War and Asylum: Columns From the Whitstable Times
In the controversy surrounding the issue of asylum seekers, we tend to forget some of the very real human stories that lie behind it. It's too easy to see it as an "issue" and to forget that these people are human beings, with mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers who love them, with hopes and aspirations just like ours, who suffer just like us, who laugh just like us, who dream just like us, and who die just like us.
I heard a story recently that puts the whole thing into perspective. It's about a young Afghan asylum seeker, a man named Shiraz Pir. He arrived here with a group of friends. He had lost many members of his family to war and political violence, and had himself been shot through the legs by the Taliban. In the end, all of his friends were given refugee status, while he was refused.
He hung himself. He left a note asking for his body to be returned to his parents, themselves refugees in Pakistan, along with a poem in his native Pashtun language. This is the poem:
A statue is only a statue, even if it is made of gold/ Give me a lamp, with which to find human beings.
We can only wonder what was going through this young man's mind as he wrote these poignant words - what pain, what loneliness and despair - but it makes it clear just how desperate asylum seekers can get. Shiraz Pir would rather die than have to return to either Pakistan or Afghanistan. Neither is this an isolated case. Suicide and attempted-suicide are common occurrences within the asylum community.
The question has to be why? Why are people leaving their homes? The whole world is on the move, desperate, running away. What are they running away from?
There's been talk of attempting to distinguish between so-called legitimate asylum seekers, and those whose claims are not considered legitimate. But, it seems to me, the difference between the two groups is not nearly so clear-cut. Both groups are attempting to escape from something. And the phrase "economic migrants" applied to the latter group disguises the fact that they are running away too, not from violence, maybe, but from poverty.
Isn't poverty, too, a form of violence?
What we're forgetting here is that this poverty is not "natural". It is the direct consequence of policy decisions being made in forums like the World Trade Organisation on behalf of the wealthy elites of the wealthy nations. What they call, euphemistically, "Free Trade", is not free at all. Rather is the freedom of the economic elites to exploit and plunder the rest of the world.
As Tony Benn put it: "What they mean is the free movement of Capital, but not the free movement of Labour." This is the mechanism by which the world elites control us, exploiting the differences in the Labour markets so that one group of workers in one part of the world becomes impoverished. It is a process which impoverishes us all, as workers in the better-off countries are made insecure by it, as pay and conditions are eroded away, as our own Welfare State is being decimated.
We are looking at the end of the post-war consensus in which the Western Democracies thrived, and the return to a form of feudalism based upon economic power.
These are the facts behind the tragic stories of people like Shiraz Pir, driven by poverty and war to leave his own beloved land, to die a lonely death in an asylum seeker's hostel, in a hostile country, whose native population scorns and reviles him.
2. Section 55
The following is a quote from a well-known national newspaper. “The way asylum-seekers are pouring in from every port in this country is becoming an outrage... the number of aliens entering the country through the back door is a problem to which this newspaper has repeatedly pointed.”
You probably recognise the tone. Various newspapers have voiced similar opinions in recent years. Some of you will agree with the sentiments no doubt; some will not. But if I tell you that the quote dates not from 2008, but from 1938, and that it referred to “stateless Jews from Germany” rather than “asylum-seekers”, then I’m sure you will agree it puts a whole new perspective on the matter.
And the fact is that many asylum-seekers presently in this country are fleeing forms of oppression and injustice that would not have been out of place in Hitler’s Germany.
This is the background by which we should measure the proper treatment of people seeking refuge in this country. The fact that people have left their homes and their families, have travelled many thousands of miles to a strange country, have undergone almost unbearable hardships in order to be here, is evidence enough that their claims are not “bogus“. It is the duty of any civilised country, surely, to offer such vulnerable people sanctuary first, and then to ask questions of them later.
Not so, it seems. The infamous section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002places the onus on new arrivals to claim asylum “as soon as reasonably practicable”: meaning, in effect, within 24 hours. If they fail to do so they are denied support, often cast out onto the streets.
