The Uninvited

Jeremy Harding


In the early 1990s, about 80 million people – roughly 1.5 per cent of the world’s population – were living outside the country of their birth. The figure now is closer to 120 million. Migration across international borders is not a simple phenomenon and migrants themselves are as diverse as people who stay put. The banker from Seattle who signs a five-year contract for a post in Berlin is a migrant; so is the lay-out editor in Paris who moves to Moscow to work on a Russian edition of her magazine; so is the labourer from Indonesia or Thailand who becomes a building worker in Brunei; so is the teenage boy from Shanghai indentured to a Chinese crime ring in New York. Refugees, too, are migrants. Often they share their route to safety with others who are not seeking asylum: the smuggling syndicates known as snakeheads, which induct Chinese women into a life of semi-slavery in Europe and the US, also ran dissidents to freedom in the retreat from Tiananmen Square. These things are largely a question of money. Refugees are not necessarily poor, but by the time they have reached safety, the human trafficking organisations on which they depend have eaten up much of their capital. In the course of excruciating journeys, mental and physiological resources are also expended – some of them non-renewable.

In the past, the states of Western Europe have shown a generous capacity to take in refugees. The response to forced movement on the Continent itself, from the 1880s to the end of the Second World War, might fairly be seen as impressive. So might the absorption of refugees during the Cold War: far fewer, of course, and mostly from South-East Asia, in keeping with Cold War commitments. But by the mid-1980s, when numbers started to rise again, states in Western Europe were reviewing their duty to provide asylum. The change was connected with the new availability of one part of the world to another – with the expansion of global access, not least as a result of airline price wars. It occurred at a time when France, Germany, Britain and others had made up their minds that the postwar experiment with immigration from the South was over. Refugees have paid a high price for this decision.

They have also paid for the new prestige of the North American social and economic model – unrivalled now, but all the more conspicuous in its failings. The racially diverse society is a deeply troubling notion in Europe. The grinding together and shifting of peoples – the tectonic population movements that defined the European continent – were already well advanced, and largely settled, by the time the New World became a battleground between the monarchies of Europe and indigenous Americans. For Europeans, the multiracial model of the United States, founded on waves of relatively modern migration, including slave migration – the most lucrative case of human trafficking in history – is flawed. The Right in Europe thinks of it as a triumph of capitalism for which multiculturalism has been a high price to pay. The Left thinks of it as a qualified multicultural success which can never redeem the cost of that triumph.

In both views, the milling of cultures and races and the capitalist whirlwind are indissociable. Everyone pays grudging homage to the American model of cultural diversity, but European governments of all persuasions are dour about its advantages and alert to its dangers: cities eroded by poverty and profit; the cantonisation of neighbourhoods; urban and rural societies doubly fractured by ethnicity and class; most forms of social negotiation dragged along the runnels of identity politics. And if governments incline to the gloomy view, so do many voters.

Europeans have different ambitions for their social fabric, bound up one way or another with a lingering faith in regulation. Yet those who call for greater control of the global markets and the movement of capital are easily derided, while the wish to restrict free access to wealthier states for people from the South and East is seen as perfectly reasonable. Often the very people who think it a sin to tamper with the self-expression of the markets are the first to call for lower immigration from poorer countries, though in all probability, it would take decades of inward migration to bring about the degree of ‘cultural difference’ that a bad patch of international trading, a brisk downsizing or a decision by a large corporation to start ‘outsourcing’ can inject into a social landscape in a year.

It is nothing new for the non-white immigrant, or would-be immigrant, to have to bear the cost of Europe’s fears for its own stability, but the EU’s wish to keep out asylum seekers is a striking development. Under the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, they are distinguished from other migrants by their ability to demonstrate ‘a well-founded fear of being persecuted’. Many who do not qualify for ‘Convention status’ are protected by other agreements and various forms of temporary asylum, awarded on ‘humanitarian grounds’. In practice, however, the distinction between asylum seekers and other forms of disadvantaged migrant – a distinction designed to shield the refugee from prejudicial factors such as low immigration targets in host states – has been worn away. In Western Europe, refugees have begun to look like beggars at the gate, or even thieves. Since the 1980s, they have lost most lawful means of access to the rich world.

To governments aiming at low levels of immigration from poorer countries, asylum is an exemption that allows too many people past the barriers. Meanwhile, thousands of migrants whose objective is a better standard of living for themselves and those they have left behind are opting for asylum as a way to outflank restrictive immigration policies. The result is an expensive game of wits being played along the frontiers of the rich world. It is a worldwide contest, in progress anywhere between the state of New Jersey and the Yellow Sea, Queensland and New Mexico. In Europe, the field extends from the Baltic states to the straits of Algeciras, from the Aegean to the English Channel. You only have to go to Kent, or the Spanish enclaves in Morocco, or the coast of Puglia in southern Italy to watch the game unfold.

