The Immigrant

February 1, 2014

Road sign outside Gurbulak, Turkey-Iran border

Road sign outside Gurbulak, Turkey-Iran border

I am an immigrant, albeit a second generation one. My father arrived in the UK in the early 1960's as the demand for workers outstripped supply. The same thing was happening across Europe. Germany was getting its labor from the likes of Turkey. France got her workers from her former colonies in Africa. This was the scene in post-war Europe as nations began rebuilding their economies after the destruction of World War II.

I arrived in the UK in 1975 with my mom and younger brother to join my dad. We became naturalized citizens within a few years and have the good fortune of being citizens of the UK. I say good fortune because England has afforded me an education, a good healthcare safety net. It has an established legal system where my bricks and mortar as well as intellectual property and civil liberties are protected. The country has a police force that ensures security, safety and a peace of mind that in case of trouble I can call on for help.

Many immigrants even today flee their native countries to go to another where things like safety, peace, justice and freedom of speech are protected and taken for granted. Where someone could make a good go of their life without fear of losing it all when the political wind changes or war and strife destroys all their hard work. This is not to say that instability and some of the darker elements of human nature does not exist in the more developed nations of the world. The key one being racism which even today is a huge problem. This can lead to situations where someone could be fifth, sixth or seventh generation in a country but still not feel part of its society. An example of that is Germany where as of 2006, 22 percent of Turkish citizens lacked German nationality despite being born in the country (source

This brings me to my story for this week. In 2012 I was in a situation whereby I had the opportunity to observe and understand the plight of the modern immigrant and the underbelly of humanity that 'mis-serves' it. I was in one of my favorite cities in the world, I was in Istanbul. One weekend I was incarcerated for seventy-two hours by being in the wrong place at the wrong time (that is another story, well book number three actually for 2015).

Whilst I was waiting to leave my temporary abode I came across a fellow Bangladeshi. He was a young man aged twenty-one and he saw me fumbling my way around the place of ninety men and asked if I needed help. He spoke initially in Urdu thinking I was either Pakistani or Indian. After we realized that we were fellow countrymen we reverted to speaking in our native tongue.

I ascertained he was from southern Bangladesh where there was abject poverty in some parts, where even today some villages are without electricity, sanitation or paved roads. He was kind enough to get tea, some boiled eggs and cookies for the two of us. Whilst we drank tea I asked him about his situation and why he was here.

He began with a pause as he recalled his journey to where he was now. I could see the sadness and loss of hope that his eyes could not hide. Three years ago he arrived in the UAE on a working visa. His family had sold their land and loaned money to pay the 'middleman' who facilitated his visa and sponsorship by an Arab businessman from Dubai. Without an education or any marketable skills he was a laborer on a construction site, and even though he did not know anything about the industry he began learning the art of building. He learnt concrete pouring, bricklaying and woodworking among other skills. What he earned was not great but was enough to send money to his family back in Bangladesh and slowly pay back the loan on his visa.

He is one of millions who send money back home to their families to support their livelihoods. It is estimated by the World Bank that in 2013 $410 billion US dollars would have been remitted back to developing countries by the likes of my friend. World Bank estimates state that Bangladesh received around $15.18 billion US dollars from the diaspora of people from that country scattered globally.

He highlighted the harshness of the living conditions. Hundreds of migrant workers were housed in jail-like compounds away from the city center. They lived in conditions that were unbearable, sleeping on hard bunk beds and having to share facilities from the kitchen to bathroom. The dormitories were baking during the day and cold under the desert sky. There were no women only men and the only respite they got was Friday and Saturday, the weekend. During those two days most of the men would head into neighborhoods that had people from their own countries who had businesses and residences in Dubai, but not necessarily legal citizenship.

Not long before his visa was due to expire he knew the chance of extension could be slim and he would have to return back to Bangladesh. So having saved some Dirhams he decided to see if he could head for the gold-paved streets of Europe, seeking his own Dick Whittington fortune. Again he sought out a 'middleman' but this time it was not to obtain a visa but a human trafficker. The human trafficker and his cohorts around the world would somehow get him and half a dozen other souls into Europe.