Take the case of Mohamed, for example, a West African fleeing torture and death threats in his own country: “I came to England because I thought I would be safe,” he says. “Then I found myself on the streets. I thought it was the end of my life. It was as bad as the torture I had experienced in Africa and brought back all the memories of that terrible time.”
Or Ramlah, a nurse and victim of rape from east Congo. “I claimed two days after I arrived. The man who interviewed me tried to intimidate me, banging on the table and shouting at me. He asked me why I hadn’t applied immediately at the airport and he tore up my form.”
I can give you many more examples: people who have suffered rape and torture and other forms of violence in their own countries, who have seen their loved-ones taken away or killed, who have lost everything, only to find themselves homeless and destitute in the UK because they failed to apply for asylum within that 24 hour period.
Remember: these people are frightened, alone. Often they don’t speak English. They are traumatised, grief-stricken, torn apart by the things they have witnessed. How can we ask them to act rationally and to have grasped all the finer points of English law within 24 hours of their arrival? Some of them may not even know what the word “asylum” means, let alone have the presence of mind and legal knowledge to claim it within such an arbitrary deadline.
And now it seems that the government is planning to cut off all support to families whose asylum claims have been rejected, and to take their children into care! How much lower can they sink?
Is this how we want our country to be seen: mean, arbitrary and petty-minded, using people’s children as bargaining tools, making vulnerable people homeless and driving them into the arms of criminals because we refuse to offer them support?
That’s not my country. That’s not my world. Such policies bring shame on us all.
Tony Blair condemned the manner in which Saddam Hussein was executed saying “it was completely wrong”.
In other words there is something worse than having a rope tied around your neck and then being dropped through a trap door so that your neck breaks and your tongue lolls out. It is all of this and then being insulted at the same time. As if death wasn’t enough. Death with insults. As if death without insults would have been so much more humane.
Did you notice that they put a silk scarf round his neck too, so that he wouldn’t get rope-burn? A broken neck is fine but rope-burn is unacceptable.
Some of you will say he deserved it. Maybe you are right. I have my own views on capital punishment. I think it would have been far better to have made him live with his crimes than to have let him off so lightly.
On the other hand I can’t argue with the Iraqi people’s right to do as they liked with the man, having suffered under his foul and capricious regime for so many years.
But it seems to me there was an unseemly haste about the process. He was found guilty of the murder of 148 Shi’ites in southern Iraq, and yet there were hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of deaths attributable to him.
Surely justice demands that he should have been held accountable for all of his crimes, not just those selected by the United States.
The Iranians wanted him tried in an international court. Not only did he invade their country, killing up to a million people in an orgy of mass violence, but he also used mustard gas, nerve gas and other illegal weapons. Surely the Iranians too deserved their day in court?
So why wasn’t he held accountable by an international criminal court for his crimes against humanity?
I think you already know the answer to this one.
Because we in the west were directly implicated in those crimes.
We’ve all seen the pictures of Saddam Hussein shaking hands with George Galloway. There are also pictures of him shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld. You have to ask why those pictures haven’t been blazoned across our front pages too?
There’s that old joke. How come we were so certain that he had weapons of mass destruction?
Because we kept the receipts.
But there’s something else which disturbs me about this whole episode.
It was virtually a public hanging.
The whole world saw the lead-up to the hanging. The whole world saw his body afterwards. We watched it all on TV.
If you are really sick you can catch the whole ghoulish event on the internet.
So this is what this so-called war on terrorism has brought us to. It has revived public hanging for our edification and entertainment.
It has turned us into barbarians.
There is a political phenomenon known as “blowback”. It represents the unintended consequences of foreign policy actions. For example, the United States and Great Britain overthrew a functioning democracy in Iran in 1953. Then, after years of extreme repression under the Western-backed Shah, the Iranian people finally rose up and installed an Islamic regime fundamentally hostile to the West.
We are living with the consequences to this day.
A similar process is going on in Afghanistan right now.
Afghanistan was always a wild and a lawless country, and there have been numerous attempts over the centuries to tame it. The British had a go in the 19th century. So did the Russians more recently.