We left the harbour in Otranto just after dark, turned north and ran along the coast towards Brindisi. The boat was crewed by members of Italy’s Guardia di Finanza. It was fifty foot or so, with two powerful engines which threshed up the water like a harvester, cutting a straight path visible for half a mile behind us through the rolling waters. The moon, too, threw a line of light, brighter, narrower, scuffed at its edges by the winter swell.

In 1997 and 1998, two or three Guardia reconnaissance boats were out in the Otranto Channel at any one time, in all but the worst weathers. For most of the night, they combed the waters for boatloads of illegal immigrants from Albania. At the end of the 1990s, the Channel became a game board on which immigrant traffickers and tobacco smugglers pitted their skills against the Guardia, but it was the immigrants – i clandestini – who caused the real dismay in Italy. For most of 1998 they were leaving from the Albanian port of Vlorë; then, with Italian police surveillance on the Albanian coast, the departure points were moved. It takes about an hour for a good scafista and his partner to get their passengers across roughly 70 km of water. They are crammed aboard gommoni, or inflatable rafts, with two outboard motors. The gommoni run a gauntlet of detection and danger. The Guardia’s boats are equipped with radar; the scafisti have to negotiate patches of rough sea at very high speeds; they must also hope for cloud cover. But business is so profitable and, until recently, demand has been so intense, that a clear night has rarely deterred them.

From the deck of a Guardia boat you can see the game board in all its splendour. The wake of the boat and the moonlight traverse the waters like linear markers, setting the terms of the contest. As the gommoni scud across the Channel, they must keep clear of these two lines: the giveaway light of the moon and the roaming, telltale wash of the predator. For a time the lines run side by side, the one tracking the other, always the same inscrutable distance apart. Then the Guardia boat alters course and five minutes later the lines cross. The first two hours of a night patrol are spent in this obscure coming and going, the lines of light converging, diverging, running parallel. As the night draws on and the moon rises, the brighter path begins to fade until there is only a diffuse, milky light covering the water, and the one line, loitering, veering, running straight again, from the back of the boat. It is the record of one crew’s efforts to defend Italy’s frail territorial integrity, and with it, the integrity of Fortress Europe, bounded by a single external border.

On the Guardia boats, below decks, radar technicians monitor the waters for movement. A regular signal marking every 360 degree scan sounds like the blip of a heartbeat in casualty. In rough weather, the equipment picks up misleading signals. Twice, what might have been a boat turned out to be a piece of flotsam: a large vegetable oildrum, a reeling assortment of polystyrene packaging. The vessel was well off the Puglia coastline when news came through from the base in Otranto that there were four gommoni on the water, within minutes of the Italian beaches.

The lieutenant at the helm took his speed up to about 45 knots, flipping the boat over the waves. Garbled co-ordinates, crumbling with static, came through from the base radio. After a surge of movement that brought us within a kilometre of the coast, we slowed up and hung in the swell. The lieutenant produced a pair of infrared binoculars and gazed through them at the mainland. He handed them across, arranging and rearranging me, until I could pick out the shapes of migrants wading through the shallows, the rubber rafts lying off the beach and the scafisti pouring two-stroke into the outboard motors as they prepared for the return journey to Vlorë. It was my first sight of illegal immigrants, tiny, pale and alien, stirring like febrile particles under a microscope. I would have seen them, I suppose, in the way we tend to see them, clambering into our world, importunate, active, invasive, always other than ourselves: clandestini, irregolari, extra-comunitari. Headlights moved from left to right through the trees behind the beach: cars organised by the traffickers to pick up the migrants; maybe a few police vehicles speeding to the scene.

No one in Italy can agree on how many people are in the country without ‘papers’. A recent amnesty for ‘illegals’ who could prove they’d arrived before March 1998 provoked an uproar when it became clear that fewer than 40,000 irregular migrants would be eligible by the terms of the deal: there were thought to be between five and ten times that number in the country. It is not known how many people entered on the gommoni in the late 1990s. Some in the Guardia will tell you that by the middle of 1998, there were up to 40 boats a night; others put it at 25 – which is to say, anything between 500 and 1000 migrants attempting the passage on the coast of Puglia alone. Thousands were coming from Kosovo, Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan, and places further afield – West Africa, the Rift Valley, the remains of the Soviet Union, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and China. A turmoil of movement has been taking place in the Adriatic, and the Mediterranean as a whole, as thousands of people from the Maghreb make their way up to Sicily or cross the Straits of Gibraltar in fishing boats crammed to the gunwales. It is difficult to know what will stop this movement or how it might be regulated.

