Back to Life

I can’t and won’t pretend to be an expert on the current crisis is in Afghanistan, nor the still ongoing civil war in Syria, nor the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, nor the continuing assault on the people of Palestine by Israel. What I do know — what we all know — is that these conflicts involve millions of innocent people and that we who consider ourselves safely tucked away in wealthy countries, miles from the conflict, are intrinsically involved and therefore responsible for those people’s welfare. The UK & US have occupied Afghanistan for nearly two decades, UK & US operatives have been reported as training and supplying rebel groups in Syria, the UK & US have sold arms to the Saudi’s which they used to bomb Yemen and a considerable amount of money from the UK & US still goes to Israel’s military programme. Whatever your feelings on the necessity of our involvement in these conflicts, like in all wars, it is the non-combatants who suffer most. Losing their loved ones, their homes, their livelihoods and, in most cases, are hounded from their homes because of this and caused to flee their home nation. The flight of millions from the various countries in the ‘middle east’ (whatever that title even means anymore) is a direct result of the conflicts in which we are involved and, as such, they are our responsibility. Now, while I may not know much about the conflicts or the culture of these nations themselves, I do know a thing or two about immigration.

As someone trying to maintain a marriage from 3,000 miles apart thanks to current immigration laws and a global pandemic, immigration policy is something I remain intimately aware of. And it is a nightmare. Immigration policy in the US & UK is a bureaucratic spider’s web of red tape, specifically designed to obfuscate and confuse, with easy-to-miss clauses that will make or break the process and can leave you stranded at an airport or seaport with nowhere to go. And that’s just for someone like me, anyone who isn’t white or from a country like the UK faces far grimmer prospects. You could end up at an army barracks rampant with Covid, or a detention centre that subjects you to sexual assault, or be put in a cage along with 22,500 unaccompanied children at the southern US border, or simply deported to a country that you have never been to or that does not want you there. Even I, with the privilege’s I enjoy as a white man from a wealthy nation, struggle with the reductive immigration policy of supposedly allied nation. Though perfectly legal and within our rights to be so, my wife and I fight to be together against a system that is perpetually aggressive and suspicious of anyone and anything attempting to pass the illusory borders of a nation. For instance, I do not earn enough for my wife to live here and the USA’s current policy on all immigration, whether legal or seeking asylum, is an almost blanket refusal. Even just starting the process, despite being legally allowed to, has us nervous to even begin the attempt. The fear that at any moment in the process some total stranger can decide to cancel our application because they don’t like the look of us is a very real one. So imagine what this is like for someone fleeing for their lives from a country our leaders are currently bombing.

There is a constant refrain from the Government in the UK that the desperate people willing to risk their lives to come to Britain by making a dangerous channel crossing, should be using the “Safe and legal routes” to get to the UK. The problem is that those “safe and legal routes” are (deliberately) difficult to find and restrictive to apply for. The opportunity to re-enter society, at any level, has been removed from the refugees of Afghanistan and Syria et al. Functioning — or at least ‘safe’ — society has collapsed in these places and, understandably, these people wish to return to that stability. But at the same time, the nations that claim they are the paragons of civilisation and who demand all nations should follow their example for society, refuse their entry. This is all coming at a time when everyone (well, most of us) is experiencing the same strange feeling of re-entering society after having been closed off and locked away for 18 months. It’s a scary feeling to be worried about your safety wherever you go, to fear your neighbour, to experience hatred for wearing something on your face and head, to be anxious about every interaction. We have all become as alien to our own communities as those we politically and culturally seek to ostracise. Given this, you would think there might be more empathy for those so desperate and in fear for their lives that they flee thousands of miles to reach our shores but apparently not. Acceptance of Afghan refugees during this crisis is predicated entirely on their involvement with our own troops. The interpreters must be rescued first, it seems. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was sold as being for the Afghan people to reenter and reestablish their society but instead it crumbled within moments, thus allowing an extremist group of religious zealots to reenter the world’s stage as the controllers of an entire nation.

The idea of ‘Reentry’ seems simple but comes with several key descriptors that are often ignored. Why did you leave in the first place? Reentering society after being locked down or being cast out reveals the level of control you had over the space to begin with. Being forced from your home and being unable to reenter shows how powerless you are. Being forced to stay at home and then reenter public spaces shows how much control you do have. But the concept of reentry equally asks a lot about the space you wish to reenter. You might reenter a room, but what if the room is rearranged in-between when you left and now? Or what if it has been trashed? Or destroyed completely? Are you even reentering the same room at that point? What if the door is locked to you and you must find another way in? That ceases to be ‘reentry’ and fast becomes ‘breaking and entering’. This state of ‘reentry’ depends on whose volition it is that allows you entry in the first place. I am not allowed to reenter the USA until I have a marriage visa, a process that only grows increasingly more difficult as the days go by. The refugees fleeing to my home nation thanks to conflicts we were involved in are not allowed to enter, so must they ‘reenter’ their own nation, whatever its state? Or are we asking they reenter society on our terms and our terms only? If so, why were the Taliban allowed to reenter Kabul and take back Afghanistan in a few short weeks, especially given that a large portion of blame for 9/11 was placed at their door and used as an excuse to invade in the first place? Or what about the opium that is grown in abundance in Afghanistan, opium that is the largest contributor to the heroin trade in the world? Will that reenter the blackmarket?

In short, entry and reentry are about power and control: whether you have control over the space you wish to reenter or power over the entry way. Right now, for those of us in the wealthier, conflict-free nations, our idea of reentry is much more abstract, but for many, entrance, let alone reentrance, is a nearly impossible thing. And a matter of life and death.



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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman


Peripatetic Writer. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.