'I’ve been watching Europe since I left with growing despair and disgust'

As Joe Lowry leaves Bangkok for Austria he is reminded of all the other migrants on the move

Joe Lowry is moving from Bangkok to Austria with the International Organisation for Migration.

Joe Lowry is moving from Bangkok to Austria with the International Organisation for Migration.

 

A week from now I will be migrating. So will Mr Tao, a Manchester United fan, who sits by the lift at our office in Bangkok, watching who comes and goes, showing visitors in and out. He was the first person I saw when I arrived at the offices of the International Organisation for Migration almost five years ago on my eastward migrant path.

Now I’m heading to Vienna to take up a post as IOM’s senior media officer for southeastern and eastern Europe. In my current post I like to say I cover everywhere from Tehran to Tahiti, now I will be covering from Kosovo to Kamchatka (in Russia’s far east).

Mr Tao is off to Taiwan to make electrical circuits in a factory. He speaks about 10 words of English, and I speak about 20 words of Thai. Yet somehow, every Monday morning we have a bit of bantz about the football. “Wow . . . Zlatan . . . very good” or “No penalty, no red card” as we compare the fortunes of the Red Devils of Manchester and the Saints of Southampton.

We will do fine, Mr Tao and I. He will make a sizable sum more than he makes sitting behind his little desk here every day. His four-year-old son, his pride and joy, his little kickboxer, will learn Chinese and English, and come back on holidays to Thailand in 20 years, visiting his grandmother on the farm in Isan and thanking his lucky stars Dad got out, Dad kept his head down, Dad earned enough to give his boy a start.

Asian migration

My life will be different too. For five years I have been energised by Asian migration, watching how it works at the micro and macro levels. There’s a lot wrong with migration here, but a lot of it works very well. If you consider that migration is humanity’s oldest poverty-reduction strategy then Asians implement it better than most.

If you consider that migration is humanity’s oldest poverty-reduction strategy then Asians implement it better than most

It’s true that not enough countries officially accept refugees, and the wages are appalling in many cases, but it’s equally undeniable that people are leading the way. That gap between demand and supply? The migrant workers fill it themselves, often through leads and tips on social media. The big houses you see in tiny villages? Built from remittances.

What needs to change here is the role of the brokers, the agencies who often work in grey areas, selling labour for the lowest price and making virtual slaves of honest men and women. If that can be regulated, then abuses can be eliminated.

One thing I don’t see much of in Asia is resentment. Yes, the latte-sipping Bangkok hipsters may cast a cold eye on the Cambodian street cleaner or the Laotian waitress but it’s a simple case of snobbery, not racism or fear.

Menial jobs

Yes, fear. In Asia, – big, big generalisations here, but it’s a big place – society tends to accept that there are people at the bottom of the food chain who do menial jobs, who come and go, who know their place. They only leave a tiny footprint. They occupy a quiet, essential place in society and they blend in. That in itself may be morally suspect, but it’s better than hate crime.

I’ve been watching what’s been happening in Europe since I left in 2012 with growing despair and occasional disgust. (The dead baby on the beach, the child-kicking camerawoman). I’ve watched the rubble of Aleppo crumble as its inhabitants tumble out like fish from a trawler, gasping for the air of freedom only we can give them.

And I just fell into my own trap, the snake pit that drives the fear that feeds the hatred that cleaves us apart. I just spoke of us and them.

People, there is no us and them. We are them and they are us. That child-kicking Hungarian camerawoman? Her grandparents were the huddled masses a mere two generations ago. Or were they wearing jackboots and kicking people onto trains? Is it in our blood to kick or be kicked?

Rise of extremism

I get it, I do, this “I’m not a racist but . . .” I understand the fear you have of a madman behind the wheel of a truck smashing into our way of celebrating life. But leaving his millions of peace-loving cousins to starve in Aleppo doesn’t stop the madness, it just creates more. Go back to the 1930s and watch the rise of extremism in Europe if you don’t believe me. And now fast-forward: which is the only country showing courage, pragmatism and humanity to the thousands fleeing the cancer of so-called “Islamic” extremism?

The answer is Germany. Yes, many Germans are upset, fearful even. But the government of Angela Merkel is doing what must be done if extremism is to be smothered: integrate, educate, understand; intermarry, create unions of blood and money.

Now more than ever, no country is an island, even if it is surrounded by water. Three billion people are part of a global conversation, connected to the internet, and that will grow and grow. I can think of only one country that has successfully closed its border, switched off the internet and created an illusory world: North Korea.

The people who are arriving in Europe now are – with the exception of a very few rotten apples – the same as those who poured into the United States in the 1900s to build a great, pluralist nation. They are like the waves of Asians, Caribbeans, Africans and Irish who rebuilt the shattered streets of London, Southampton and Coventry after the second World War.

Despotic regimes

They are coming from war, from despotic regimes where opportunity has fizzled out in the flash of a suicide belt. They come from a place of desperation, but they come with degrees, certificates, language skills, culinary ideas, music and dance. They come because they can no longer live beside the mouth of a shark or a lion. They see their children become old – or die – too soon.

They were once part of peaceful, stable, proud societies. They are educated. They follow the news. They cheer for (or boo) Manchester United too. And they are coming to where we live, to try again.

Most of them really don’t want to be here. They would rather be looking at a vermilion sun setting over their own snow-capped hills, sipping the tea or the wine they tended in their own fields.

And there, I believe, lies the twisted nub of the matter. We are scared of them because we see what has happened to them, and we are scared of that happening to us.

Us and them. Them and us. There is no them and us. There is only us.

There is me, taking my family to Austria for a new adventure. There is Mr Tao and his family chasing opportunity in Taiwan. And millions more of us are packing our dreams into our suitcases and grab bags, getting on boats, planes and trains to start again.

Joe Lowry is spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.  iom.int

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