In the years of the Russian occupation the West supported al-Qaeda and the narco-trafficking Afghan warlords. After the Soviet withdrawal we allowed that poor, dry, opium-ridden country to go back to its lawless ways.
The Afghans have been fighting each other for over thirty years. The irony here is that it was the Taliban who finally brought order and peace to the land in the mid nineties. It was the Taliban who stopped the heroin trade.
Now we are fighting the Taliban again, heroin is on the rise, and British troops are being killed in some obscure corner of the world that most of us never even knew existed. How many of you had heard of Helmand Province before the latest troop deployments?
It is worth asking who the Taliban are. On film they look like some ragged ghostly army haunting the dusty mountain wildernesses between Afghanistan and Pakistan, like vengeful warriors from a medieval past.
Well I can tell you EXACTLY who the they are. They are not ghosts. They have a history. They are the orphaned sons of thirty years of the Afghan wars, brought up in the madrassa schools of Pakistan, funded by our great “ally” Saudi Arabia.
The Taliban are oppressive to women because they have never known women. They have never known mothers or aunts or sisters. They have had a peculiar, violent, repressive form of Islam whipped into them for endless years. That’s how they grew up. In other words, this is an army made up almost entirely of abused children.
This is what I mean by “blowback”. The Taliban are the unintended result of Western foreign policy, the creation of those two Islamic allies in the war on terror, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and of years of shameful neglect. We allowed them to fight our wars for us during the Cold War era, taking on the might of the Soviet Empire, and then left them to rot.
Tell me: why should we expect them to be grateful now?
5. Armageddon Factory
Maybe I’m too cynical at times. I read the newspapers, or watch the TV news, and my first instinct is to wonder how I am being manipulated.
Take that story about the dentist-turned-terrorist Sohail Qureshi who was jailed for four and a half years last year. Most of the newspapers were suggesting that his sentence was too mild, adding that he was likely to be free in a year.
But what – actually – had he done?
He was caught boarding a flight with several thousand pounds in cash strapped about his body, with optical night-vision lenses and police batons in his bag, along with two sleeping bags, two rucksacks, some medical supplies and a removable hard drive containing US army combat manuals.
He pleaded guilty to possessing articles for terrorist purposes and to possessing a record of information likely to be useful to terrorists.
So it’s obvious, by his own admission, that he was bent upon some violent act.
He had also been in contact with Samina Malik, the so-called “lyrical terrorist”.
Several of the news programmes referred to him as “an al-Qaida operative”. Apparently he had been on a training camp once. One newspaper described him as “a hate-filled fanatic”, while another said that he planned “to fight against British and American troops in Afghanistan”.
It was at this point that I spluttered into my tea.
He’s a dentist. What’s he going to do: pull their teeth out? Even assuming he has actually had some training, how, exactly, is he going to fight British and American troops using police batons, sleeping bags and rucksacks?
I’m trying to imagine what sort of action he might have been planning. I have a picture of him charging down a hill spinning a sleeping bag over his head while wielding his trusty baton. He would have been able to do this at night, of course, being equipped with the night-vision lenses.
OK. He had money. Maybe he was going to buy weapons. He could probably get one or two Kalashnikovs for that money, plus maybe some grenades and a pistol. Perhaps there was even a brigade of Taliban troops waiting to meet him somewhere on the Afghan border.
You have to ask, however: what use would a dentist from Forest Gate be to the Taliban, those battle-hardened mountain-men, many of whom have known nothing but war all their lives? He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.
But it’s the comparison of resources that clarifies the real truth behind this story.
The day after Sohail Qureshi was sentenced the Americans were in action on the outskirts of Baghdad, attacking so-called al-Qaida targets.
They dropped 40,000 lbs of explosives in a forty minute blitz using F16 fighters and B1 bombers.
A B1 bomber costs $283.1 million. The US Air Force has 100 of them. Each 500lb bomb costs $283.50, making the cost of one forty minute operation, in ordinance alone, nearly $23,000.
