegally, especially from and through Mexico. Cubans often arrive via Isla Mujeres, a small island off the Yucatan coast which they reach on home-made craft. In south Mexico, migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador arrive in Tabasco and Chiapas. It is a dangerous border: corrupt police and immigration agents exploit them. Three Mexican National Migration Institute Officers were recently caught on video chasing a Honduran migrant with a machete into the Usumacinta River that borders Guatemala. They watched her struggle with the current until local villagers rescued her.
Mexico’s northern border is even more dangerous. Barricading it, to keep illegal migrants and drug traffickers out of the United States, involves three operations called Gatekeeper in California, Safeguard in Arizona, and in Texas Hold-the-Line. The border is a patchwork of walls and cameras; supporters of the ‘Border Fence Project’ want a double fence along all 1,952 miles. Opponents say the fence destroys animal habitats and stops animals migrating or reaching water. They also say it doesn’t work. Anyone with wire- cutters can get through the fence, and migrants also detour through the Sonoran Desert and Baboquivari Mountains.
The Mexican government has condemned the fence. So has the Governor of Texas (who wants better support for legal migra- tion, instead) and the Mayor of Laredo, a town of 236,000 inhab- itants on the river’s north bank. ‘These people are sustaining our economy by 40 per cent,’ the Mayor says, ‘and I’m gonna close the door on them and put up a wall? You don’t do that!’
Thousands die trying to cross. Many drown in the Rio Grande, others die from heatstroke and dehydration in the desert, or in road accidents while chased by Border Patrol. As vulnerable as migrating birds, they are also shot by Border Patrol, vigilantes and the people-smugglers, there called ‘coyotes’.
Casa del Migrante in Tijuana provides temporary lodging to people trying to cross. One worker there, describing in a podcast why they keep trying, says, ‘Three months trying to cross and cross, even losing their lives, is better than go back. They borrowed money. They can’t go back.’
This scenario is so familiar there is now an iPhone game about driving illegal migrants into the United States. In Smuggle Truck you dodge bullets from the drug mafia and border guards, tilt your pickup to catch babies bouncing out at the back as your cargo gives birth, and get them to the border where ‘The Star- Spangled Banner’ strikes up and you get a green card – and your score.
The Australian government uses a similar game to try and change attitudes to immigration. Kick A Migrant begins with immigrants huddled like lemmings on an Australian cliff: you see how far back into the sea you can kick them. But when your migrant splashes down, your inbox scolds you. ‘That one came with a business degree! He’s a Scout leader now, he gives jobs to Australians and owns a convenience store. Net loss to the economy of your kick – five hundred thousand a year.’
That sea drowns many real migrants. The detention centre on Christmas Island, 2,600 kilometres north-west of Perth, cur- rently overflowing with people from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, holds migrants while their claims for refugee status are assessed. In December 2010 the islanders watched helpless from a cliff as asylum-seekers – men, women and children in a boat from Indonesia – drowned or were battered to death on the rocks.
Since 2005 a European Agency based in Warsaw called Frontex has co-ordinated patrol boats and border guards controlling illegal immigration into the European Union. Many come west into Greece, from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, either by land from Turkey or in boats to the islands. Many others come from Africa. The independent, US-based Migration Policy Institute believes there are 8 million illegal African immigrants in the European Union. From West Africa they often go to the Cape Verde Islands, or the Canary Islands, where between twelve and thirty thousand arrive every year. They are too weak to walk or stand. When a boat approaches, the harbour fills with tents, hospital beds, police, sirens, wheelchairs and helicopters. Fishermen find bodies caught in nets. Lining the harbour, among the pleasure boats, are piles of bright-painted wooden fishing boats in which a hundred people have sat for many days. These are a health hazard and are cleaned, before being crushed, by men with protective clothing. Sometimes dead bodies are found in them.
Outside the Senegalese capital Daka is the poor suburb of Thiaroye. It was once a fishing village, but the villagers’ tradi- tional fishing can’t compete with overfishing by huge European trawlers. This is the launch pad for thousands of young West Africans trying to reach the Canary Islands.