In 1998, when Austria held the EU presidency, it suggested in a draft paper on immigration and asylum that the number of migrants to ‘the rich, especially Western European, states’ exceeds 1.5 million a year. ‘The proportion of illegal immigrants in this total,’ the paper adds, ‘has clearly increased. It must now be assumed that every other migrant in the “first world” is there illegally.’ There is no knowing whether this figure is accurate, but one thing is sure: the muddier the conjecture, the better it sticks, and the association with illegality is hard for large numbers of non-nationals or extra-comunitari in wealthy EU countries to shed. For refugees and asylum seekers this is especially worrying, because so many have had to break the law first in their own country, then in their putative host country, in order to find safety. Often there is no other way.

Paragraph 1, Article 31 of the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees recognises that refugees may be obliged to use illicit means of entry into a safe country – just as they may have to evade customs and immigration checks to get out of their own – and requires that host countries ‘shall not impose penalties’ on this account. Yet, with the extension of the single European border in the 1990s, asylum seekers who enter a country illegally have come to be seen as a threat to EU, as well as national, security. At the heart of the EU’s thinking about refugees lies the imputation of a double criminality: not only do they flout national boundaries, but they consort with criminal trafficking gangs to do so. As signatories to the 1951 Convention, states cannot punish asylum seekers for illegal entry, but to associate them persistently with crime is itself an insidious form of penalty. It leads to the presumption that most asylum claims are bogus (if deceit was the means of entry, why should it not be the basis of the whole claim?) and justifies measures designed to deprive them of elementary privileges – some would say, rights.

The huge forced movements of people in Europe during the 20th century were always a cause of anxiety, and often outright hostility, on the part of states that took in refugees. But the record suggests that even very large numbers of refugees can be accommodated without disruption to host states. During the 1920s and 1930s, France received hundreds of thousands of White Russians and German Jews; in the 1990s, Germany – already deeply committed after reunification – took in more refugees than any other EU member from the former Yugoslavia. The misgivings of wealthy, capitalised states about accommodating refugees are a reaction in the first instance to the manner of their arrival, to the initial cost – housing, school places, social security benefits – and to the tensions that arise, as they have in parts of Germany and Britain, between new groups of refugees and resident communities. The uninvited are a costly nuisance when they first show up: a fact which sharpens official dislike of those who smuggle them in.

The crews of the Guardia di Finanza in Otranto have much to say about the scafisti. They will grudgingly admit how much they admire their skill; they will talk morosely about the difficulty of catching them and the leniency with which they are treated by the Italian courts. They think of them chiefly as ruthless profiteers who will put people’s lives at risk for gain. Since a clash three years ago between a Guardia boat and a large Albanian vessel, when around eighty or ninety migrants were drowned, the Guardia are under instructions to pursue the traffickers only after they have delivered their passengers. The policy is not always observed, but most of the chases in the Channel take place when the scafisti are heading for home in empty boats.

A chase is dramatic and largely symbolic – another kind of contest between the cumbersome forces of the state and a more mobile, unencumbered enemy with few allegiances and no terrain to defend. A Guardia boat can manage a top speed of 65 miles an hour. Its quarry is capable of slightly faster bursts, the prow riding up at a rampant angle to the water. Under a handheld searchlight beamed from the Guardia boat, you can see the outboards and the hooded drivers, but as you turn in on the gommone, it simply pirouettes in a flurry of spray and slides away. I was on a Guardia boat during one of these chases. The captain forced the gommone round several times, turning at full power, until it hit our wake, bouncing wildly over the ridge of ferment, baulking at a great ditch of water on the other side and recovering to steer for home. We made another approach, another turn, a fraction earlier than the last; the gommone thrashed across the bows at a tremendous pace and tore into the night; we altered course and picked it up again, pursuing, circling, almost engaging. Things went on in this way until we were halfway to Albania. But it was clear from the first confrontation that the Guardia were up against hopeless odds. In this bruising, violent but strangely abstract hunt, manoeuvrability has a clear advantage.

The organised traffic of people from Albania is abetted in Puglia by the Sacra Corona Unità, one of Italy’s four Mafia conglomerates, which also handles tobacco smuggling – now a Guardia priority (as it is for British customs) – and a proportion of the marijuana grown in Albania: the scafisti act as couriers. Elsewhere, ‘facilitators’ offer access to the rich world via lorry, train and sea container. Agents in Asia and Africa receive money for getting people into the high-security areas of airports so that they can stow away in the landing gear of aircraft and die. By the end of the 1990s it was thought that the number of young women being smuggled into the EU every year from the former Eastern bloc and forced into prostitution was in the hundreds of thousands. It is not hard to see why the traffickers are vilified by governments, police and the press. They can foil the defences of the United States and Fortress Europe, carrying a criminal virus into the rich world, a sickness which has its origins – we like to suppose – thousands of miles away.

