I read the news about six months ago, probably on Al Jazeera.
2020 is such a bat in the belfry year with so many COVID-19, wildfires, riots, and insanities happening all at the same time that you might not remember the story.
I remember it vividly.
In May 2020, twenty-four Bangladeshi migrants were killed while crossing the Libyan Desert in search of a better life.
I have a weird psychospiritual connection with Libya. I was born in Sirte and raised in Misrata, one of the northwestern cities in Libya. I left the country ages ago — before all that US intervention — but I still wake up in the middle of the night from gut-wrenching recurring nightmares like seeing a toddler me and my dad running on the sandy shore of the Mediterranean. The Bombay Sapphire’s crisp blue water beside us is getting darker and darker with the blood of hundreds of dead bodies washing ashore.
One year ago, when I was working in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the employees from the Human Resources office of the university asked me whether I could help bring over some Bangladeshi students in the university. I gladly agreed to help. Almost two decades have passed since the bloody, brutal war that Bosnia had gone through. The region is seemingly peaceful now. They now offer world class education with scholarships and grants. The standards for acquisition of higher education are in accordance with the relevant provisions of the European Convention, and the universities are affiliated with several international student exchange programs such as Erasmus and Mevlana, so I was more than happy to help bring my fellow countrymen (and women) into Bosnia. However, after a couple of months, the HR guy told me that I didn’t need to do anything, since they are ‘not too keen’ on bringing Bangladeshi students anymore. His statement was unofficial of course.
The reason being, several Bangladeshi students who came into Bosnia using legal documents have fled the country illegally, after ditching their passports and identity, to seek asylum in Western European countries such as Germany or France, for a ‘better’ la-la life. Probably, they have ended up in detention centers near borders. No one knows.
Bosnia and Herzegovina formally applied for EU membership in 2016, and one of the clauses on the EU accession treaty for the country is to have stronger border security. Therefore, they are now treating the Bangladeshi students as ‘risk factors,’ unofficially of course.
No, I am not saying that ‘only’ Bangladeshis do these. All of us want to manifest a ‘better’ life. But the ambition and desperation in some of us are so strong, so erratic, that we take the precarious, illegal path that leads to dangerous consequences, sometimes at the cost of our own lives.
The right to asylum is asserted at the highest level of the legal system in the EU and other western countries. According to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, as amended by the 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention, anyone who is fleeing political or ideological persecution due to opinion or gender or sexual orientation or religious belief or race or are facing serious harm in their native country, has the fundamental, democratic right to ask for international protection.
From Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, and Freddie Mercury to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden in recent years — all sought political asylum in various countries all over the world.
But let’s forget all the ‘hotshot’ VIP refugees for a moment. Not everyone is a ‘rock star’ like Einstein or Freddie Mercury; the rest are ‘regular’ people like you and me. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, there were 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2019. 40% are children. As of May 2020, there are 26 million refugees. Among them, 20.4 million are under UNHRC’s mandate and 4.2 million are asylum seekers. The data is scary.
According to the 2020 data, among these refugees, the top source country is Syria. 6.6 million people were forced to flee. Venezuela came in second with 3.7 million and Afghanistan with 2.7 million people. According to 2007 data, almost 4 million Iraqi people sought refuge in various countries following the US invasion of Iraq.
The question is, is it a spontaneous ‘bi-product’ incident? Is it all due to power struggles and war and differences of opinion and headstrong nationalism and the geopolitics of the Middle East and the ‘who is better than whom’ game? Or is the situation well planned ahead of time? Interestingly, the European and Western demographic dynamism and energy politics do provide a ‘not-so-humanitarian’ view that is not as popular as one might assume.
‘A War too far: Iraq, Iran and the new American Century’ (2006) and ‘Energy Security: Economics, Politics, Strategies and Implications’ (2010) have intricately discussed the United States foreign strategies in terms of oil and gas as major instruments of policy making. In the aforementioned work, the scholars have argued that US military predisposition towards great numbers of at-halt bases and other services extending across South-East Europe, the Middle East, and through into Central Asia, stems from a desire for the long-term security of energy supplies.