There are currently 1,055,734 American soldiers on active duty around the world. US arms spending amounts to 48% of the world total. US soldiers are the best equipped in the world, each one having large quantities of deadly, sophisticated weaponry at their disposal….. probably including night sights and sleeping bags.
The idea that a crazed dentist from Forest Gate, an addled poetess from Southall and a few other nutters can be considered a threat to world peace compared to the Armageddon factory that is the United States is, of course, a fantasy.
In all the years since the invasion of Iraq Tony Blair still cannot show any remorse.
This is despite the opinion of the vast majority of world‘s population - including that of legal and security experts - that the war was not only ill-considered and dangerous, but also illegal.
This brings up two possibilities about our ex-Prime Minister’s state of mind. Either he is self-delusional, or he so arrogant and self-absorbed that he is incapable of listening to other people‘s advice. I prefer the former to the latter, as this would at least present the possibility that one day he could be divested of his illusions and made whole again.
Actually there is a third possibility: that he knew exactly what he was doing, had listened to all the advice, had calculated the consequences, and despite this went to war anyway. The only question then is: why? Why would he put so many innocent lives at risk for an outcome that was at best uncertain, and at worst (which is what we’ve got, it seems) an unholy nightmare of terrifying proportions.
The answer is almost too horrible to contemplate.
Consider this: not only didn’t the invasion achieve its stated aims, it actually had the opposite effect, making things much, much worse.
Take those weapons of mass destruction. It is common to say that there were no such weapons. Actually there were.
There were the remains of weapons sold to Saddam Hussein by various countries in the years when he was an ally and his crimes were being ignored, properly declared in compliance with UN demands and gathered together by Hans Blix and the UN weapons-inspectors in compounds throughout Iraq, awaiting destruction.
The irony here is that when the weapons inspectors were forced out of Iraq by the impending invasion, those compounds were left unguarded. Worse still, in the weeks after the invasion, while the Americans were quick to place guards outside the Oil Ministry and onto the oil fields, those compounds remained unguarded, during which time they were systematically looted by persons unknown and their contents dispersed.
No one knows what has happened to those deadly substances, nor where they might reappear, or in what form.
The world waits in trepidation. Such is Tony Blair’s concern for “weapons of mass destruction.”
As for the “war on terror”, the effect of the invasion has been to radicalise Muslim opinion, to act as a recruiting sergeant for al-Qu’eda, and to serve as a real-life training ground for all the world’s would-be terrorists to hone their deadly techniques.
There were few - if any - connections between Iraq and international terrorism before the invasion. These days it is its biggest export.
Osama bin Laden himself could not have hoped for a better outcome. Muslim opinion has been fairly united in its assessment of the problems facing the Middle East. It has only ever been divided over tactics: whether to act peaceably, democratically and within the law, or violently and outside it, in the manner of Osama bin Laden and the United States.
In effect we have become Osama bin Laden’s greatest ally in his attempt to shift Muslim opinion towards the violent, radical extreme of Islamist thought.
One could almost imagine that it was all intentional. But no: it’s still too horrible to contemplate.
A friend of mine told me a story recently which I found very disturbing.
It concerned a cleaner at a well-known public institution. The cleaner was overheard making racist remarks and was immediately and unceremoniously hauled before management and given the sack.
The reason I find this story disturbing is that I am absolutely convinced that this kind of response, rather than undermining racism, will actually reinforce it.
Imagine this person’s reaction. Is he or she going to be more sympathetic to foreign people now as a consequence of getting the sack? Or is this person, in fact, going to leave the employment a deeply embittered and even more racially prejudiced person? Might that bitterness not spill over at a later date into violence? When this person reads hate-literature of the sort produced by far-right groups, is he or she going to be more inclined to believe it, or less, as a consequence of what has happened?
The irony of this poor working class person’s experience is that, under certain circumstances - if you are wealthy and in a position of power in the media - it is perfectly acceptable to be prejudiced these days, as long as it’s against Muslims.
Martin Amis has been doing it. So has Rod Liddle and Polly Toynbee.
