Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Illegal Immigrants

Illegal immigration and how to deal with the illegal immigrants are a hot topic of discussion in the EU these days, lots of opinions and frayed tempers.
I guess Vienna has its fair share of illegal immigrants, and I would think many of the South Asians and Africans selling newspapers are not here legally. When Roopsha parents were visiting Vienna several months ago, her mother was telling me how they were chatting with newspaper sellers (from India) who were here without a visa.
Not being a great conversation initiator, I have never chatted with one... before yesterday.
It has always been at the back of my mind, but yesterday I realized that these guys would have fascinating stories to tell. Perhaps I should start collecting them.
I was in the bus, returning home yesterday, when a short slightly stocky guy in his mid-20s, of obviously South Asian origin, boarded and sat next to me. I was just wondering whether I should say something or continue reading, when he got a phone call, and answered it in Hindi/Urdu with a heavy Punjabi accent. My theory is that most often in Vienna this means a Pakistani. And of course I am always intrigued by what the average Pakistani thinks of things. I was in the mood for chatting, so I thought I'd say hello, and asked him in Hindi where he was from. India: Chandigarh. Rony Singh, I think he said his name was. He had been living in Vienna since 4-5 years, and had works at an Indian restaurant quite near my place.
He asked me at two different points whether I had a visa-- it clicked the second time, and I said that since he was asking me this, I assume he didn't have one. Indeed. He had apparently gone to Russia, with a visa somehow. He mentioned agents quite a few times. Then he probably overstayed, or for some reason he spent some time in prison. Then via agents, he somehow found his way to Vienna. Vienna to Russia, that's quite a long way, I exclaimed, how did he manage that without visas? Through agents, he said, of course it is risky-- you'd have to go to prison obviously if they caught you. He said that as if prison was just another bump on the road.
He was upbeat that he'd soon get a visa and would be living here legally, as he'd get married quite soon. An Austrian lady, I guess, I asked. No, an Indian (but an Austrian citizen now, I guess, he meant), a divorcee. She works in a shop somewhere not far. But there was a slight hitch. He could apply for a visa only from India (or at least from outside Austria but for that he'd need papers for that country). And that would take a while. I don't know if getting back to India without papers would be a problem. Probably not.
We had reached our destination, which was a pity, as I would have loved to hear the story of how he got to Vienna from Russia.
I guess I just have to talk to people more often.
As I think back, I have had another encounter with not-entirely legal immigrants. This was quite a few years ago, when I used to live in Germany. I think I was going from Tübingen to Berlin, or Würzburg, or somewhere. In any case this happened when I boarded a long-distance train from Stuttgart station. Three ladies, one of them South Asian, got on after me, followed me, and sat down opposite me. They seemed to be slightly agitated. One of the German ladies, probably in her 40s, asked me if I spoke the South Asian girl's (in her mid-20s) language and whether I could help them in their conversation. My German was terrible at that time, but I could indeed oblige them.
The South Asian girl was from Pakistan, and her brother, who she said was my age (I must have been around 25-26 at that time), was married to the German lady-- the former made it clear that this was a marriage of convenience at least as far as her brother was concerned, as this allowed him to stay on in Germany. She on the other hand was trying to get asylum in Germany. She obviously didn't know what asylum meant (nor could she pronounce the word properly), or why one requests it. In fact she asked me whether I was applying for it to... something the rather young and naively me found extremely offensive and insulting.
She complained about her sister-in-law and how stupid and silly she was (sis-in-law or her companion had turned off her mobile by mistake, and she had left the code at home, and so they couldn't contact her brother-- that was what the confusion had been about for they had need my linguistic assistence help). And German SIL kept on asking me what her Pakistani SIL was saying about her.
At that time I was glad when they got off. But I had missed an opportunity for real life stories.
Vaguely in this context, something I wanted to blog about, but never got around to: I met some people recently who work exactly on this. They do research on migration patterns, of course pertaining to migration into the EU.
In the last beer hour (get-together at our and adjoining institutes with food, drinks and plenty of socializing), Lionel, a French postdoc in a neighbouring lab brought along his girlfriend and two friends-- all of them French. One of these guys, Julien works for an organization called International Centre for Migration Policy Development. Julien was great fun to talk to, he had wanted to become a pilot, and had started studying Aeronautical Engineering (or something like that) but then because his eyesight was not good enough he couldn't become a pilot, so he quit and studied Law. From that he got interested in International Law and from that International Relations, and within that Weapons. In fact he had done a paper on the Indian nuclear devices. With such a wide area of knowledge, it wasn't surprising that I had a fantastic conversation with him.
What was surprising though was when Lionel forwarded me an email that Julien had asked him to, inviting me to his 25th birthday party the following Saturday. Although Lionel and his girlfriend didn't go as the date clashed with the Lange Nacht der Musik, I did go.
I had some very interesting discussions with Julien's boss, another French Julien about migration. In fact he told me about the situation arising because of Spain's decision to legalize its illegal immigrants last year, the stuff that led to frayed tempers in the EU. Basically, because of the Spanish act, they believe that there has been even higher levels of migration because this gives further reason to the immigrants to get convinced that they would be ultimately legalized.
Julien-2 disagreed strongly with the suggestion that it might have been nice of Spain from a humanitarian point of view to legalize its immigrants who had been living there for such long periods.
Like many other things, I have no idea what I'd do if I were forced to take a stand on this issue. Obviously many of these are countries who made money in the last two centuries by exploiting the same countries whose people they want to prevent. Many of these countries, France, for instance are full of hardcore socialists-- even the right wingers there support many of the socialist traditions like agricultural subsidies, limited work hours, tough labour laws etc. Are definitions of socialism different if for citizens of other countries, especially poor countries? Citizens of many of these rich countries refuse to do menial work. Most of the people cleaning the Viennese streets are immigrants, many of them illegal, whether caucasian or not. Similarly, there is a worry in many countries, Germany for sure for example, that declining birthrates would result in an unsure pension and social benefits when the current generation grows old.
On the other hand, yes you should be nice and try to help others, but can you really open your doors to everybody? Wouldn't most people from poor countries live in developed countries, if given a chance? Apart from your own living standards falling, this would also change your home if all the newcomers called it their home and wanted to change the interior decoration. Muslim groups in the Netherlands ranting against homosexuality is an example I like to quote in this last context.
I am always intrigued by people who find it easy to take a stand. Not only that, they find it easy to classify themselves as left, right or centre.
I hope my view of life never becomes as simplistic.


