Every Immigrant Has A Refugee Problem

Tue, 15 Sep 2009 Source: Tawiah, Benjamin

Like Brandon Huntley, Every Immigrant Has A Refugee Problem - Necessarily

Most probably, one of the latest Wikipedia entrants is Brandon Huntley, the white South African whose recent refugee application in Canada stirred up controversy around the world. The Capetonian had applied for asylum in Canada on the basis of his race, claiming that he had been attacked seven times in South Africa, given the derogatory labels of ‘white dog’ and ‘settler’, and made to suffer other indignities in post-Apartheid South Africa. He was stabbed in the sides, hands, stomach and in his right eye. He wants a new life in Canada because he would ‘stick out like a sore thumb’ in his home country if he returns. The Canadian Immigration Board chaired by William Davis has granted Huntley’s application, judging that the evidence he presented shows that the government of South Africa is unable or unwilling to protect its white inhabitants. South Africans have called the ruling racist, criticising Canadians as a whole for misjudging the racial temperature in South Africa. The Canadian Embassy in Pretoria has been inundated with hundreds of petitions from various institutions, pressure groups and academics, dismissing Huntley’s position on the racial divide in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. The South African High Commissioner to Canada, Abraham Nkomo, has also publicly condemned the decision of the immigration board.

In response to the worldwide condemnation, Citizenship and Immigration Canada has applied to challenge the Board’s ruling at the Federal Court. Huntley would be deported if the government wins the case against the immigration board. Meanwhile, South Africans and concerned people around the world continue to slug it out over the real nature of race relations in South Africa. This was supposed to be one man’s asylum application, why has it suddenly become an international soap opera? A white South African wrote: “Isn't the South African government's reaction just further evidence of the situation in this country? If all was well in SA, wouldn't the government treat this incident as isolated incident and move on? It's quite shocking to see how quickly, decisively and vehemently our government has summoned the energy, the political will, the sense of urgency etc to deal with this one white boy's "cheeck to apply for asylum" - what a pity they couldn't sum up the same political will, drive and sense of common purpose to deal with the real issues facing all the citizens of this beautiful country, ie. unemployment, crime which affects all of us, corruption, homelessness, unnecessary poverty, greed, hopelessness.”

Another explained that crime is not the main reason why white South Africans are leaving; they want out “ because colonialism was ending here and they felt the black governments beginning to take control of those newly independent countries would persecute them, mostly because of the oppression they had imposed on the natives of those respective countries.” He continued: “In South Africa, whites mainly leave because they are no longer benefitted by the system. Even if crime is a factor in their decision to leave, it is not the deciding factor. Crime existed even before 1994, why didn't they leave then? I'll tell you why; because they were being benefitted by the apartheid government in ways they would not benefit from Australian, Canadian or American governments!”

Yet, the figures do tell a different story. There are more whites in higher job positions than blacks. The official unemployment rate in the country is 4.6% for whites, who are about 4million and 27.9% for blacks, who constitute 79.7% of the economy’s 48.8 million population. Still, some whites complain of unemployment because of the government’s affirmative employment programmes. And then, there is violent crime, which is not targetted at whites alone, but particularly in the larger black neighbourhoods, where poverty seems to be the reason. Average income in white households is believed to be five times higher than the average black household income. So, the discrimination in the country is black-on-white as it is white-on-black. Yet, the whites are leaving. Since 1995, some 1million whites have left the country, and others are in queue to join. But they are alone. Even though in the last 12 years the number of blacks graduating with higher university degrees has increased from 361, 000 to 1.4million a year, their determination to migrate to rich economies in the west has doubled. So, perhaps, there is more to the South African drama than just race and crime; they are merely exhibiting the escapist tendencies of the travel-hungry people of peaceful Ghana, and Somalia’s flee-for-your-life daily exodus. It is the same in Rwanda, Congo, Zimbabwe and Burundi.