There is no question that traffickers are ruthless. In 1998, at the Centro Regina Pacis, a summer colony for schoolchildren which had been converted into short-term accommodation for refugees, I was introduced to a young Kosovar called Fatmir. He had taught Albanian in a private school in his village; he was also a Kosovo Liberation Army supporter: fair game for the Serbians and an asylum-seeker who could expect success under the terms of the 1951 Convention. In 1998, soon after his village was bombarded and the school burned down, he joined an exodus of KLA from the province. They were heading for Albania. Fatmir took up with a contingent of about 400 fighters, followed by some 1500 civilians. He walked for three days across the mountains, but encountered Serbian police at the border. Three of his party were killed. He now embarked on a ten-day detour, attempting another route into Albania, but this failed and he made the five-day journey on foot back across Kosovo and into Montenegro. There, he and his companions – four brothers and some cousins – paid 200 Deutschmarks each for a ride in a kombi down to Lake Shkodër. They paid another 50 Deutschmarks each to be ferried across and, a month or more later, having arrived in Vlorë, a further 1000 DM or so for passage on a gommone.

The agents who took his money for the last leg of the journey gave Fatmir the impression that he would be going straight up to Milan and, from there, through Switzerland to Germany on forged Italian documents. With him on the gommone were nine people from Kosovo. Most of the others were Albanians. The gommone was not detected and the passengers, around thirty of them, waded ashore in the dark, led by an Albanian agent carrying a bag of marijuana. They followed the agent through the dark into a coppice, hid until the police had called off a brief helicopter search, and after a seven-hour walk reached a ruined house in the countryside. The agent collected more money from all of the passengers and disappeared, instructing them to wait in the house: ‘A taxi will come and take you to Milan.’ After two hours, a small truck arrived and they wedged themselves inside, but they had only gone a few kilometres when the driver and his mate stopped the vehicle and threw all the Kosovars out. Fatmir and his companions walked to Lecce, thinking they might change some money and take a train north, but they were apprehended at the station and put on a boat back to Albania. Fatmir was returned because he was eager not to claim asylum: a number of people who could petition successfully would rather try to get through Italy undetected and lodge the claim in a neighbouring state, where they have a better network of expatriate contacts who can assist with lodgings, social services and, eventually, jobs. This kind of common sense on the part of asylum seekers is now disparaged by European governments as ‘asylum shopping’.

Fatmir’s second venture across the Channel some weeks later was a success. Once ashore, he simply went to a police station and announced that he was from Kosovo. He no longer had a Kosovo ID card: it had been removed by an Albanian official on his return from Italy (and sold, he was convinced, to an Albanian who could now pose as a Kosovar in order to claim asylum). He had spoken to dozens of other arrivals and discovered that it was quite common for agents to treat Kosovars – and Kurds – in the way they had treated him, first time around. The agents, he believed, wanted only to maximise their success rate. For Kurds and Kosovars to remain in Italy, it is normally enough for them to make their way to the police, as Fatmir did on his second run, and announce their place of origin, which is why the agents could dump a group from Kosovo by the side of the road, and rob them, without jeopardising their own reputation as effective traffickers or the chances of their clients’ remaining in Italy. Albanians, on the other hand, are mostly economic migrants. The EU takes a dim view of them and, if caught, they are returned as a matter of course by the Italian authorities. For this group, more careful chaperoning by the agents is necessary. The alternative, for an Albanian, is to pose as a Kosovar refugee: Fatmir’s Kosovo ID card would have fetched a good deal of money, up in the hundreds of dollars, in Albania.

In Puglia, I became suspicious of the idea that traffickers were a modern embodiment of evil. I didn’t doubt their business acumen, or their lack of scruple with lives, but it was reasonable to assume there was another side to the story and in due course I heard it, from a young man called Adem, another resident at Regina Pacis. Fadil was from Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo. He left in 1998, at the age of 23, after two or three incidents of police harassment. He went overland to Albania and bought a place on a gommone for 1750 Deutschmarks – about £600 – but the boat ran up against very bad weather and turned back halfway to Italy. Having returned to Vlorë, the passengers waited for another run. Together with a new intake that brought the total to 42, they set off again 12 hours later on a bigger boat. Adem told me in his faltering, Americanised English that the scafisti were ‘very good guys’. He’d heard about them tipping people overboard at gunpoint and when, on his second run, the Guardia di Finanza approached the boat moments from a beach, he prepared for the worst. Instead, the scafista and his mate worked their way about and put off their passengers in the shallows. The Guardia nearly cornered the gommone before everyone was off. The scafisti flipped it around at full throttle and lit away from the beach, with a man and two young children still on board. Again, Adem expected to see them dump their charges in the high waters a hundred metres from the beach, but they took the gommone into another patch of shallows and helped them over the side. The Guardia boat was in hot pursuit and Adem believed the scafisti were taking ‘a big risk’ when they set the last three passengers down.