Eventually the day came and he and another six men of different nationalities, namely Indian, Pakistani and African were driven to Ras Al-Khaimah the northern most Emirate in the UAE federation. Once there they were handed to another trafficker who kept them hidden in a safe house until nightfall. Under cover of darkness they were driven to a secluded and remote seafront. There they boarded a small fishing boat with an outboard motor and slipped away into the night guided by the pilot of the vessel. The seven men were now illegal immigrants, their ferryman steered the boat into the Strait of Hormuz, a body of water that separated the Arabian peninsula from the Asian landmass and the coast of Iran.

The boat was headed for Bandar Abbas a port city in Southern Iran, a city that was the country's principal commercial port. The overnight journey landed them on a remote beach outside of Bandar Abbas, however things were not looking good. As they approached the Iranian coast the waves developed a strength that meant the men would have to swim ashore. The pilot ordered them overboard one-by-one, until the last of the seven were in the water. He then swiftly turned the boat around and headed back to the UAE. The men who were in waters too deep began to swim furiously as the waves crashed onto them. Fully clothed the swimming was not easy and by the time they all dragged themselves onto the beach one man was missing.

They looked around and eventually found the body further down the beach, the man was Pakistani and had drowned. Suddenly as if by magic and out of nowhere a stranger appeared with a torch in hand and began to talk to some of them in Urdu. The strange man was their Iranian trafficker. He along with the remaining six began to dig a shallow grave and once the dead man was interred they were hurriedly taken off the beach and into a waiting people carrier.

All of the men collapsed into the seats all wet and bedraggled, with the fate of their lives in the hands of the strange man. They were driven non-stop to Tehran, where they were hidden for a few days until the time was right to break for the Turkish border at Bazargan in the Northwest of Iran. When the day did arrive they did not depart until the sun had disappeared over the western horizon. This time another man drove them to Bazargan and handed them to a Turkish trafficker who schooled them on what to say at both the Iranian immigration post and at the Turkish end. However, their education was not required as bribes were swiftly paid and the human cargo was ushered into Turkey.

Once in Turkey they had a journey of 737 miles to get to Ankara the capital city. Having done the drive in the opposite direction I knew the route and how fraught it was with challenges and potential dangers. Having entered Turkey at the break of dawn they made good coverage of distance, yet they had to stop overnight along the route before continuing onto Ankara. On the second day of being in Turkey they arrived in Ankara around noon, and whilst circumnavigating the Ankara ring road along its northern perimeter tragedy struck.

The driver crashed into another vehicle and whilst everyone recovered from the shock of the accident he ran off down the embankment beside the road, never to be seen again. Police were called and the six men apprehended and handed over to the immigration police. They were all split up and my young friend was sent to Istanbul. Since his arrest he had been waiting for two months for his fate to be decided.

"So where were you headed?" I asked.

"The trafficker promised to take me to Greece, I know some people there," he replied.

"Do you know how bad things are in Greece at the moment, the country is in ruins, with little or no work," I offered.

" Yeah! I know but if I can get there I can sort myself out," he responded with a disheartened look.

The second night I spent in the facility I talked more with the young man who introduced me to other South Asians, who shared their stories in Urdu and Hindi. It transpired that the ninety men housed here were all illegal migrants from South Asia as well as the Caucasus nations such as Azerbaijan and East Asians from Turkmenistan, Tajikistan  and beyond.

When my seventy-two hours was over, the young man became sad and despondent as he walked me to the exit. I left him all my Turkish Lira and walked away thanking my luck stars for how fortuitous my life was. The metal door slammed shut behind me and I walked down the stairwell to the main entrance. Halfway down I stopped and ran back to the door and began banging for the guard to open up. He asked what I wanted in broken English, I told him I needed to see the young Bangladeshi. I ran back into the facility where I found my friend, I handed him my Besiktas football shirt, shook his hands and left.

I don't know what happened to the young man. His plight is one of millions being played out around the world every single day. Some are lucky enough to get to where they were heading, others not so like the Pakistani man buried on a beach in Iran. Human migration is not a new phenomenon and it is sad to hear of such stories, but it is something that will never stop, even when we travel between stars.

No Entry

August 7, 2013

View over the English Channel from aboard P&O ferries

View over the English Channel from aboard P&O ferries

It was Sunday July 14th, Bastille Day in France and I was catching the 09:30pm Euroline coach from Paris Porte de Bagnolet to London Victoria.

It was a nine hour coach journey with two stops on the French side, followed by a ferry across the English Channel, followed by a non-stop run to London's Victoria coach station.

