Being an immigrant twice over I have been through the process of making the move from Bangladesh to the UK in the early 1970’s and then moving from the UK to the US in late 2015. Throughout my almost five decades on this planet I have seen and heard first hand stories of people migrating for numerous reasons including economic purposes, fleeing persecution and simply following the one they love.
I have heard of migrant workers who spent decades in the Middle East to support their families back home on the Indian sub-continent and beyond. I have friends who moved from African countries that rescinded their citizenship, because their parents were from elsewhere, and they were seen as competitors in tight economic circumstances. Even more so the news every day for the last decade or so is littered with stories of people fleeing their native lands for one of many reasons.
We see Syrians fleeing from ISIS, we read about the Ronhigyas dying trying to escape the persecution they face in Myanmar. Last but not least we watch CNN covering the stories of migrant caravans from South America heading north towards the US.
Human migration is a story of the human race. For time immemorial we have been on the move, from the Rift Valley in East Africa we have conquered the world, we come in all shapes and sizes, we have hues to rival a rainbow, we speak tongues that would baffle a visitor from another planet. Yet, what I saw in 2018 left me hollow.
Mostly when I travel to Bangladesh it’s usually to see my parents who vacation there for a couple of months during the British winter. In 2017 I made such a trip flying from the UK and then catching a flight from Dubai to Sylhet. The last leg I booked business class for the just over four hour flight which would get me in at 4pm local time.
When boarding was called at Dubai airport, myself and a family of six were the only business class passengers. We took our seats and to while away the time before take off I began to flip through the inflight magazine. More out of curiosity than any desire to buy anything.
Shortly the economy class passengers began boarding. Just like the business class passengers they were being ferried in on buses to the Boeing 737. Not being surprised at all, every economy passenger who came on board was a male migrant worker on his way back home to the villages scattered across the four former districts of Sylhet. Each one of them sported a tousle of jet black hair, the obligatory moustache and a wiry body worthy of a Roman gladiator. Furthermore, every one of them carried at least two bags which were oversized and non-permissible on 99% of international flights, but here FlyDubai stewardesses ushered them in and tried to herd them like cats to their respective seats.
I watched the procession and the ensuing chaos as the men jammed their bags into the tight overhead spaces. The stewardesses trying their best to get the men to take their seats. Some walked past their seats with their luggage and then tried to walk back up the aisle. Many of the men clearly did not understand English as the stewardesses requests fell on deaf ears.
When the dust settled the whole plane was packed to the rafters, with not a single empty seat, except in business class. I turned back and looked at the men with bright eyes and white teeth contrasted by their sun-baked leathery skin. This scenario I had seen many times on my travels to Bangladesh. The migrant workers making their annual, biennial or triennial pilgrimage back home. Wives and children yearning their return. Parents teary eyed as their sons come back home for a brief few months before returning to the cauldron of labour in the Middle East.
Even though I’d heard first hand from such men the brutal conditions they worked under which the risk of losing life and limb was ever present, I could never imagine the actuality of such circumstances. I guess like many people I had gotten numbed to hearing these stories. The men needed work and whatever they earned was far better than the penurious existence back in their home villages.
Little did I know then that a year later I would come across a similar group of men whose station in life was far below these souls who were homeward bound.
In 2018 I was travelling from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to my home in the US via Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. The flight was a night flight getting into Addis early the next morning followed by a connection onto New York. Sitting at the departure gate I was struck by how few passengers there were for the flight. I thought to myself that maybe they’re all late and would make a mad dash to get on board. I was hoping for an on time departure so I wouldn’t have to rush to catch my connecting flight.
I stared out the floor-to-ceiling glass window into the night out on the ramp where the airline’s aircraft was being prepared by an army of service people. The fuel tankers pumping jet fuel into the wings, the cleaning crew running up the steps with plastic bags to collect trash and the catering trucks elevating their bodies up to the aircraft’s doors to unladen their food and beverages.
I glanced at my wristwatch and saw that it was about an hour before departure, so I looked around to see if there was any activity from the ground staff. With no sign of movement I opened my iPhone leaving the songs continuing to grace my eardrums through my earbuds, I did the cursory check of emails and Facebook, not that I was expecting anything, rather a curse of modern day life of being constantly connected.
Looking back out into the night-veiled ramp where the orange floodlamps gave everything a strange other worldly glow, I noticed a couple of buses draw up to the aircraft. I did not think much of it so I did not pay them much attention. I thought that must be a large cleaning crew to have two buses to take them away.
Shortly, the call went out to board and even though I was flying economy and my seat was back in row 25 as a frequent flyer I was able to board first. All I had was my laptop case and as I walked onto the aircraft the smiling stewards and stewardesses greeted me warmly. I looked down the aircraft and I briefly came to a halt as I noticed the back of the aircraft was a sea of dark curly hair with eyes poking out the side and over the headrests looking at the boarding passengers, and directly at me being at the front of the line.