When the passeurs (traffickers) come through, hundreds of young men sign up, desperate to get to Europe. Women whose sons have already died in that attempt try to argue them out of it. Meanwhile, families from other rural areas club together to pay the passeurs to send their boys across the Sahara and out from Libya in little boats. In March 2009, 400 drowned in one night. They were packed into three small fishing boats and had come from Lagos, Accra, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Yaounde, Banjul. From Egypt, Somalia, Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Gambia and Cameroon but also from Bangladesh, Syria and Pakistan. They were hoping, said one of the few survivors, now in prison in Libya, for ‘a better life’.
It has always been tough being a Mediterranean island. Through the centuries the islands have been invaded by Crusaders, Saracens, Venetians, the Templar Knights and the Ottomans, and now it is especially on islands that detention centres multiply. Like Aeneas sailing from North Africa to Sicily and then Italy, migrants leave Libya in these tiny frail boats (making them is an industry now) and go north. They land up in Crete, Sicily, Lampedusa or Sardinia and hope like Aeneas to reach Italy even- tually. Or else they go to Spain.
Like long-winged birds who can only glide over sea, they try to find the shortest sea crossing. They often follow exactly the same south-north and east-west journeys as migrant birds (who also depend on the islands to stop over, rest and refuel). If you superimposed human and avian journeys on a world map, many lines would become one. Over the Strait of Gibraltar, over the Bosphorus or coming up from South America to North, human migrants face the same hostile planet as the birds: desert and sea, mountain and storm – and predators.
They are often blown off-course to Malta, needing medical help, screening, food and a place to sleep. They don’t want to be there and the Maltese don’t want them, but EU rules say asylum-seekers must make their claim in the first EU country they enter. Maltese ministers say their whole island is now a detention centre.
The EU agency Frontex helps the Maltese patrol their waters with helicopters and speedboats, but cannot turn back ships in international waters. If they see migrants turn up in distress they have to rescue them.
‘We give them food, water, blankets, fuel, maps, things like that, and say, the best thing for you is to turn round and go back where you come from, because there is no future for you to enter that country,’ said the Director of Frontex in 2007.
‘Our fishermen feel overwhelmed,’ says the commander of the Maltese maritime squadron. ‘Their boats are built for six. Suddenly thirty migrants are trying to get in, too, and the boat turns over.’
A robin, once he’s won his territory, fiercely defends it against other robins, often to the death. So do we. In every country, earlier immigrants resent new ones and try to keep them out. From the beginning of mass migrations to America in the 1880s, there were calls for restrictions and immigration laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act, Alien Contract Labor Law, Quota Laws, National Origins Act.
Twenty years ago, when my daughter was small, I lived in Greece. Albanian immigrants were then a new phenomenon. The same Albanians are now the naturalised fathers of children persecuting Pakistani and Somali immigrants – to keep Greece, they say, for the Greeks.
The Sangatte refugee camp opened in 1999 half a mile from the Channel Tunnel. It closed in 2002. Between 2004 and 2009 the number of illegal immigrants detected trying to enter Britain from France and Belgium trebled. Hundreds of Tunisians sleep rough today in the woods outside Paris. They have crossed desert and sea, realised their dream and want work. But there are 24 million Europeans out of work too. Now they want to go home.
In the UK a new Border Agency was created in 2008. Its parent agency is the Home Office and its job is ‘to protect the UK border’. Many of its employees work at checkpoints at Calais, whose Chamber of Trade spends £12 million a year securing the port area, and blames Britain’s immigration system for thousands of people on their land trying to climb into lorries and trains for the UK.
UK tabloids keep a tally of capture. Thirteen Afghans and two Iranians in a Hungarian-registered lorry of light bulbs; two Vietnamese in a load of nappies; four Afghans in a lorry of champagne; three Afghans, one Palestinian and an Iraqi in a shipment of bananas; ten people in a truck of sofas bound for Wrexham; eight in a truck of mozzarella cheese for Newmarket; twelve Afghans hiding in a thirty-two-foot Christmas tree; eighteen in a lorry of Spanish lettuces; a sixteen-year-old Vietnamese girl curled up with a white stuffed rabbit and sur- rounded by electrical wiring in sweltering conditions, squeezed behind the dashboard of a car. Three Afghans were found in a truck of Sainsbury’s toilet rolls driving from the Czech Republic to Northfleet in Kent. ‘Bidding’, said the Sun, ‘for a soft life in Britain.’
