As ever, government policy dovetails with the tabloid press. Last week, the Daily Mail complained that ‘it is clear that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – the registered charity so many of us help fund through donations, garden fetes and collection boxes – is regularly sending its vessels into French waters to bring in migrants.’ In response, the RNLI issued a patient statement reminding Britons that a lifeboat institution really does have to save people from drowning.
On the last weekend before England entered its second lockdown, two slabs of the Berlin Wall were standing on the concourse at Lewisham Shopping Centre. They marked the entrance to the Migration Museum, a roving exhibition space that has made a temporary home in south-east London, near a branch of Footasylum and a stall selling phone cases. Inside, the museum’s main space was laid out like an airport terminal, for Departures, an exhibition about emigration from the Britain, which has shaped the country’s history (not to mention the world’s) at least as much as immigration to it has. A short film took visitors on a brisk tour of the last 400 years, from early efforts at colonial ‘plantation’ in Virginia and Ulster, through to the 19th and early 20th centuries – when more than 17 million people left Britain and Ireland, mainly for North America – and the more recent period of free movement within the EU.
For months, Nigel Farage has been maintaining a solitary watch on the south coast of England, looking out for small boats of migrants arriving on the beaches and filming them with his camera phone.
On the glass of a bedroom window, one of the students across the road tallies ‘days inside’ in red lipstick, the letters oriented to be read from the street. My desk faces this window and its cheery running total that, with no release date in sight, lacks the sense of scratchings on the walls of a prison cell. An uncertain, unwelcome freedom awaits, with promises of economic collapse, unemployment, austerity and, for many, the long, potholed road of grief. Still, it is a comfort to see signs of life in another household, and to know someone is counting as though these were normal, individuated days and not a continuum of lost, fretful time.
Three weeks ago I wrote about the deaths of the 39 people found in a container in Grays, Essex on 23 October. Initial speculation had been that the victims had come from countries in the Middle East, but the police quickly announced that they were Chinese nationals. Now we know that this too was incorrect, and that the dead all came from Vietnam. The parents of Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old woman from Ha Tinh province, released her last text message, fearing she might be among the victims. Other families came forward. The police published a complete list of the dead on Friday.
In the early hours of yesterday morning, Essex police were called to a parked lorry container. Inside were the bodies of 39 people, one of them a teenager. Their identities and nationalities were initially unknown, but we have since learned that they are Chinese nationals. The driver, a young man from Northern Ireland, has been arrested. Normally, faced with such a body count and the appearance of mass murder, politicians and commentators would be circumspect, perhaps uttering routine expressions of horror and pledging their support to a police investigation. But they would not have already worked out who was to blame. Still less would they announce their theories in the House of Commons.
‘They are concentration camps,’ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said of the immigration detention centres on the southern border of the US. Right-wingers angrily replied that she was either simply wrong, or making trivialising comparisons between mere brutal, dehumanising detention and the Nazi project of mass extermination. Not so, Ocasio-Cortez argued: concentration camps existed long before the death camps, and it’s an accurate term for the border facilities, which are characterised by the deliberate combination of extrajudicial internment, bureaucratised neglect and institutional cruelty.
She was right, though the camps’ defenders may have been relieved to be embroiled in an argument over terminology and historical propriety.
In the grey corner of north-east London where I grew up, there was a station, and by it, the closest among many, a newsagent. Like everything where we lived, the newsagent’s shopfront was unassailably urban and plain, a green plastic fascia and glass. The story went that a young woman, herself local, had entered the shop just after eleven o’clock one night. She asked for cigarettes. The owner, who was Gujarati, told her that he didn’t have a licence to sell cigarettes after eleven o’clock.
The European Commission says the ‘migration crisis’ is over. It has published a fact sheet aimed at countering both the far right, who tell lies about migrants and refugees, and humanitarian campaigners who point to Europe’s complicity in the imprisonment and torture of people in Libyan detention camps. It acknowledges that some ‘structural problems remain’.
But what is over, and who is it over for?
Click here to read an expanded, updated version of this piece in the latest issue of the paper. While in Washington, DC, negotiations over a border wall remain at an impasse, a case is unfolding in a federal district courtroom in Brooklyn that casts President Trump’s ambition in a new light. Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman stands accused of running Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, and trafficking billions of dollars’ worth of drugs into the United States.
I first met Omid (not his real name) 15 years ago, when I was conducting field research on Muslim migration. He was born in eastern Tehran in 1973, during the final years of the monarchy. He was a child when his neighbours joined the revolution against the Shah. Ayatollah Khomeini called it a revolt of the ‘barefoot’ masses for bread, freedom and an Islamic Republic, but the bread and freedom didn’t come to Omid’s neighbourhood.
