I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to save the life of an Iraqi translator. Haider’s crime was to have worked for the British military and foreign office in Basra for the past four years. Since March of this year he’s been on the run from the Shi’ite militias that now control the city. First his family was threatened and turned out of their home, then his brother-in-law and uncle were murdered, and finally the city council (rife with militia influence) declared him a traitor. The crisis culminated with Haider, on foot, his wife and young child in tow, begging to be let into Basra’s airport, the last British outpost in the south.
Haider’s case is certainly not unique. There are no exact figures for how may Iraqi translators have been murdered for their services to the occupation, but Human Rights Watch puts the number in the hundreds, with tens of thousands more forced to flee the country. I don’t think many people object to the idea of immigration based on political asylum; offering shelter to the persecuted is one of the great principles of Western humanism. But far too often, harrowing stories like Haider’s are lost in the general moral confusion surrounding the immigration debate.
That’s one of the reasons, I’m sure, why Haider and his family came very close to death over the past fortnight. Haider’s safely out of Iraq now – after an international effort involving the British army, the leading advisors of UK’s Conservative party, and a media campaign – but he still faces a lengthy wait in a third-party Arab country before he’s admitted to the UK.
If he makes it, Haider will be one of only a few Iraqi translators to successfully find shelter there - despite a two month-old British foreign office decree meant to fast-track cases like his, and a summer of well-meaning government announcements. The situation gets even worse in the U.S., where the State Department, with vastly more endangered Iraqi employees, has granted asylum to fewer than 300 since the invasion.
The Brits and Americans have both sought to avoid dealing with the situation because by accepting responsibility for Iraqis like Haider, they believe they are accepting responsibility for the occupation’s failure. Seen in that way, Haider becomes the tip of the iceberg for the two million odd Iraqis who are currently displaced. “How can we be expected to help them all?” a State Department employee recently asked me. “If we help them emigrate, Iraq is going to lose some of its most talented men and women, and that’s only going to make matters worse.”
As far as I’m concerned, this is an entirely wrong-headed way to look at the issues. For a start, it means cases like Haider’s get conveniently brushed aside – and shouldn’t we be constantly reminded of the very human stories that compel people to leave their homes? And secondly, it stops us from recognizing and addressing the broader imbalances behind the immigration debate – and this applies not just to Iraq (where the imbalances are all too apparent) but also to a global economy based on unequal flows of labor, trade, and information; where the European Union pays vast subsidies to its farmers to offset cheap food from the developing world, but then bars Third World workers from moving to replace their lost jobs; and where China’s cheap labor cost draws thousands of jobs out of the U.S. economy, only to offset a reduction in U.S. wages with cheap consumer goods.
Let us put the put the moral imperative of helping people like Haider at the center of the immigration debate, and remember they are the symptom, not the cause of the problem.
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