Recently a German truck driver drove off the ferry at Dover and heard singing in the back of his lorry. He drove to a police station and police arrested twelve men: four from Iran, four from Afghanistan, four from Iraq. Six were under sixteen. They had been singing to celebrate arriving in Britain.
Asylum means ‘the place which can’t be plundered’ and was a sacred concept in archaic Greece. At an altar, you were safe. You were a recognised suppliant, you had crossed into sacred space and anyone who violated your asylum was accursed. But the first reliably dated event in the history of Athens, a hundred or so years before democracy began, was the betrayal of asylum.
In 632 BC an Athenian nobleman named Cylon attempted a coup d’état at Athens. He captured the Acropolis, but was besieged there and sought asylum in the Temple of Athena. He escaped, but the rulers persuaded his less fortunate supporters to leave asylum and stand trial. They promised to spare their lives, but the suppliants were rightly wary and tied a rope to the goddess’s statue as they came out in order to maintain contact with asylum. The rope broke, or was cut, the rulers claimed the goddess had repudiated her suppliants and the suppliants were stoned to death. But the rulers had violated the law against killing suppliants so their clan was cursed. This curse was still significant 200 years later in the democracy, and was used politically against their descendants. Asylum was a political issue before democracy began and has remained so ever since.
Today, supporters of an Open Borders policy in the UK call for the abolition of border controls, because they create worse suffering and human rights abuses; they believe the free movement of peoples should be recognised as a universal human right. But the UK is a small island, too.
In the last ten years a stamp saying LOC – for Lack of Credibility – has appeared on files as a reason to refuse asylum. One small mistake in any part of your statement is a reason to disbelieve all your testimony. Applicants are held in detention centres while a decision is made either to let them stay or to deport them to the country they came from.
The UK has thirteen detention centres, formally rebranded in 2002 as Immigration Removal Centres. Some of these are run by private companies contracted by the Government. They are for people seeking asylum, or people thought to be illegal immigrants. Asylum-seekers are put in them when they arrive and held while they wait for their case to be decided, or wait to be deported if it is refused. The conditions of these centres have been criticised by the UK Inspector of Prisons. A report by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and Medical Justice speaks of ‘systematic abuse’ within them; of hunger strikes, riots, suicides; complaints of rape, assault, intimidation and lack of information about basic rights.
People will do anything to keep out of them. In 2004 twenty- three Chinese migrant workers died in the mudflats of Morecambe Bay. Nick Broomfield’s film Ghosts (2006) recreated their story. Having paid snakehead gangs to smuggle them on a year-long journey across Asia and Europe, they were put to work by gang- masters. The Aeneid ends with indigenous Italians making war on the Trojan refugees, and the Chinese immigrants were beaten up by British rivals who took their cockle-sacks. So they picked cockles at night, stuck in the mud as the tide came in, and drowned.
Migration is a lottery. Thousands of migrating animals and people die. Conditions in the new place are often very hard. For humans there are further psychological costs. A friend of mine, a psychiatrist for the homeless, was called out recently in the night because one of his patients, a Muonyjang from South Sudan, suddenly had to be hospitalised.
Several years after coming to Britain this man and his mother were reunited with his elder brother. All three escaped massacre in South Sudan when the boys were eight and five. To give the family more chance of surviving they decided to split up. The elder was recruited as a child soldier. He saw and did unspeakable things but eventually escaped, was rescued in Ethiopia by the UN, and is now a successful businessman.
The mother went with the younger son to Egypt; they reached Britain, he grew up and went to a British university, but suddenly broke down and ended up homeless on the London streets.
Migration may bring new life. But the loss of home and the traumas you endure, the reason you have to flee in the first place, may take its toll long afterwards.