How many asylum seekers have returned to Calais since the Jungle was dismantled in the autumn of 2016? A year after the camp’s residents were dispersed across France, nearly half opted for asylum from the French authorities and got it. But there are still people mustering in Calais – perhaps one thousand – and Grande-Synthe (near Dunkirk), hoping to reach the UK, where they have relatives and networks that can help them resettle, after arduous journeys from points east and south. The Calais Jungle had a poor press in Britain, and the recent arrivals on the Channel coast are faring no better. They also have a local enemy in the mayor, Natacha Bouchart, who rose to prominence during Nicolas Sarkozy’s bling-and-markets presidency. Last month Bouchart announced to the Daily Express: ‘They have smartphones and nice clothes. They’ve been told that they have rights, but no duties. They drink themselves senseless – they down litres of vodka – and get into fights.’ Well prepped, you can’t help thinking, for rapid assimilation in their dream destination, Brexit Britain.
The genocide memorial in Yerevan, a giant complex built when Armenia was part of the USSR, sits on a ridge overlooking the city: its museum tells of how ethnic Armenians in the final years of Ottoman rule were massacred and forcibly scattered and how the lands claimed by Armenian nationalists were reduced, by military defeat and international diplomacy, to the present-day republic in the South Caucasus. Passengers who leave the metro station at Yerevan’s central square are greeted with a giant map of Greater Armenia, a historical region that mostly falls within the borders of the current republic’s neighbours: Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. And on the streets, pasted to lamp-posts, walls and junction boxes, are fly-posters offering cheap minibus rides to distant cities: Krasnodar, Rostov, Novosibirsk. The republic’s economy is partly sustained by emigrant workers, most of whom go to Russia.
The Documenta festival, a contemporary art exhibition that usually takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, is currently in Athens. Its presence there isn’t uncontroversial. The role of the art market in gentrification, the festival’s preference for established or dead artists, the spectacle of a wealthy German institution descending on a city that has been at the centre of economic and refugee crises in recent years – all this has drawn criticism. The curators have made some effort to engage with the political context, but not everything has gone to plan: a collaboration between the artist Roger Bernat and an LGBT refugee group foundered when the participants stole the exhibit in protest at what they saw as exploitation.
The young men of Agadez in central Niger have been many things: armed rebels in the Touareg rebellion (2007-9), soldiers in Gaddafi’s army, uranium miners, desert tour guides and, most recently, migrant smugglers and informal gold miners. But last September, the Nigerien government began to enforce a law, passed at the behest of the European Union, that criminalizes the transport and housing of migrants. In March, it closed the region’s largest informal gold mine, leaving hundreds of young men in Agadez suddenly out of a job. Since September more than 100 drivers and ‘ghetto’ owners who once housed migrants have been arrested and over 100 vehicles confiscated.
When a fisherman prays at sea, he performs his ablutions with salt water and turns the boat in the direction of Mecca. But on the tenth day of his journey to the Canary Islands, Djiby Diop told me, everyone’s prayers mingled together, voices rising jagged and hoarse, calling on the Great, the Merciful, to save them. Water poured over the sides as the wind knocked them from wave crest to trough and back up again. They ran out of food. Then they ran out of water. Some dipped their cups into the sea. Others jumped overboard, hallucinating land. ‘We can’t save them,’ the captain said. Sometimes the sailors would throw a rope. Of the eight people who dived in, two were saved. Others babbled, terrified, unseeing, possessed by the devil, some said. When the motor failed to catch, other passengers accused them of cursing the boat. Their wrists were tied to the sides. One man, tethered like that for two days, could no longer use his hands when they untied him.
The government recently published a list of 360 companies that underpaid their staff. But workers need more than the ‘naming and shaming’ of employers, when low pay is institutionalised and the government is quick to blame poor working conditions first and foremost on immigrants. Addressing the Conservative Party Conference after she became prime minister, Theresa May claimed to be on the side of people who ‘find themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration’. If the left focused its efforts on uniting and organising low-paid workers regardless of where they were born, it could begin both to quell anti-migrant sentiment and to fight back against low pay and poor working conditions.
‘Everyone I know who has been political in Gambia has ended up in jail or dead,’ says L., who came to Italy nine months ago. ‘The army spends its time and resources arresting and torturing anyone who speaks or acts against the president.’ L. showed me a photo on his phone of what he said was an execution he'd been sent by a friend in Gambia two days before: soldiers stand over a man in a pit, his hands together in the air. ‘My parents did not educate me to end up in prison and my first loyalty is to them. I was so angry at everything but to be angry in Gambia means to get arrested or killed. I had to leave.’ L. spoke to me on Wednesday, the day before Gambia's presidential election. ‘Now is our best chance to get rid of our president because for the first time all of the opposition parties are united,’ he said. I asked how it affected him personally. 'My father does not keep quiet during elections. I inherited his anger.’
