They are here because we are there

Aaron Bastani

Over the last seven weeks more than 230 undocumented migrants have crossed the English Channel, with forty completing the journey on Christmas Day alone. In the first ten months of 2018, only 220 people made it. The recent spike coincides with increasing numbers of Iranians arriving in Calais. According to one estimate, 40 per cent of the 500 refugees who sleep rough in the town come from Iran.

Last May, President Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal with Iran and revived sanctions. Oil exports, as well as the banking sector, have been hit hard. The Rial fell by 60 per cent in 2018. Food prices are soaring and the IMF predicts GDP will shrink by a further 3.6 per cent over the next twelve months. Recession and high inflation is a lethal mix.

Economic discontent has increasingly found expression on the streets. There was a wave of national protest a year ago, and the last fortnight has seen confrontations between the police and protesting teachers and students. Ayatollah Sadiq Larijani, the head of the judiciary, recently warned of a possible repeat of the 2009 protests – but conceded economic grievances this time were justified. ‘The workers and students have legitimate demands,’ he told the Tasnim News Agency, ‘but they should be vigilant not to advance the enemies’ goals’. This is a regime overtly preparing for mass dissent.

Some protest; others leave. More than 1600 Iranians sought asylum in Bosnia in the twelve months to September 2018. A year earlier the figure was just 16. Serbia granted visa-free travel to Iranians from August 2017 until October last year. In that time, between 15,000 and 40,000 Iranians entered the country, with as many as 12,000 failing to return. The Serbian route into the EU is now closed, after Brussels applied political pressure on Belgrade, but Iranians can still travel through Turkey without a visa.

Material adversity isn’t the only reason people want to escape. Civil rights are severely limited, and LGBT people in particular are at risk from a regime whose rhetoric of social justice falls startlingly short of reality.

And yet blame for Iran’s often regressive laws, as well as its precarious economy, doesn’t lie exclusively with the regime in Tehran. Sanctions, intermittently in place since the 1990s, are only the latest effort by foreign powers to obstruct the emergence of a robust democracy and thriving economy in the country, from the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 to support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

Trump’s stance will not lead to regime change. If anything, renewed sanctions empower Iran’s autocratic elements, especially the Revolutionary Guard. The Islamic Republic has endured as long as it has because it commands significant – if weakening – domestic consent and enjoys resilient institutions carefully crafted over forty years. More likely is an increase in the numbers of refugees. Moderately affluent Iranians have the means to enter Europe as well as extensive networks of friends and family in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia.

From invading Iraq to selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, over the last several decades Britain has continued to exploit and destabilise the Middle East with devastating consequences. Why are Iranians undertaking the perilous journey across the English Channel in winter? To paraphrase A. Sivanandan, ‘they are here because we are there.’ Until sanctions are removed and Iran’s economic isolation is ended – and Britain calls time on its interventions in the Middle East – there is no justification to refuse a single Iranian seeking asylum.


  • 8 January 2019 at 3:55pm
    staberinde says:
    Aaron, your argument is disingenuous. The UK and the EU continue to support the Iranian nuclear deal. It is the US which has reimposed sanctions unilaterally. By your lights, it is the US which should pay the price of its policy through increased Iranian immigration and asylum, not the UK and EU.

    Of course, you argue that we have a history of meddling in the region and therefore must accept migration as a consequence. But this is only compelling if you apply a time limit, otherwise today's Brits are on the hook for the sins of an imperial age which far predates living memory. You may as well ague for original sin, but it would be rather pre-Enlightenment of you.

    A lot of people will question why there should be an onus on the UK to accommodate Iranians where there are a fair number of prosperous and safe countries between the UK and Iran.

    The stronger argument for accepting migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East is that it is part of a well-managed, secure policy for the EU's borders, where the UK takes its fair share and contributes financially and via personnel to the administration, policing, transportation and accommodation of the EU's overall intake.

    Sadly, no such robust borders policy exists. In the context of a free-for-all, trying to guilt a population that broadly opposed the Iraq war, whose parliament refused to enter the Syrian conflict, and whose government opposes sanctions on Iran in favour of the nuclear deal rather misses the mark, no?

    When the Labour Party won't even 'own' Blair, why would you expect voters to 'own' the mess of the Middle East?

    • 10 January 2019 at 11:15am
      ARobertson says: @ staberinde
      The history of empire of course famously no longer has any impact on formerly colonised countries.

    • 10 January 2019 at 12:27pm
      staberinde says: @ ARobertson
      Good luck championing social mobility if you also insist that people bear the sins of their forebears.

    • 10 January 2019 at 2:19pm
      freshborn says: @ staberinde
      As the article notes, the refugees are mostly those who are affluent and likely educated. It isn't a particularly great burden to us, it is Iran that bears the greater cost.

    • 10 January 2019 at 2:20pm
      ARobertson says: @ staberinde
      Good luck championing social mobility to people living in former colonies whose economies were pillaged by the West for centuries and who are therefore currently poor precisely because you are currently rich.

    • 10 January 2019 at 4:00pm
      staberinde says: @ freshborn
      Well we can't have it both ways. If they're not a burden, why does the author need to guilt the UK into welcoming them? Far better to argue that Iran's loss is our gain - an argument made regarding the exodus following the Shah's toppling.

      It's also entirely legitimate to argue that, irrespective of their level of education or poverty, immigrants are net economic contributors. Plenty of evidence for that.

      But the author is making an entirely different point, which is that the UK holds a moral obligation to accommodate these people because of its foreign policy regarding Iran and the region, now and historically.

      I argue that this is pretty weak stuff. There are many better arguments for the UK to take more refugees generally and be more open to migration. But I cannot see why the UK should be on the hook for a US decision to reimpose sanctions. Iran has nothing to do with the Libyan intervention, nor our involvement the Iraq wars nor our non-involvement in Syria.

      I have the feeling that the author would cite the Crusades and shoehorn the Boxer Rebellion if he felt it would would lay responsibility at the door of British foreign policy.

      In the case of Iraq he's have a far stronger case.

      But I do rather despair at the damned-if-we-do and damned-if-we-don't school of progressive thought, which strives to somehow find a way to point the finger at the UK for both intervening in Libya and not intervening in Syria, and when called-out for it resorts to "It's your fault because your great grandparents were citizens of an empire."

    • 12 January 2019 at 7:31pm
      staberinde says: @ ARobertson
      Will you explain to poor people in Wales and and Hull why it's a good thing that their jobs were outsourced to India then? I agree it makes a huge difference to people many times poorer than in the UK.

      But I think you've just caused Brexit.

  • 10 January 2019 at 6:20pm
    Atique says:
    You are so right. One has to have been a foreigner amongst them to realize that the poorer people of the Great Kingdom are quite clueless of the depradations their ruling classes have visited upon others, in land very far away. I suppose the chickens have come home to roost.

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