Trotting the Globe by Day Light or Night

Published in Hurriyet Daily News, 29 August

I love people watching, especially at airports. If it’s a daytime flight, I make it sure to have a pleasurable extra hour beyond the hassle of check-ins and security checks. My travel ritual includes a grande cappuccino and an Italian mozzarella panini savored at a strategic corner of the terminal with the best view of the hurried masses.

This is in fact a mobile age and international travel has enriched and empowered our world beyond our wildest dreams. Encounters with other cultures, fleeting visits to far away lands and daily exposure to the images of the most unspoiled natural wonders around the world are all things we take for granted.

As the seduction of “what is on offer,” or “exclusively” focuses our attention on all that can be bought with money – from taste to scenery, the darker side of this mobile age goes unnoticed by those who can afford to travel around the world in broad day light.

It isn’t only the “able” that travels around the world, gracing airports, cruises and border points out of a desire and means for something new. There is another group; the “forced”, as Zygmunt Bauman masterfully exposes in his Wasted Lives.

Unlike the able, the forced is not welcomed, lured and sought after. There are no marketing strategies seeking to attract them or no ‘fast track’ treatment to ease their discomfort. On the contrary, all border and immigration systems are designed to keep them out.

Unlike the able, the forced do not move around the world out of boredom. The forced are compelled to leave their lives, homes and affinities behind as a result of wars, persecution, famines and other calamities.

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, “there were some 42 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2008.” Some of this 42 million are refugees and asylum seekers in other countries and some are internally displaced peoples. This number, of course, is a realistic guess and the truth is likely to be much higher.

In addition to this 42 million category, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, there are around 800,000 people, mostly women and girls, who were trafficked across nations, most of which end up in forced work in sex industry. This number does not include the people who are trafficked within their countries for forced labor and sexual exploitation.

To this most painful core of the forced, we must also add the millions of irregular migrants who venture into the unknown for the hope of a better future. They too watch the same commercials the able watch. They, too, are seduced to chase the exotic, the beautiful and the unspoiled. Just like hungry cats staring at a butcher’s window, the irregular migrants must wait for the perfect moment to sneak into the shop to grab whatever they can before being kicked out.

The irregular migrants, mostly young men who can risk the adventure of swimming across channels, jumping over fences, walking in wilderness or hiding among boxes of goods, just like millions of asylum seekers and stateless people, do not have the time or luxury of people watching and cappuccinos. They are hurried, anxious, fearful and shaken. Most of the forced travel contrary to their desires, or tastes, or dreams, and with no eyes to witness their ordeal.

Where as the border guards are at worst a nuisance who ask four or five questions at best and want to see what is in your bags for us the privileged who freely travel, credible reports show further suffering for the forced, in the forms of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, as well as detention in inhuman conditions and forced deportations back to the hands of their abusers or the reasons for their original departure.

The forced and the able are both products of the same globalization process. Their mobility is encouraged and enabled by the same structures. They travel on the same paths to the same lands. Yet, they experience the global world extremely differently from each other. One sees the world in bright light through excited eyes, the other in the dark with terrified eyes.