There are nonetheless few Schindlers among the modern traffickers in human beings, and the money is good: one gommone with thirty passengers safely delivered is worth about £20,000 in fees; it has been suggested that the business of illegal migrant trafficking, worldwide, is worth between $5 and $7 billion a year. We think of agents, traffickers and facilitators as the worst abusers of refugees, but when they set out to extort from their clients, when they cheat them or dispatch them to their deaths, they are only enacting an entrepreneurial version of the disdain which refugees suffer at the hands of far more powerful enemies – those who terrorise them and those who are determined to keep them at arm’s length. Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice. When traffickers treat their clients properly, however, they interrupt the current of contempt. Above all, they save lives. In the end, the question of good or bad intentions is less important than the fact that people like the scafisti provide a service for desperate people, to whom all other avenues have been closed.

This is the meaning of the terse exchange that millions of us have watched at least once in the movie Casablanca, shortly before the love interest sweeps in, arm-in-arm with the suave paragon of anti-Nazi struggle. It is 1942; Casablanca is full of refugees who have taken passage from Marseille to Oran and come overland in the hope of obtaining a visa to Lisbon. Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a forger and procurer of documents, asks Rick to look after two sets of safe-conduct papers until his clients arrive. ‘You despise me, don’t you?’ he says to Rick. ‘You object to the kind of business I do, huh? But think of all those poor refugees who must rot in this place if I didn’t help them. But that’s not so bad. Through ways of my own, I provide them with exit visas.’

‘For a price, Ugarte,’ Rick replies. ‘For a price.’

In human trafficking, the price is all-important, but it is not everything. Traffickers enjoy playing cat and mouse with immigration authorities. In the mid-1990s, the exiled Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah began to investigate the state of his fellow nationals after the fall of Siyad Barre. Many were refugees in Kenya. Others had made it to Europe, North America and the Gulf. Farah spoke to several of the traffickers who had helped them and soon discovered the relish with which the ‘battle of wits’ was joined. He met a xambaare, or ‘carrier’, in Italy, once a professor of biochemistry, who was now officially a ‘resident’ in one European country and a ‘refugee’ in another. ‘What matters,’ he told Farah, ‘is that the doors are closed ... and we, as carriers, are determined to open them.’ Another xambaare in Milan told him that trafficking was a kind of ‘dare’ – a challenge taken up in the dismal refugee camps in East Africa, where many Somali carriers have had to subsist in the first stages of exile. Carrying, he said, was largely a way of helping people to snub the rich nations, ‘who frustrate their desire to leave a hell-hole of a country like Kenya by placing obstacles in their path all the way from the starting point of their journey down to the cubby-holes which they call home here in Milan’.

The game of wits, the challenge, the whole business of clandestine entry – this has always been part of the refugee’s experience, but it is only since the 1980s that they have featured so prominently. One of the most important changes has been that rich countries now require a visa from citizens wishing to travel from places that are likely to generate asylum seekers; Britain, for example, imposed visa requirements for people travelling from Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s, from Algeria in 1990, from Sierra Leone in 1994 and from Colombia in 1997. It is, of course, very dangerous for someone who is being targeted by a regime, or an insurrectionary group, or a religious movement, to be seen presenting themselves at a foreign embassy day after day in the hope of obtaining a visa. Even if the embassy is not under surveillance, there are likely to be local staff who will report the application. Safer, for those who can afford airline tickets, to think of a destination that does not require an entry visa, buy a ticket that involves a stopover in the country in which they wish to claim asylum, and make the claim in transit. But this option is being closed off by means of the Direct Airline Transit Visa, introduced by Britain in 1998 when a group of Kosovars claimed asylum while in transit through London. Travellers from over a dozen countries are now required to have these visas if their flights stop over in Britain, and there is now a proposal from the Finnish presidency of the EU to extend this policy to other states with a standard-format transit visa.

