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.