Despite the major objective of terminating the autocratic regime of Saddam Hussain and disarming the country from Weapon of Mass Destruction, the scholars argued that the war was primarily about the control of energy and the need to reduce dependency on the reserves in Saudi Arabia (Rogers, 2006). This argument was supported by US officials and other scholars when the US government showed interest in Iraq and ignored OPEC quotas and exported the maximum amount of oil. “In spite of the fact that the region still holds two-thirds of the global oil reserves, the oil base of the Middle East continues to be the economic center of gravity in the long term. Right now, outside this region, producers are forced to enter less productive and more difficult regions. Therefore, forecasts show that OPEC and Arab Gulf producers will gain more importance in the long dated” (Amirahmadi, 1998).
With the articulation of the Carter Doctrine in the 1970s, the protection of the Persian Gulf became one of the major US defense strategies (O’Hanlon 2016). The author stated, “Even though there are other reasons for the United States to worry about security in the Gulf and broader Middle East region, beginning with the well-being of Israel as well as that of other friendly countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, it is largely the need for oil that drives the strong U.S. commitment to this theater.”
It is clear that the principal pillar of US hegemony was dominated by US companies and their control of oil resources, concentrated in the Middle East (Hinnebusch, 2007). But this ain’t no new story. Anyone who is interested in world politics has known all these things for some time now, But if someone cuts all the yadi-yadas off and asks simple questions like, did the government officials not calculate the consequences that come with the war, or did they not think about the aftermath of the situation of the millions of people who would lose their homes, then one might be able to join the puzzle pieces together.
So, what is the answer to these questions? Did they not know about it?
And trust me when I say this, one needs to be really naïve if s/he thinks that the US government officials did not know the outcome and the bi-product of the war(s) they were getting into.
Now let’s look at the Western Europe’s demography. And we need to go back a little in time.
In ‘The economic development of Europe in the nineteenth century (II): Demographic dynamics and social change; the role of agriculture’ author Giovanni Luigi Fontana proposed a ‘new demographic model’ in contrast with the Malthusian Model to show that the population rate in Europe is decreasing in the second half of the 19th century due to the spread of family planning and birth control and a weakened traditional correlation between marriage and fertility. The number of children became related to question of consumption and social status. The rate became inversely proportional to socio-economic status. In 19thcentury bourgeois society, the ‘new’ social level was not based on birth, but on income and consumption. Just few years ago when having many children and larger family meant higher consumption rate, in the 19thcentury, it meant the opposite. In that time, having fewer children means better chance of fulfilling their needs and giving them better education.
Table: Population of the principle European cities in the 19th century, Source: B. R. Mitchell, International Historical Statistics, Europe, 1750-1988, Basingstoke, 1992, pp. 73-4
The author discusses the social implications of industrialization and mass-movement from rural areas to big cities from two perspectives. The Marxist interpretation indicated the decreasing standard of living from the pre-industrial to the industrial period, whereas the Neo-liberalist interpretation was about the positive effect on living standards of industrialization and urbanization. The author acknowledges both, however, he argues that despite harsh working conditions and living in a ‘promiscuous’ and ‘unhealthy environment’, industrialization and urbanization gave people healthier sanitation system, electricity, freedom from hunger and poverty, and most importantly, new opportunities for social and cultural improvements.
The transformation from an agricultural and rural society to an urban industrialized one had an obvious impact on the employment structure of the population, the author argues. There were decreasing trend in ‘primary sector’ agriculture, farming, fishing and forestry and an increasing trend in ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ sectors of industry: transport, commerce, public and private services.
It is obvious that the relative decline in rural and overall population dealt a major blow to European employment structures. Although migration was not a ‘new’ trend in Europe (indeed, some parts of the European population, including the Alpine macro-region people, made seasonal migrations since the Middle Ages, and forced migration and deportation due to religious persecution were also seen at that time), the gradual decrease has been a major concern since the early 1900s. Secondly, a large percentage of the population left Europe for other continents such as the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, due to great many attractions like the ‘Gold Rush’. Between 1821 and 1914 around 50 million people left Europe.
Now let’s solve the puzzle. The decline in overall population in Western Europe was not just a short-term 19th century ‘thing’. The 20th and 21st century experienced the same downturn. Now, tell me how do you overcome a relative decrease in ‘working age’ population when you don’t want to spend a humongous amount of money on planned immigration?
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but the answer is rather obnoxiously simple and simply obnoxious: start a war. If you can’t start one on your own, then fuel a war and bring in refugees, AKA cheap labor.
