One year later from September 11, people of South Asian and Arab descent living in North America have acquired a particular dread of two words, detention and deportation.
Since Sept 11 last year, hundreds of people of mainly South Asian or Arab descent have been detained without charge and hundreds more have been deported. But most of all, those being detained and deported tell of abusive and contemptuous treatment by US authorities.
The 131 Pakistanis who were deported en masse, on a special flight back to Pakistan tell of the degradation and abuse they suffered. First in prisons across the US, and then being shackled to their seats on the flight back.
All of them were deported ostensibly for having invalid documents. Even if one were to justify the deportations on the grounds of the ‘illegality’ of their residence in the US, there is no justification for the way they were treated.
The abusive and insulting ways in which detainees and deportees were treated; solitary confinement, verbal and physical abuse by prison guards and constant supervision, even when going to the toilet; is an indication of nothing but institutionalized racism and bigotry.
But underlying all this is the question of targeting undocumented and non-status people of colour, and singling them out for persecution. Just as the weak and defenseless people of Afghanistan and Iraq are being driven further into the ground by the US military machine abroad, at home it is also the most vulnerable who are being targeted.
Unfortunately the situation doesn’t improve much north of the border. Recently the Canadian government announced that it was lifting a moratorium that had been in place since 1997 on the deportation of Algerians back to Algeria. This moratorium had been put in place to prevent Algerians from being sent back to face persecution in Algeria or become victims of the civil war raging there.
But now, the moratorium has been lifted, even though conditions in Algeria regarding political stability remain the same. 1000 Algerians who have been living in Montreal for the past ten years are now facing deportation back to Algeria.
They had been allowed in as non-status workers, and had been working living and paying taxes here. However, their rights are restricted No right to health insurance, a minimum $150 expense for the annual work permit renewal, no right to study with work permit, children have no right to family benefits even when born in Canada and no right to loans or scholarships, and the list goes on.. Now, entire families face deportation.
A look at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada website will reveal that Canada still has a travel advisory caution in place for Algerian and expressly warns Canadian citizens to stay away from Algeria and says ‘ Over 100,000 people have been killed in political violence in Algeria since 1992′ and ‘limited terrorist activity continues in urban areas’.
Then why lift the moratorium? In the same week that the Algerian moratorium was lifted, Prime Minister Chretien was visiting Algeria and shortly after, the Canadian company, SNC Lavalin, obtained a contract with Algeria for the amount of 141 million dollars. While at home, in the name of terrorism, minorities are targetted and bundled back to their places of origin, abroad, deals are struck to suck in more and more of the remaining resources of impoverished places like Algeria.
Now there is talk of reviewing a similar policy for Afghanistan in Canada. Following in the footsteps of the British and Australian governments, Canada may consider lifting the moratorium on Afghan deportations as well. One hopes that they will at least consult their own travel advisory about Afghanistan, dated July 30, 2002, which states, ” The security situation (in Afghanistan) remains extremely volatile. The potential for violence and unrest remains high. There is little law and order other than that provided by international forces.”
In Britian hundreds of Afghans were held in detention centers pending deportation. An Afghan family was recently deported to Germany despite appeals that this was causing them great mental distress. According to Human Rights Watch, “the Australian government is currently offering Afghan detainees 28 days to accept financial incentives to return while threatening that they will have to go back without the money if their asylum claims are rejected.”
Threat, coercion, detention and abuse towards helpless and destitute Afghans asking for refuge – this is the face of the famous coalition which bombed Afghanistan in the name of ‘freedom and democracy’. The duplicity of attitudes towards Afghanistan is also revealed by the recent about face in UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) policy towards refugees. Now, according to UNHCR, Afghanistan is safe for refugee returns. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly emphasized the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and questioned UNHCR’s sudden fondness for sending Afghans back into the morass of murder, rape, imprisonment and abuse that is Afghanistan today.
Apart from the institutionalized discrimination and racism of western governments, among the general public, there is rising xenophobia and racism as well. Attacks on immigrants of colour or ‘visible minorities’ as they are so sensitively called, continue unabated. One cannot be so simplistic as to think that suddenly, after Sept 11, the rich, industrialized west turned into raging xenophobes. Racism, unfortunately has a long history here and is deeply rooted in the social consciousness. What else can it be in societies founded on the theft of land from indigenous peoples, slave labour and an indentured workforce from Africa and Asia.
But what has happened since Sept 11 is a rampant sense of immunity from any kind of accountability for racist acts. Which is why more and more racists are coming out of the closet and randomly picking on people of colour, holding them responsible for their own failures and frustrations.
This tide of hate has to be resisted and stopped. Racism crosses class, cultural and religious boundaries. Today, religion has just become a handy excuse. The truth is that we are reduced to the colour of our skin. Thus, our solidarity also has to cross the class, race and religious barriers.
People of colour in the colonizing West face two battles, defense of their loved ones back home and defending their own dignity and security in the increasingly hostile environment they considered to be their new home.