The Visitor said...

Taking a stand - is always a problem, unless one is forced to do so (their survival depends on it).

A.S. said...

Actually, there are a lot of issues where one can unambiguously take a stand, myself included-- examples of such issues include racism, religious fundamentalism, etc. It is often a question of one's principles and beliefs. However many, many issues are composite ones, encompassing all possible shades of grey. In these case taking a stand becomes difficult, especially when one can see (as I like to do), both sides of the story.

Vidya said...

Exactly. When you want to know both sides of the story, taking a stand is not a easy thing. But at times, it is a very easy one to take too. Each stand you take would have your version of ifs and buts. But in the end, it’s the result that counts for some. But for some, the very path that counts.

In this case of illegal immigrants, as long as they are not associated in any criminal activities and the poor man/woman is making a living which he cannot possibly make in his own, I don’t see any problem in that.This is one debate that can go on and on and on. But then, when you give them a little space, they would end up wanting a lot more and that’s when, you would be forced to take an opposite stand. So as I said, it is a never ending debate :)

A.S. said...

Well, you see by the name itself "illegal" means breaking the law, so in a way illegal immigrants are commiting a crime by being there.
From an idealistic point of view, yes there should be nothing wrong if a person goes to a richer place to seek livelihood. But extend the arguement and remove all barriers, and these richer places would be full of people, dragging down the standards of living, and creating a shortage of jobs even among the citizens and hence leading to discontent and struggle for existence. This is especially true when the population density is not low.

But yes, this debate could indeed be endless, as like I mentioned, both sides have very valid arguements, particularly when in some cases it is a former imperial power and citizens of its former colonies.