Climate Change

Suketu Mehta on immigration

In 'This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto', the veteran author tackles the thorniest issue of our times

By Suketu Mehta
Last Updated: Thursday 29 August 2019
In 'This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto', published by Penguin, author Suketu Mehta tackles the thorniest issue of our times: immigration. Photo: Getty Images

This book is being written in sorrow and rage — as well as hope. I am angry: about the staggering global hypocrisy of the rich nations, having robbed the poor ones of their future, now arguing against a reverse movement of peoples — not to invade and conquer and steal, but to work. Angry at the ecological devastation that has been visited upon the planet by the West, and which now demands that the poor nations stop emitting carbon dioxide. Angry at the depiction of people like my family and the other families that have continued in my family’s path, because they had no other choice, as freeloaders, drug dealers and rapists. I’m tired of apologizing for moving. These walls, these borders, between the peoples of the Earth: they are of recent vintage, and they are flimsy.

People are not plants. Migration is a constant of human history. But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we started travelling greater distances in shorter times on trains, steamships, cars and jet planes. And in recent years, as the legacies of colonialism, inequality, war and climate change have made it close to impossible for people in the poor countries to live a decent life, we’ve become a planet on the move. Between 1960 and 2017, the overall number of migrants tripled. Today, 3.4 per cent of the world population, or one out of every twenty-nine humans, lives in a country different from the one they were born in. If all the migrants were a nation by themselves, we would constitute the fourth-largest country in the world, equal to the size of Indonesia. By midcentury, migration will account for 72 per cent of the population growth in the USA, and up to 78 per cent in Australia and the UK. This is changing elections, culture, cities — everything. Mass migration is the defining human phenomenon of the twenty-first century.

Never before has there been so much human movement. And never before has there been so much organized resistance to human movement. All over the world, countries are building high walls and fences against this movement: in Hungary, in Israel, in India and, if Trump has his way, in the United States. They’re moving their armies and navies to their borders to intercept — and in some cases shoot at — desperate caravans and boats of migrant men, women and children.

It’s not just white fear that’s putting up the walls. In South Africa it’s fear of Zimbabweans; in India it’s fear of Bangladeshis. Another effect of mass migration is the withdrawal of countries from multilateral institutions and treaties, like the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement, and into narrow nationalism, a pinched vision of the country’s role in the world that has the effect of impoverishing it, economically and culturally.

Pretty much anyone who was not Asian could get on a boat to America, until the Immigration Act of 1924, which set racial limits based on the ethnic composition of the United States in 1890. Today, among the rich countries, the United States ranks nineteenth in terms of how many immigrants per capita it takes in annually. For every thousand residents, New Zealand welcomes 11.7 immigrants per year. Germany takes in 12.6. The United States suffers 3.6; only five Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries are less welcoming. America long ago stopped lifting its lamp beside the golden door.

Increasingly, Europe is the same story. The population of African cities is slated to triple, from half a billion today to one and a half billion by 2050. By then, the working-age population of subSaharan Africa is projected to increase by 800 million. Many of them will head north, to Europe: the number of immigrants in the larger European countries is set to increase threefold in this period. But in many of them, politics today is defined by a competition to see which party can prevent immigration most effectively, not by which one has the best strategy for dealing with the inevitable and integrating the new arrivals most successfully.

Meanwhile, the world grows ever more horrific for human beings caught in conflicts, internal or international. In 2012, there were 930,000 newly registered asylum seekers driven out from their countries. Three years later, there were 2.3 million. Not since the end of World War II have there been more refugees and displaced people all around the world.

The rich countries have always claimed the freedom to move around the planet, not just to sightsee or seek employment, but to invade, to conquer. At airports around the world, the holders of Indian and African passports line up miserably in queues hours long while their fellow passengers holding American and European passports, gilded passports, swan through immigration.

In Abu Dhabi I noticed that the brown people, usually working in menial or service jobs, were called ‘migrants’, while the white people, employed as executives or professionals, got to call themselves ‘expats’, a much more glamorous term than ‘migrant’, implying wealth, long afternoons at the club, fat housing allowances. Above all, it implies that your movement has been voluntary, unforced by historical or economic circumstances.

Today’s migrants are rarely so fortunate. Half are women, a recent phenomenon, and they are raped and molested and harassed all over the world in vastly greater numbers than native-born women. Eight out of ten undocumented Central American women who migrate to the United States are raped en route, according to an investigation by the cable channel Fusion. Before they set off, they equip themselves with contraceptives. When you move countries, your greatest – sometimes only – asset is your body, which also becomes your greatest vulnerability. Sex becomes currency, to be exchanged for protection from the smugglers, the coyotes, or the police. The arrangement is called cuerpomátic — after the Central American credit-card processor Credomatic — because it involves using your body, cuerpo, as currency.

(Suketu Mehta is the author of 'Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found')

(Excerpt republished with permission from Penguin Random House)


Book: This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Author: Suketu Mehta

Price: Rs 1,638

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