‘Today’s migrants are rarely so fortunate’

The rich countries have always claimed the freedom to move around the planet, not just to sightsee or seek employment, but to invade, to conquer.

Published: 28th August 2019 06:01 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th August 2019 06:01 AM   |  A+A-

Suketu Mehta

Suketu Mehta

The rich countries have always claimed the freedom to move around the planet, not just to sightsee or seek employment, but to invade, to conquer. At airports around the world, the holders of Indian and African passports line up miserably in queues hours long while their fellow passengers holding American and European passports, gilded passports, swan through immigration. 

In Abu Dhabi I noticed that the brown people, usually work- ing in menial or service jobs, were called ‘migrants’, while the white people, employed as executives or professionals, got to call themselves ‘expats’, a much more glamorous term than ‘migrant’, implying wealth, long afternoons at the club, fat housing allow- ances. Above all, it implies that your movement has been voluntary, unforced by historical or economic circumstances.

Today’s migrants are rarely so fortunate. Half are women, a recent phenomenon, and they are raped and molested and har-assed all over the world in vastly greater numbers than native-born women. Eight out of ten undocumented Central American women who migrate to the United States are raped en route, according to an investigation by the cable channel Fusion.

Before they set off, they equip themselves with contraceptives. When you move countries, your greatest – sometimes only – asset is your body, which also becomes your greatest vulnerability. Sex becomes currency, to be exchanged for protection from the smugglers, the coyotes, or the police. The arrangement is called cuerpomátic – after the Central American credit-card processor Credomatic – because it involves using your body, cuerpo, as currency.

The bodies of children are also at stake. It used to be that parents went abroad and sent back money for their children. But now the parents watch the children grow up, get attacked on the way to school, get recruited into gangs; and say to the children, ‘Go – go north, because you won’t be able to live here. There is no life here.’

Migration is like the weather: people will move from areas of high pressure to those of low pressure. Like the weather, this movement is equally hard to fight. Well over half of all undocumented immigrants come into America not through the borders but by flying in and overstaying their visas. A wall will do nothing to stop them. And so they will keep coming, on foot or in boats, on planes or on bicycles, whether you want them or not – because they are the creditors – whether you realize it or not.

In 2015, a group of immigrants, mostly Syrian refugees, found themselves stopped at the Norwegian border with Russia. They had obtained Russian visas in Damascus or Beirut, flown to Moscow, and taken a train to Murmansk, which is 130 miles from the Norwegian border. The Russians would not allow people to walk across the border; the Norwegians would not allow people to drive across the border.

So the refugees bicycled across the border. Five hundred a week. Thousands of migrants, pedalling on rickety bikes, across the magic line to Europe. The bureaucrats had not thought of banning bicycles.
Ever since the invention of passports, the right to a home, to a nation, has existed in conflict with the right to move freely, to leave home and to find another home. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of move- ment and residence within the borders of each State.

Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.’ It says nothing about what happens when someone leaves his country, or whether or not he has a right to reside in another country. Article 14, though, gives everyone the right to political asylum in another country, and Article 15 gives everyone the right to a nationality and the right to change that nationality. These contradictions are what the world is grappling with today.

Excerpted from This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta, with permission from Penguin Random House India


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