In addition, airlines must pay high fines for carrying anyone whose papers are not in order, as well as the cost of returning them to their point of departure. ‘Carrier liability’, as it is known, is an American idea, which can be found in a Bill that went before the Senate immigration committee in 1903 and called for deportations of undesirable immigrants ‘at the expense of the steamship or railroad company which brought them’. When carrier liability reappeared in the 1980s, the US again took the lead, but there were now a number of wealthy countries willing to follow suit. Airline companies had once been a neutral – which is to say, benevolent – force from the asylum seeker’s point of view; groundstaff might even intervene discrectly in cases where local security in some torrid dictatorship tried to prevent a dissident boarding a plane. This has changed. The risk of incurring high penalties has forced carriers to act as a screening agency on behalf of governments. Nowadays, when the British Government decides that an airline company’s ability to check passenger documentation has reached an adequate standard, it awards the company a special status, reducing its liability in the event of passengers slipping through the net.

None of this would be so serious if the UN’s resettlement programmes could bring refugees to safety. But their application is narrow. Strictly speaking, to be eligible for resettlement, a person must already be in a country ‘of first asylum’ and still be at risk – like many Somalis in Kenya – or unable to integrate in the longer term. This rules out hundreds of thousands of people, not yet recognised as refugees according to the terms of the 1951 Convention. The resettlement programme is also modest. In the late 1970s, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was resettling nearly a quarter of a million people a year (most of them from Indochina), or roughly one in four of the world’s refugees. By the end of the 1990s, resettlement involved fewer than 30,000 people – around one in every 500.

Little by little, the routes which asylum seekers once took to safety have been choked off. The formidable growth in underground ‘travel agencies’ – document forgers, chaperones, drivers, boatmen – is the consequence. They are the material result of Europe’s dreary pastoral fantasy, in which the EU resembles an Alpine valley, surrounded by impregnable, snow-capped mountains. For most asylum seekers who wish to reach Europe, being smuggled to sanctuary has become the only option.

At the harbour in Otranto there are two short rows of prefabricated huts and containers for illegals who have been caught, most of them on the beach, a handful inland. They arrive at the huts drenched and chilled to the marrow. They are shivering, terrified, nearly ecstatic – a state induced by the journey and the fact of having survived it. Their eyes are bright, feverish, inquiring, their faces transfigured by a combination of exhaustion, curiosity and surprise. It’s as though they’d tumbled slowly and painfully to earth through rain-logged skies and couldn’t quite grasp that they’d survived the impact of landing. Jeans, shirts, pullovers are set out to dry between the huts and, after an hour or so, the men begin milling about, while the women sit with their heads bowed and the children sleep.

It is 5 a.m. There are dozens of detainees in the huts. Two Albanians who are sure to be sent back take out their documents: they have wives in Italy and children attending Italian schools; they have work contracts and Italian tax returns, the sodden evidence of their right of abode in Italy. One is a building labourer, the other a mechanic. The labourer heard that his mother had taken sick in Tirana; his friend had accompanied him back. When the time came to return to Italy, they couldn’t get a stamp from the Italian Embassy and anyhow, they explained, it is hard to take the legal route to Italy on the ferry that plies the Channel daily. The scafisti soften the ticketing companies and harbour authorities with a mixture of threats and incentives, to ensure that very few passengers avail themselves of the ferry and demand for the gommoni remains high. But these two men, who are legally entitled to stay in Italy, attempted illegal entry and that is sufficient reason to send them back. (Imagine a diligent servant lodging in the house of the family he works for. He has to leave for a day, on business, but loses his key. He arrives late at night and enters by a window at the back. The family dismisses him.) The strain on the faces of these two men is no longer the strain of fatigue. It has cost them over the odds to get to Otranto and now all their outlay is lost. They point again and again to their documents, place them in my hands, chivvy me into longer, more fastidious inspection, and when I hand them back, they, too, stare at them, as though they were turning to pulp.

By 7 a.m. medics, fingerprinters and interpreters are arriving at Otranto harbour. People are examined for injuries. Migrants often sustain fractures wading ashore in the dark. Children can be concussed, or more seriously damaged, by the repetitive jolting of the boats at high speed on rough seas. In one of the huts, plywood table tops have been set across oil-drums and forensic staff are preparing to take fingerprints. The migrants shuffle down the line with their hands extended. The abrupt introduction of the illegal alien to the grudging host state begins. In this parody of greeting, gloved hands reach out to bare hands, seize them, flatten them down on an ink block, lift them across the table-top and flatten them again onto a square of paper. Four sets of prints are taken from each person, then a photograph. A group of Kurdish men, some in stone-washed denims, others in crumpled check turn-ups from their overnight bags, dig their knuckles into a tub of industrial cleansing jelly and climb out of the hut, wringing their blackened hands. A truck arrives with sacks of sandwiches and cases of mineral water. Briefly the sight of food jolts the detainees into activity; dejection and reticence give way to energy and assertion. Men come forward to skirmish on behalf of wives, sisters, children. As disorder threatens, a detachment of carabinieri cajole them into silence.