The Hotel Belvedere is on a hillside a kilometre or so south of the Sicilian town of Corleone. The north-facing rooms have expansive views of the town below and the valley below that. The Belvedere shut its doors to tourists in late 2013 after a couple of decades of business; one of its last reviews on TripAdvisor described it as ‘totally empty’, with a ‘stale’ continental breakfast and ‘towels thin enough to read through’. A few months later, the hotel’s fortunes changed. Reopened in 2014 under new management – a co-operative that also runs care homes in Sicily – the hotel became an ‘extraordinary reception centre’ for migrants, one of about 3000 in Italy.
In a crowded room at a detention centre in Zawiya in western Libya, women from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Eretria, Benin, Liberia, Chad and Niger told me they wanted to go back home. The men who weren’t locked up were gathered separately in a few rooms, or outside cooking on a small fire and listening to rap.
Ilya B., my great-grandfather, is buried in the Jewish cemetery at Weissensee in Berlin. He was born around 1880, into a middle-class family in Kiev, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Like many Jews in Kiev at the time, he spoke Russian, not Ukrainian. Russian was the language of power, essential for minorities who wanted access to jobs or education.
Thawing relations between the United States and Cuba have brought an upsurge in Cubans trying to leave the island. They’re worried they may lose their favourable US immigration status, becoming no more welcome than any other Latino who fancies life in the US.
On 7 August 1991, the Albanian ship Vlora docked at the Port of Durrës, twenty miles west of Tirana, with a cargo of Cuban sugar. Thousands of people, desperate to leave Albania in the first throes of its 'transition' from communism, boarded the ship and prevailed on the captain to take them to Italy. The Vlora arrived in Bari the next day. According to a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe report from January 1992:
I caught up with the group of around 1000 refugees leaving Budapest on foot as they were crossing the Danube on the Elisabeth suspension bridge. We walked west along a dual carriageway. Families wheeled their belongings in pushchairs, with babies teetering on top. People were in flip-flops and beaten-up loafers. A woman pointed at my walking boots: ‘Very good,’ she said. Hungarian drivers stopped to offer people water and food. One man gave a family two pushchairs. At service stations, attendants rushed to the doors to stop people from entering, though they handed out bottles of water. A man on crutches overtook me, his friend carrying his prosthetic leg. It was about 150 miles to Vienna.
Taking part in a panel on European border control at the LSE last autumn, I found myself saying that the behaviour of people smugglers over the last twenty years or more was as worrying as the increasing number of migrants and asylum seekers using their services. Cecilia Malmström, then the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, nodded vigorously. She described the mechanics of getting people in danger across frontiers in the last century as an innocent process, a ‘cottage industry’. I remember hearing a similar remark about the older coyotes from an NGO worker on the US-Mexican border in 2011. I haven’t met a people smuggler for 16 years: my evidence that they treat their charges more harshly than they used to comes from sources we can all access – mainly accounts in the press about migrants and asylum seekers who have suffered at their hands, and briefings from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Last week Italy brought to an end its year-long search and rescue operation for undocumented migrants in the Mediterranean. Operation Mare Nostrum, which was set up after more than 360 people died in a shipwreck off Lampedusa in October 2013, saved around 150,000 lives. It will be replaced by Operation Triton, overseen by the European Union’s border agency, Frontex. Rather than an active search and rescue effort, Triton will be concerned with border surveillance, its remit limited to waters within thirty kilometres of the Italian coast. Mare Nostrum is said to have cost the Italian state more than €9 million a month; the budget for Triton will be a third of that. Those are political choices.
‘Where are all these East Europeans flocking from?’ That was the question Gillian Duffy asked Gordon Brown in 2010. Brown would have got into trouble if he’d answered ‘Eastern Europe’, though probably not as much as he got into for describing Duffy as ‘just a sort of bigoted woman’. Her prejudices, or fears, are widely shared. Nearly 150,000 people have signed a petition against the lifting of labour restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians next year. According to the petition, ‘there is currently an estimated 1.5 million people seeking work within the two countries.’ But how many of them might actually move to Britain?
Three weeks ago a remarkable caravan of vehicles arrived at the Mexican town of Reynosa, just across the border from Hidalgo, Texas. It left the northern border of Nicaragua on 12 October, carrying the relatives of migrants who made the journey north to cross illegally into the United States, but vanished along the way. The caravan, which finished its journey through Central America this weekend, was trying to draw attention to their disappearance and – if possible – find them.