When the Huntley story broke out, I started intervewing some refugees I know, to get the real picture of the asylum problem. That is when I also realised that I have been a refugee all my life in the west, and I did not know. Every refugee seems to have something to hide. And unbekownst to us, nearly every immigrant has something to hide, usually from yourself. Brandon Huntley, who came to Canada in 2004 on a work permit, had earlier attempted to enter the Canadian army, but he did not succeed. He then tried to marry a Canadian woman, so that he would automatically have the chance to live in the country, but the marriage did not work. It is the same pattern that Ghanaians and other Africans follow to extend their permits abroad. So, perhaps, Huntley could have sought asylumn in Canada even if all was fine in South Africa.

The first Somali refugee I interviewed would not tell the details of the process he followed to claim asylumn in Canada. He had crossed the border to neighbouring Kenya, where he lived for sometime before embarking on the asylum move. I asked: “How did you cross the border from Somalia to Kenya?” “There are ways and means to do that. Kenya land is also Somalia’s; it is only an artificial border. You can cross it if you know your way round,” he said. Besides, some of the border guards are Somalis. And of course, you can always pay. He knew somebody who invited him from Kenya. He managed to get to the Canadian airports, from where he presented his documents as an asylum seeker. The rest is the responsibility of the Canadian government, who would house and feed him. There is free legal aid to enable lawyers represent you for free. In Ottawa, a very good Ghanaian lawyer, Isaac Sekyere, has won the hearts of the refugee community.

It seems quite simple, but there are serious issues involved. The Somali man challenged me that every immigrant, especially, those who were not born in their present countries of residence, is a refugee. It doesn’t matter how you got here. He defines a refugee as somebody who has had to make concessions in his new country of residence in order to earn a living. When I told him that I had migrated to Canada on the highly skilled migrant programme, and not as a refugee, he asked: “Are you telling me that you are too skilled for Ghana?” Why are you not working in Ghana to help your poor country with your high skills? You are a refugee, just that you don’t know.” He also challenged me that my condition as a skilled worker is not better than his, because at any rate my skills are underrated in Canada, and I would have to upgrade or even downgrade myself to survive.

Well, the Somali taxi driver, who wouldn’t tell me his educational background because it doesn’t change his status, had touched on an important nerve. I am presently learning French to enable me find a government job in Canada. My South Korean friend who has a PhD in Computer Engineering from South Korea, is taking English lessons as a beginner before he could start his postdoctoral employment at a Canadian university. An old school mate, an intelligent bloke with higher degrees from Denmark, England and USA, scrapes to survive in California. He lives in another friend’s basement for free because he is unable to pay rent on his wages as a part time college teacher. He is not a refugee in the conventional sense, but he doesn’t enjoy half of the privileges that a battered refugee from Rwanda or Darfur would have. He would be useful in his home country than he would ever be in America, where he necessarily needs to jump racial hurdles and deal with other minority problems. Why wouldn’t he pack his bags and leave for his home country? He is a refugee in that sense; he has sought asylumn in America, but he is yet to realise it. That is the truth he is hiding from himself.

Still, it is important to consider the rather important issues of race in the Huntley asylumn drama. New York Times’s Barry Bearak was unmistakable in his caption of his Memo from Johannesburg “ A Stir Over a faraway View of Black and White.” Despite numerous initiatives on the advancement of multiculturalism in western countries, there is always a stir when blacks and whites come together. If Huntley had cited the same reasons for his refugee claim in a country with a predominantly black polulation, even if it was in the western hemisphere, perhaps, he wouldn’t have attracted international attention. Even after a Barack Obama presidency, the world is yet to heal itself when it comes to race. Huntley’s case is not about the asylumn he has been granted in Canada; it is very much about race- that translucent veil that whites and blacks still wear on their faces, like the Nathaniel Horthorne creation in The Minister’s Black Veil. Abraham Lincoln was thought ahead of his time and a leader with a progressive view of the abolition of slavery, yet his words on blacks in a 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas, are chilling and revealing: “ I will say, then, that I am not, nor have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the the two races living together …while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position asigned to the white race.”

In 1902, H.G Wells asked; “ And how will the New Republic treat inferior races? How will it deal with the black..?” These views continue to define race relations. Like Reverend Minister Hooper, we are all wearing our racial veils, and people would only wonder and stare, but that would not urge us to remove them. It is a secret sin that separates our most evil thoughts and denials from the painful reality around us. And like Hooper, we may die with the black veil stuck on our faces unless we rip it off now. Benjamin Tawiah


Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin