The UK's Labour Party leadership contest has kicked off with several candidates banging the immigration drum and the nations eyes turn to the ‘immigration problem’. So, as the war cry of the anti-immigrant minority of my native UK sets off with choruses of ‘why don’t you just go back to where you came from?!’ And the plain old ‘Go home!’ – Scriptonite reports how several here and now stories bring violently to life the brutal truth that for some, no place on earth is home.
From Dorothy’s quest for home in The Wizard of Oz, to captain Kathryn Janeway and the crew of Star Trek’s Voyager vessel, to ET, to The Labyrinth. We don’t need to look far afield from contemporary culture to be well aware of the tale of the dispossessed, the lost and the expelled on their journey to that place called home.
Full of longing and beset by hurdle and misadventure, the heroes and heroines of the stories plough on regardless. You might think this would imply that the weary real world traveller would be made a home anywhere on the backs of such a propaganda mission for the uprooted. However, in the real world, all too often the homeless and the stateless are the pariah and not the hero of the hour.
The Burmese government does not consider Nasima or any Rohingya to be citizens, has stripped them of their rights and considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Following extortion and incarceration, her father felt she would be safer in Bangladesh. After a harrowing boat ride, becoming separated from her guide by brutal cross border security, arriving in Bangladesh alone and begging on the streets to Nasima caught a break. She tracked down a sister and made a start on her adult life in Bangladesh.
For two years, life was relatively normal. She even married and had a child. Then, quite arbitrarily, five days after the birth of her first child, Nasima and her new family were arrested by the Bangladeshi police along with thousands of other Burmese ‘illegal immigrants’ and carted back to Burma where many were simply shot down by the Nasaka (Burmese border guards) at the border. The ‘lucky’ few who made it through get to live in the Kutupalong camp. This overcrowded, unresourced ghetto is full of starving men, women and children with no home. Nasima’s baby died during the journey from Bangladesh to the camp and in the last week, Nasima has eaten only three meals. And it’s the lucky few that get to endure the malnourishment, the commonplace child deaths from diarrhoea and the frequent and indiscriminate torture of refugees attributed to the Kutupalong camp. Most mainstream media states this treatment of the Rohingya as dating back to 1982. However, their plight goes back a long long way further than this.
The Rohingya are actually believed to descend from 7th century Arab settlers who were later conquered by the Burmese in 1784. However, in 1824 the Rohingya were denied citizenship rights on the basis that they were judged not to have been indigenous to the area more than 1 year before British colonial rule. On 28th March 1942, 100,000 Rohingya were massacred by Buddhist Rhakine Magh people in the power vacuum left by retreating British colonial rulers at the arerival of the Japanese. In 1948 the new Burmese government declares that actually the Rohingya, despite vast and credible evidence to the contrary were brought over by the British Colonialists and should therefore be denied all rights and branded...you guessed it...illegal immigrants. Ever since, this people have been basically bashed from Burma to Bangladesh and back again at the whims of the regimes either end and no place on earth is home.
In light of the Isreali attack on the humanitarian aid flotilla last week, the spotlight is once again on the the plight of the 3.9 million Palestinians living under occupation Gaza and the West Bank. However, the lesser told story is of the Palestinian diaspora. Some 4.6 million Palestinian refugees are sheltered in inadequate and unsafe camps across the neighbouring Arab states of Kuwait, Iraq, Syria. Lebanon and Jordan.
Their property and land rights seized during the exoduses of 1948 and 1967, this group is lovingly referred to as ‘the right to return’ issue in peace talks. From the Palestinian perspective, a mainstay of any peace agreement would have to address the right to return of the diaspora while, for the Israelis, these demographics just don’t work for a Jewish state. You solve on diaspora, you create another.
Far from being nestled tenderly in the arms of their Arab brothers while all this gets worked out, the Palestinian refugees are like the poor relation camping on the couch until a better place can be sorted. Some 250,000 Palestinians were literally chased out of Kuwait and other gulf states during the first gulf war following Palestinian political support of Saddam Hussein. Conversely, tens of thousands of Palestinians in Iraq were dispossessed following the second gulf war. Infact, Jordan stands alone in working to assimilate and naturalise Palestinian refugees and even that has and continues to be a rocky road.
Like an unpaid tax bill, the interest on the diaspora problem is making it more unsolvable by the day. As the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) grants refugee status to the children,m grandchildren and great children of refugees following patrilineal descent the original refugees of 1948 of 711,000 has now become he pondersome 4.6 million of today. The Israeli government is simply playing deaf over the issue and even Yasser Arafat was willing to sideline the diaspora issue. In a two state solution, where would you put 4.6 million people along the west bank and Gaza?
The situation remains in stalemate and no place on earth is home for the Palestinian diaspora.
So it is not merely being born into a place in the world that guarantees you the permanent right to call it home and to enjoy it, unmolested by some authority. And this is the self interest that might prompt those of us not influenced in any other way to stand for the rights of others, through imperfect but well intentioned bodies like UNWRA and Amnesty International and others. The fortunes of a populous can turn on a dime and without the work of these organisations, human populations like any other can simply become extinct. Rich cultures, languages, histories lost and when that happens, a part of our worldwide human body dies.
How about working for global rights for citizens of the world? How about being the answer in our own way to the ambitions of so many of us, perfectly articulated once more for us by the soul nourishing Maya Angelou:
“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”
I’m inspired – what can I do?
Well firstly, you could go check out these incredible folks who are working every day for refugee rights across the world. I have sampled a few organisations to get you started by you can shop around for the organisation that most inspires you.
Secondly, the good old fashioned Ghandi-ism of being the change you want to see in the world. Be a part of the conversation that immigration is not a problem, it is a fact of life. People move, people need a home and you can make it your business through the way you vote, the organisations you support and even the conversations you have in the pub with friends....that every human being gets to be at home, wherever they are.