I thought to myself am I on the right plane? And did I not see these passengers boarding before me? I was mightily confused. I sheepishly continued further into the aircraft and when I arrived at row 25 a stewardess stood there at row 24 from where on in all the rows going to the back of the plane were chock-a-block with young men, whom I assumed to be of Ethiopian descent.
The stewardess seemed to keep the men in their seats and along with a colleague further back speaking in Ethiopian to settle them and ensure they remain seated.
I placed my laptop bag in the overhead bin and took my aisle seat. Sitting down I could not wonder at what I was seeing here. These men had no hand luggage, I looked back and up, all the overhead bins from row 24 all the way down the plane were empty. The men clutched on to an A5 size of paper as if their life depended on it. The piece of paper was some form of identification as it had a photo of the owner and a set of text akin to a document highlighting a person’s name, date of birth etc.
To say these men were bedraggled would be the understatement of the century. They looked as if they had been worked with a whip. The men I had seen on the flight to Sylhet from Dubai had a sense of joviality and an element of material wellbeing. The men on this flight looked as if they were sucked dry and tossed asunder by some blood-sucking vampire.
My eyes caught the gaze of one man to my left in the aisle seat one row behind and across from me. I smiled, he just stared back at me with empty defiant eyes. I had a feeling that he thought maybe I was looking at him with him disdain, which could not be further from the truth. I knew there and then what these men were, they were modern day slaves, not even migrant workers, let alone expats. They had been bussed in direct to the plane, bypassing the terminal.
They had been flown in from Ethiopia like cattle, worked to the bone and were being flown back out. Without any visible signs of passports, which would allow them travel through a terminal and passport control, I am sure they were prisoners at the places they worked. Thus, they were not even allowed the dignity of travelling through the airport as regular passengers. For them there was no duty free, they would not get a chance to grab a coffee before boarding the flight. God forbid if they lost their identity paper. I could not even imagine what they would have experienced whilst working in Saudi Arabia.
Yet, the man who stared defiantly at me had pride, self respect and enough self worth not to be phased by me or the other travellers. I do not know what life they left to come and work in Saudi Arabia and to be herded like cattle in such a manner, only they know if the decision to come and work and be treated as such was worth it.
I was angry at the indignity faced by these men, surely in this day and age we can treat our fellow humans with equality, respect and enough trust to allow them to travel as every other air passenger? Is there such a difference between them and other workers who flock to the Middle East to do jobs that the locals don’t want to do or are unable to do? Is it too much of an ask to allow all people to be treated as one?
My thoughts were interrupted by a white South African man travelling to Durban whose seat was in my row by the window. I let him in and as he settled in to his seat we made small chit chat, before I put my earbuds on and tried to get some sleep before landing in Addis.
Throughout the flight I would wake up as sleep was nigh on impossible, and every time I would look back and every time my heart would sink.
I thought that they were now on board their national airline, when the plane touched down they would be home and dry, free men to go about as they wished. How wrong I was to think so.
Upon landing in Addis Ababa, the plane taxied to a location away from the terminal, so again we had to be boarded onto buses. Being towards the back of the aircraft it took a while for the front to empty. On the ramp there were ground staff from the airline shepherding people onto three separate buses. One bus was for passengers ending their journey in Addis, one bus for transit passengers such as myself and the last bus was for the passengers from row 24 and higher.
I got onto my bus and the South African fellow met with other countrymen and they disappeared into their own world of South African accented guttural English. I gazed out the window of the bus and I could see the men who were sat behind me being barked orders at to step here, and stand there and so on. Even back on native land they were treated a class apart.
As my bus pulled away I watched the men huddle together in the cool high altitude air of Addis Ababa, I could not help but feel ashamed of the human race. In 2018 into the second decade of the 21st century, we have learned nothing from our recent history. We treat our fellow men not too dissimilar to how slaves were treated 2000 years ago.
Our globalization was supposed to help all, with our world institutions such as the UN, UNHCR, World Bank, Red Cross / Red Crescent, Medicins Sans Frontieres and numerous other NGOs and development agencies. Our live Live Aid and Band Aid concerts, our philanthropic leaders of industry, entertainment and politics. Yet injustices and exploitation is rife, all one needs to do is scratch the surface.
We as human beings have a long way to go, our humanity and compassion towards each other leaves a lot to be desired. The way I look at it is, we came into this world with nothing, we will leave with nothing, we all bleed the same red and everything in between is a temporary game of life, and life has a funny way of equalizing everything. Therefore, whilst we are here just a little kindness, respect and dignity towards our fellow man would go a long way to make this world a better place.