Martin Amis - an intellectual bully and a vile apologist for the War on Terror - has been very strident in his attacks upon Muslim culture. He begins by emphasising the barbaric punishments meted out to women by the Taliban. “Are we morally superior to the Taliban?” he asks. He wants us to say, “yes, of course we are.”
The problem with a comparison of this kind is that it’s not clear what we’re comparing, exactly.
So the Taliban are bigoted, vicious, small-minded, violent, ignorant and prejudiced. That’s true. They arise out of the calamitous war that has been raging in Afghanistan for the last thirty years. Their only education is having the Koran beaten into them with sticks. But the schools where this was done were in Pakistan and were paid for with Saudi money.
Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are allies of the West in this War on Terror. Both were responsible for the rise of the Taliban.
The point is we are not comparing like with like here.
There are many cultured Muslims. There are many boorish Westerners.
There is hatred and violence on both sides.
Iraq was once a sophisticated, advanced state with a free health service and large numbers of women educated to University level and beyond. It had a highly cultured and very self-aware middle class. Not at all like Afghanistan. Not at all like the Taliban.
What happened to it? It had a series of wars imposed upon it. How quickly a culture can decline. We live in dangerous times.
When Martin Amis suggests that “The Muslim community will have to suffer until they get their house in order,” is he speaking for all of us?
Is language such as this acceptable in our world now?
I know that many people are beginning to think like this.
The last time it was intellectually acceptable to attack a whole section of society because of their cultural identity was Germany in the thirties.
Personally I fear for what the future may bring.
8. High Wire
So that’s it. Now I know it’s true. The world has gone utterly, uncontrollably, stark, raving bonkers.
It was a news item on the radio that finally convinced me. Apparently the government are now legislating against circuses. Yes, that’s right folks: circuses are the new force of evil in this world. Women in tights and sparkly costumes are a threat to civilisation as we know it. Men with red noses and baggy trousers who run around and bump into each other are liable to corrupt our youth. As for people who want to recklessly balance on bits of wire, or with an inclination to go spinning through the air on glorified swings: they are nothing less than a danger to themselves and to the public and need to be legislated against.
Well, to be completely clear on this matter: what the government is proposing is that circuses will require entertainment licenses from now on. But not just one entertainment license: they will have to have a separate licence for each separate location. That means every time a circus packs up and shifts to a new site it will mean a new entertainment license: up to forty separate licenses a year. But the overall effect will be to drive the smaller, family-run circuses out of business..
Meanwhile there is the proposed ban on vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements. From next year all of those food supplements we’ve been used to taking to make up for the fact that our food is lacking in any kind of nutritional value will require the same level of scientific research that we have always (justifiably) asked of our pharmaceuticals. In other words, they’re trying to say that vitamin C or zinc or St. John’s Wort are as potentially dangerous to our health as (say) Thalidomide or Valium.
Again, it is small businesses that will suffer.
So, let’s get this straight, shall we? Vitamin B 12 is dangerous, but not cluster bombs. Circuses are anti-social and in need of legislative control, but not cruise missiles. We demand that Colonel Gaddafi disarms, and then promptly sell him arms. We are so concerned at the future of democracy in this world that we remove the democratically elected president of Haiti from his own country at gun point. We will not be dictated to from the barrel of a gun - as Paul Bremer said - while pointing guns at people and dictating to them.
Come on folks, wake up. Haven’t you realised it yet? We are being ruled by a bunch of seriously deranged megalomaniacs!
They fill the world up with useless legislation, protecting us from such dangerously subversive forces as trampoline artists and high-wire acts, making sure that our levels of vitamin B do not exceed recommended doses, and that we can’t get hold of any dried leaves in case they make us turn purple overnight, but they can kill more than a million Iraqis (including unknown numbers of women and children) in their own country, in the most violent manner imaginable, and this is perfectly all right.
It was the playwright, Arthur Miller, who said: "Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the State has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable, and so the evidence has to be internally denied."
To which I would add a quote from Martin Luther King: “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest...."
© 2008 Christopher James Stone