That cheap labor supports the ‘oh-so-glorieux’ ‘oh-so-magnifique’ capitalist structure that rules our Adam Smithian daily lives.
It would be an overly generalized claim to say that the mass displacement and refugee crisis are just a product of war alone, since climate change and internal political/economic situations, among other factors, also contribute towards the phenomenon. However, the principal part of the crisis is created through war and keeping up with the- ‘k’apitalism.
During my college years in London, I used to work part time at a local post-office. As a counter clerk, one of my regular jobs was to check the watermarks on the purple ‘gyro’s from the asylum seekers’ under a dim blue light and give the check owners their monthly allowances. I can’t remember the amount they used to receive, but I remember it being the bare minimum. And it could just be my three years of random experience, but I have never seen anyone claiming refugee allowance with a smile on their face. None of them looked me directly in the eyes either. Leaving your own family and home and country behind is hard, but taking money in this manner is harder I guess. One of the regular clients at the post-office was Rashid from Sudan, and he always used to wear a hoodie over an oversized baseball cap, not because of the shabby-chic or ‘street’ fashion trend, but to hide himself from everyone else.
He was a high school teacher in his country. In the city of dreams, in London, he became a nobody.
Now please don’t get me wrong. I truly understand the utter necessity of asking for asylum in another country when a person cannot have an opinion in his own country, when he cannot openly be a homosexual or an atheist, when he cannot criticize the government or religious institutions as part of his democratic right, when he is persecuted just for being an out-of-the-box opinionated person, when he is sexually abused, when his home is destroyed with cluster Ariel bombs, when the sky of his country gets darker and darker with the mushroom clouds, when he sees millions of the mouthless dead across his dreams in pale battalions, when his family scrambles for their lives, when there is no hope of a reunion with his mother or reaching across the void – the inevitable path to escape from the consequences of blood and tears is to ask help from another; someone who would give him a chance to live.
But there is another side to this story too, as with everything else in life. Yes, in this world right now, there are millions of people who desperately flee their home states and genuinely need this help; but on the other hand, there are people who would abuse the system either by voluntarily creating a hostile situation in someone’s native country in desperation or by forging documents and paying brokers to get a visa in the so-called first world countries. And this has made the entire situation ever more complicated, the flash points ever more dangerous. With the rise of newly found vocal space on social media platforms, some are creating a human trafficking honey-trap to lure the less opportune by amplifying, exaggerating and inflating the opportunities of the la-la lands. On top of all that, the ambiguity in this statement by the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees: “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion,” has made things easier for the abuser of the system to take bureaucratic advantages. The interesting thing is that the government officials know this fact well. After creating an artificial age of mass displacement, when the host countries have taken in ‘sufficient’ amount of ‘cheap labor’, they would wake up on one random day to simply shut their ‘humane’ doors to the rest of the people – like the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, when he denounced “fake refugees” in 2018 to keep “delinquents” out of Italy, like the Turkish government when they sent back the Syrian refugees to their war-ridden country, like the Japanese government in 2017 when they accepted only 20 people out of almost twenty thousand applications in order to allegedly keep the integrity of ‘pure bloodline’ and maintain their ethnic harmony.
And it’s not just Italy or Japan or Turkey. The USA, UK, and most Western European countries have been following the same trend in recent years. They do not need any more people in their country; at least not now. Most of them have strengthened their border security, amended domestic laws to prohibit people from entering their countries without documentation, and have established more and more detention centers near borders since 2017. Now people have to be physically present with ‘proper’ documentation in the host country before seeking a refugee status. The irony is, people who genuinely need the asylum visa are most likely the people who do not have the ‘proper’ documentation in the first place. Those who have the documents still have to go through refugee camps or detention centers for a certain period of time and then undergo several government investigations, only to get their applications rejected.
