Good im­mi­grants, bad im­mi­grants?

The Asian Age - - Oped - Aakar Pa­tel is a writer, colum­nist and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Amnesty In­ter­na­tional (In­dia)

You can travel as an In­dian tourist across all of Italy — Rome, Venice, Mi­lan, Bologna — know­ing to speak only a lit­tle bit of one lan­guage. I am not re­fer­ring to Ital­ian, but Ben­gali. The coun­try is full of Bangladeshi im­mi­grants, all of whom are a par­tic­u­lar type. They are male, they are young (from their mid-20s to their early-30s), they usu­ally have a sim­i­lar phys­i­cal type (they are small, thin and dark).

One other thing they have in com­mon is that they are all very hard­work­ing. The ones who have come re­cently and have no cap­i­tal to do any­thing and lit­tle other sup­port sell things on the street. To tourists they sell selfie-sticks, lit­tle plas­tic he­li­copter like toys, cold wa­ter, tem­po­rary rain­coats and things like that. Oth­ers, who have been there for longer and per­haps have some pa­per­work, are wait­ers and chefs, and some man­age stalls sell­ing food and other items that are owned by Ital­ians.

I usu­ally speak to them in my bro­ken Bangla to ask them about their lives, and I do not need to tell the reader that their life is hard. I have great re­spect for their courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion, but I also have sym­pa­thy for their plight.

To be away from your home and from your net­works, to be in a for­eign land is not easy for any of us, and all hu­mans are es­sen­tially the same. It is the very rare Ital­ian-Bangladeshi who does not want at some point to re­turn to his home­land, and who is com­pletely happy in Italy, even though it of­fers him a lit­tle more op­por­tu­nity to make a liv­ing.

I come from a com­mu­nity of Gu­jaratis who have his­tor­i­cally not been very ed­u­cated, but have been en­ter­pris­ing and not afraid to take on hard work. This is why the world knows of the phrase Pa­tel Mo­tel. But most will not know that the ma­jor­ity of Pati­dars who come to the United States do not come with cap­i­tal. They come from towns and vil­lages where there is a lack of lo­cal op­por­tu­nity, and they have to do phys­i­cal work in the US. My own par­ents and sis­ter worked in mo­tels in Amer­ica that they did not own. This meant clean­ing rooms and do­ing the sort of work that mid­dle class Indians would never do. Own­er­ship of places is some­thing that only the mi­nor­ity of Pati­dars in Amer­ica have.

This is usu­ally the case with most im­mi­grants. Th­ese days in In­dia and the rest of the world we are deal­ing with an­other kind of im­mi­grant, the refugee. Whether the Syr­ian or the Ro­hingya, this in­di­vid­ual is flee­ing vi­o­lence of the most ex­treme sort. The war in the Mid­dle East was be­gun by the United States and Bri­tain and then joined in by other Euro­pean na­tions like France. How­ever, they have al­most washed their hands of the con­se­quences of their ac­tions. Amer­ica, which has al­ways seen it­self as a dis­tant place pro­tected on both sides by vast oceans, does not have to live with the con­se­quences of its ac­tions. It can wage wars in Korea and Viet­nam with­out hav­ing to bring th­ese wars back home.

I of­ten see the global photo feed of news ser­vices to see what is hap­pen­ing around the world. It will shock most read­ers to see vi­su­als of the ex­treme vi­o­lence that Syr­i­ans are be­ing forced to flee. Why do we have such lit­tle sym­pa­thy for such peo­ple? Is it be­cause we view their re­li­gion in a par­tic­u­lar light?

The cold­ness with which the In­dian gov­ern­ment has re­sponded to the bru­tal­ity against the Ro­hingya is dis­ap­point­ing to me. Do we dis­be­lieve the re­ports of crimes against them by the state of Myan­mar? Do we be­lieve that they are all leav­ing their homes to come to In­dia be­cause they en­joy liv­ing in refugee camps? We must be quite delu­sional to as­sume that.

Do we think, as our gov­ern­ment seems to think, that th­ese peo­ple are a ter­ror threat only be­cause they are Mus­lims? It is re­mark­able that we should have such a crude out­look to­wards the world and other hu­man be­ings.

This gov­ern­ment has al­ready made a se­ri­ous mis­take be­cause it does not prop­erly think about such things. It an­nounced a pol­icy that it would only ac­cept refugees from the mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties from Pak­istan and Bangladesh. In do­ing so, it an­nounced more or less that Indians would only wel­come non-Mus­lims. Myan­mar is a Bud­dhist nation that is op­press­ing its Mus­lim mi­nor­ity. What hap­pens to our pol­icy now?

As a great democ­racy, we must be re­spon­si­ble and up­hold the rights of those who come to us seek­ing shel­ter. Every­thing in the Hindu faith tells us that this is oblig­a­tory on us. We will be to­tal hyp­ocrites if we take pride in the im­mi­grant In­dian com­mu­ni­ties (many of whose in­di­vid­u­als are il­le­gal im­mi­grants) but look on im­mi­grants from other na­tions as be­ing ter­ror­ists and those who are out to live off our re­sources.

Myan­mar is a Bud­dhist nation that is op­press­ing its Mus­lim mi­nor­ity. What hap­pens to our pol­icy now? As a great democ­racy, we must be re­spon­si­ble and up­hold the rights of those who come to us seek­ing shel­ter.

Aakar Pa­tel

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