I was not too enamored by the prospect of a 'red-eye' overnight coach ride to London in cramped seats, to then get into London at 6am the next day. However, it was out of necessity rather than choice.

I arrived at Porte de Bagnolet an hour before the scheduled departure time, yet me and my fellow passengers had to wait until 10:30pm to leave. Most of us were hot and bothered wilting in the sweltering evening heat. When the coach eventually arrived, there was no orderly queue or anyone directing people on to the coach. It was a free-for-all. Everyone made a mad dash for the coach dumping their bags hurriedly in the belly of the metal people transporter and up the steps to get a prime seat. Passengers for the later 11pm coach surged en masse to get on board, only to be turned away by the gruff French driver. This caused an almost stampede like situation with the 9:30pm passengers shoving to get on and the later passengers trying to get off.

Eventually, the chaos died down and with all the passengers on board we departed. I sat in an aisle seat with a gentleman from the Far East in the window seat. The seats were extremely cramped with no toilet facilities. I shook my head in dismay as I heard babies crying and little kids being settled down by their parents. I thought how inconsiderate of Eurolines to have a vehicle with no toilets when the journey was so long.

The mixture of passengers was extremely diverse; on my left across the aisle sat two young female American backpackers, there were people of African origin, others from Eastern Europe, a couple of south Asian families and some natives from the UK shores.

The heat had exhausted me so much that the cool air-conditioned interior of the coach led me to fall fast asleep within seconds of sitting down.

The first time I awoke was somewhere between Paris and Lille where the driver called a ten minute comfort break. I could barely open my eyes and slept through. The second time was in Lille, again I was too tired to even open my eyes.

It was sometime at around 3am that we arrived into the port of Calais. Before we could board we had to go through French and UK immigration controls.

All the passengers alighted from the vehicle and queued up in a portacabin and one by one were called to the desk by a French immigration officer. All the people looked dead tired. No one was in conversation, it seemed that everyone wanted to get back on the coach and catch some sleep.

Then I caught a glimpse of a young lady being escorted away by one of the two French officers, leaving the sole desk to process the remaining passengers. I groaned silently.

Eventually I arrived at the desk, got the cursory glance as my details were checked and then ushered on. Outside I was directed to another makeshift cabin building where the UK immigration were based.

Here the scene was very different. In contrast to the French two desks, reduced to one, here there were six manned desks plus several officers just standing and watching the passengers with their keen eyes.

Here a lot of the passengers looked alert yet intimidated and frazzled. Initially it did not register with me what was going on, the fuzziness of sleep deprivation was not making me think clearly. However, I was seeing more people being pulled aside and then 'click', it dawned on me that these people had questionable papers and they were potentially trying to enter the UK illegally. I watched several people of various nationalities being pulled aside into rooms out of sight.

I gulped and thought, "Wow! this is the hard coal face of illegal migration".

The whole scene woke me up from my walking slumber as I approached the desk. Once cleared I went back to the coach and retook my seat. The coach slowly started to fill up except the two seats in front of me and my Oriental seat buddy. I thought he may have been stopped too, but he turned up running just seconds before the coach left.

As the driver fired up the engine I scanned the vehicle and saw approximately six seats empty which were occupied prior to the immigration checks. I came to the realization that those six were detained for potentially trying to get into the UK illegally. I thought about those people, I thought about the money they must have spent either through getting the paperwork on their own or paying middlemen who probably charged extortionate fees.

If these people were trying to illegally enter the UK it was wrong, yet I felt sorry that they probably spent their life savings trying to get here. The coach driver did not wait and he drove the coach onto the waiting ferry. I began to contemplate the lives these people were leaving and what drove them to go to such extreme measures to try and get into another country illegally. I could not judge their circumstances as I did not know what they were fleeing.

One thing I realized by what I witnessed was that I was extremely lucky, my father had arrived into the UK as a genuine immigrant. Even though I had heard of illegal immigrants around the world this is the first time I had witnessed the reality of it. Furthermore, I was humbled to the core. I was humbled by the fact that I can, I have and I am still able to travel as a global citizen without any obvious restrictions on entry to any country. I was humbled by the fact that I had a choice in determining my country of residence. I was humbled by the simple right of freedom that I had. A right that many human beings do not have in many guises and forms.