There are 60 detainees in all. About a third are Albanians, who will be sent back on the ferry. The rest are Kosovars and Kurds, who will be shepherded onto buses and driven up the coast to the Centra Regina Pacis, to be quartered and processed, and eventually released into Italy with a short-stay permit or leave to remain while Rome considers their asylum application. The figures for last night’s game in the Otranto Channel are now through: 12 landings and 201 detentions along the coast of Puglia. Some clandestines – perhaps as many as a hundred – will have got away. It is a Sunday morning. Rain drives down on the prefab huts. Grey seas fret at the harbour walls. As the first contingent of shivering Kurds prepares to board a waiting bus, a dull church bell starts tolling for Mass.

Whether they’ll live or die must, at some point on the journey, become a more pressing question for illegal entrants into EU countries than whether they will find a foothold in the rich world. These journeys are dangerous. But to be driven by attrition is to prefer the devil you don’t know, or to give him the benefit of the doubt, and for those who buy passage on the gommoni, the devil is vaguely familiar in any case. Rumour and precedent keep the scafisti in business. This form of passage is relatively low risk. The bigger boats which fill up with passengers along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and drift around with hundreds of people on board waiting for the moment to abandon them on the Italian coast are another matter. Death from thirst, sickness, hunger or a full-scale disaster are pressing possibilities.

About three hours after the buses loaded with Kurds and Kosovars left for Regina Pacis on that bitter Sunday morning, a 200-tonne vessel under an Albanian flag dropped anchor south of Otranto, off Santa Maria de Leuca. The captain and most of the crew got away in an inflatable raft, consigning their passengers to Italian jurisdiction, and the Guardia di Finanza began shuttling them off the boat in lighters and reconnaissance craft. The captain had been cruising the coasts of Greece and Albania for two weeks, but some of the passengers had probably been at sea for longer, languishing in an even larger boat anchored off the coast of Turkey, before being decanted into this elderly cargo ship.

Hundreds of bystanders waited on the quays in the lashing rain, watching the migrants disembark. One Guardia shuttle consisted entirely of Africans. On the gangways, a ravaged young man lifted his face and bared his parched mouth to the downpour. To a barrage of questions he replied that he was from Sierra Leone and that he’d been travelling for three months. He flicked one hand gracefully, dismissively, at about the level of his forehead: ‘Up, up.’

He meant that he and his friends had come overland from West Africa. I asked where they boarded ship, but the police shut the conversation down. That night I drove along the coast through a violent storm to Regina Pacis, to find out more, but the gates were barred by a detachment of carabinieri. After half an hour an official appeared and read out a provisional tally of arrivals: 169 from Turkey, probably Kurds, four from Iraq, three Afghans, 17 from Sierra Leone, 29 from Guinea-Bissau, one from the Democratic Republic of Congo and another from Senegal.

In the course of 24 hours in deep winter, with Italian security already beginning to deploy in Albania and the Italian Government more resolute than it had been throughout the hectic summer of 1998, 400 illegal migrants had entered the country. The figure does not include those who made their way off the beaches of Puglia without being detected. Statistics for the following year showed no let-up: by October 1999, over 20,000 illegal migrants had been apprehended and for every one of those, the Guardia di Finanza estimated, two or three would have slipped through the net.

In 1937, with one massive displacement of people following another in Europe and points east, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London commissioned a comprehensive survey of refugee movements. To superintend the project, it appointed John Hope Simpson, a persuasive and highly energetic man who had worked in India and Palestine, directed National Food Relief policy in China and served as vice-president of the Refugee Settlement Commission in Athens. Simpson’s mainstay in France was H.W.H. Sams, a gifted investigator decorously referred to in the report as ‘Mr Sams’. France, Simpson noted, was ‘par excellence the country of refuge in Western Europe’ and Sams had his work cut out to account for the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Russia, Germany, Armenia, the Saar, Republican Spain and, as time went on, from Fascist Italy. For most of the 1920s, a high demand for labour worked in favour of refugee ‘integration’. Depression did away with that propitious circumstance – it also marked a reversal in France’s vigorous pro-immigration stance. By the mid-1930s, however, labour was once again an issue: indeed, with the population little more than half that of its huge, industrialised and militarised neighbour to the east, something of a national security imperative. On the other hand, tailoring the location of refugees to the precise contours of demand, before and after the Depression, was impossible and would, in any case, have been a delicate matter, even though discrimination and ill-treatment were common enough. Of the large numbers of Russians entering France after the Bolshevik Revolution, a proportion were thoroughly marginalised. Sams reported that in Lyon, which had one of the biggest Russian colonies, 45 per cent of the refugees were unemployed and living in ‘great poverty’. In Marseille, the Russians who worked on the docks ‘are amongst the dregs of the cosmopolitan population’ of the city. Every night, along the banks of the Rhone, about 100 ‘bridge-dwellers’ were sleeping rough.