In 2013, following the burgeoning ‘Shahbag’ movement, centered on demanding the death penalty for war criminals of 1971, a serial killing of several atheist bloggers by the fundamentalist militant Islamic group(s) in Bangladesh have created a situation that increased the number of people seeking asylum in various Western countries. Bangladesh is a highly religiously conservative country with a volatile political situation. It had mothered many persecutions on both a personal and a communal level in various forms since its birth; amongst its victims were famous feminist writer Taslima Nasrin and atheist poet Daud Haider. However, the number of in-danger persons rose after the blogger killing spree started in 2013. Sadly, unofficial sources have identified various false cases among them; some sought asylum either by manipulating human rights organizations by forged documents or by deliberately creating an artificial scenario by questionable acts or writings to stir up the already volatile religious situation in order to receive threats. The trend boomed after the extravaganza of representations of the ‘amazing’ life of a refugee in a Western country was exhibited on social media platforms on massive scale. Those who could not afford to be a fake atheist blogger, took another desperate route. Since receiving a French or German tourist visa from Bangladesh is quite a difficult process, some desperate Bangladeshis started by getting into India or Nepal legally and then illegally crossing the sea to arrive in Libya. Those twenty-four Bangladeshis who were killed in the Libyan Desert were said to be crossing the borders in such manner. After arriving in Libya, some stay there to work, while others try to cross the Mediterranean to arrive at Turkey to get into Europe.
And it’s a no brainer: some end up at the detention centers for years, and some lose their lives in the Bombay Sapphire crisp blue water of the Mediterranean.
But then again, what is a man without a dream? And what drives a man to live?
Or in this case to die and come in my dreams with hundreds of others washing ashore?
Last summer I was driving through Europe to meet my boyfriend in Paris. I started from Sarajevo and by the time I got to Florence, I’d had a massive fight with him. I told him, I am not coming to Paris, instead I am going to Malta. He stayed calm as a cucumber as always and said, “Okay, you don’t have to come to Paris, come to Geneva and then decide whether you wanna go to Malta or not.”
The car was more knackered than me by then, so I decided to leave it behind to take a train to Geneva. But there wasn’t a train from Florence that night, there was one from Milan. So I took a bus from Florence to Milan, only to arrive at the station at 11pm to realize that the train had already left — a good three hours before — ’cause ‘someone’ was too excited to check the timetable properly. So there I was- standing in the middle of the station, thinking what to do now and cussing myself out for being the dumbest person in the history of humankind, when I saw a Nigerian gentleman approaching me.
“Excuse me miss, are you in trouble?”
I usually snap at situations like this saying, “Please go mind your own business,” but I didn’t. I was in trouble, so I told him about the whole situation. He said, uncannily, that he was driving to Geneva and he could offer me a ride for so and so amount of Euro, but there would be two other passengers. At that point of time, I was so knackered, I couldn’t be bothered anymore. I told myself, ‘que sera sera’- whatever happens, happens.
Soon after I got into the car in the middle of the night, I realized that it was a stolen car and that all three of these massive sized gentlemen were planning on crossing the borders without any sort of legal document and they were trying to use mine. I thought, even if I don’t get raped or murdered on the side of the highway tonight, I will probably end up in jail for the rest of my life for this ‘oh-so-called-for’ GTA adventure.
Funnily enough, they were the kindest criminals I have ever come across in my life (not that I have seen a lot). The driver gentleman told me how he crossed the land and sea with just a pack of biscuits and how he had only water to drink for eight days in a row after the pack of biscuits was gone. I gazed at him in wonderment and asked, what made him to take such a risk?
He looked at me and smiled. Black men have the most amazing smile in the world, you know.
He said he wanted to get a job in Paris. He has a Master’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Ibadan. “I heard they pay in millions in Paris. Then I’ll get a flat and bring my wife and two kids there.”
I didn’t say a thing to him. I know we humans are as big as our dreams. But however illusory reality is, or however real the dream might seem, we have to wake up from the dream one day and live that ever persistent bitter reality, no matter how much we want to escape from it. I don’t know when the reality will bite the leprechaun’s pots of gold at the end of the rainbow dream and shatter him in pieces, but I know for sure that this will happen. And this will happen soon.
I asked myself, the man might escape imprisonment, but will he survive when his dreams get broken?
But then again, what is a man without a dream? And what drives a man to live?
Or in this case to die and come in my dreams with hundreds of others washing ashore?
Nadia Islam was born in Libya in 1985. She studied fashion design, forensic science, and genetic engineering in London, UK. She is currently working and living between Bosnia and Russia. She is a vegan, agnostic, and feminist in personal-social life. Her passions include parallel world, Indian classical and heavy metal music, conspiracy theories, fictional novels, going green movement, scuba diving, painting, theology, writing, and cat-cafes.