Still, there was work and, under the Front Populaire, a growing culture of social provision, which extended unemployment and sickness benefit to refugees. ‘In general,’ Sams reported from Moselle, ‘any Russian with the willingness to work and good health can earn a living.’ Former German nationals, too, found sanctuary in France, which in the third quarter of 1933, received between 30,000 and 60,000 refugees from Nazism. Many remained for several years, others moved on to Palestine, Latin America, the US and South Africa. The figures began to fall in 1937, but by now 6 per cent of the population were of foreign origin and there were still refugees coming in from Germany, Austria and Spain, including ‘wounded or incapacitated German members of the International Brigades’.

It was the crisis in the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires, and the fretwork of successor states created after their demise, that gave Simpson and his team such a wealth of human material to consider. Already, from the 1880s to the eve of the Great War, enormous numbers of Jews had been driven west by Tsarist and Polish pogroms. By the time the Ottoman Empire had been divested, the survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1915-16 were scattered in camps from Sofia to Damascus. In the 1920s, thousands of Kurds followed the Armenians out of Turkey to settle in Syria, the Lebanon and Iraq. A million and a half Russians were displaced by the Bolshevik Revolution, a third of whom were still stateless by World War Two. With the dismantling of Austria-Hungary and the formation of the Baltic states, new swathes of Europeans swelled the ranks of apatrides, or stateless persons; others found that they were now members of precarious minorities with marginal rights in new political entities, confected by the postwar treaties.

At the end of World War Two, with the retrenchment of other empires, mass movement was largely assigned out of Europe: to India and other outposts, and subsequently imperial zones of contention where the superpowers had leaseholder status and a steely readiness to wage war by proxy. During the Cold War, three million people left their homes in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, five million left Afghanistan, a million or more were uprooted in Central America; in Africa, where there are still nearly seven million refugees and many more people displaced inside their own borders, a long moment of disorder and upheaval began.

Hundreds of aid workers and dozens of refugee monitors – the successors of John Hope Simpson and Mr Sams – found themselves reconvened in Europe in the 1990s as a series of successor states came into being after the collapse of Communism. The dramatic character of events in 1989 and the years that followed gave them a deceptively singular cast, but in the Baltic countries and elsewhere it was a smeared mirror-image of interwar statelessness that now reappeared. Punitive rules of citizenship denied 700,000 Russian-speakers national status in Latvia and 500,000 in Estonia. By the end of 1996, the UNHCR was alarmed by the ‘significant numbers’ of Slovaks and Roma rendered stateless, in effect, by the creation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In the 1930s, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia had been exemplary hosts to large refugee populations. It was now the turn of former Yugoslav and Czechoslovak nationals – Yugoslavs, above all – to spill across new boundaries in search of refuge. Many of the elements that had led to the massive evictions of the interwar years were once again in place, but the idea of sanctuary had atrophied: Europe had forgotten the codes of conduct in moments of crisis. And in trying to reckon with the wars in Yugoslavia, it was unsure whether the Balkans were really a part of the new amnesiac Europe at all: might they not simply be Slav lands caught in an eternal dichotomy of fracture and Oriental despotism – and foundering in the useless politics of memory?

Western Europe’s heightened sense of the other – both fearful and condescending – shaped its reluctance to intervene in any decisive way in Bosnia, but at the end of the 1990s, with very high numbers of refugees already exiled from the former Yugoslavia and thousands more now arriving from Kosovo, it was impossible to quarantine the Balkans any longer. The many asylum seekers who breached the fortress, and to whom, in the end, Germany and others opened their doors, were a pressing consideration in the Nato air campaign. A regime that had confined the effects of its misdeeds within its own borders might have fared better, but Slobodan Milosevic’s policies were foisting large numbers of terrified people on prosperous nations that wanted nothing to do with them. That was one of the problems that the European members of Nato had in mind when they spoke of a ‘humanitarian crisis’. Tens of thousands of Kosovars had already lodged asylum claims in the EU before Nato began its airstrikes. The Albanian scafisti ferried hundreds across the Otranto Channel every week, while others struck out east to embark on an overland route into the EU via Bulgaria and Romania. The EU looked on with growing dismay.

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[*] Refugees in an Age of Genocide (Cass, 505 pp., £47.50 and £22.50, 9 June 1999, 0 7146 4783 7).