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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: Return of the militant native

India isn’t alone in turning right. Europe is expected to do so too next week when 400 million Europeans elect 751 members of the European Parliament. Ultra-nationalist parties such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, France’s National Front, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Denmark’s People’s Party and Austria’s Freedom Party may give a fascist tinge to the future.

I must divert to my current travels to explain the background. There was no landing form when we arrived at Athens. No one asked how long we were going to stay or where. Wordlessly, the immigration official stamped our passports and waved us on. Our departure for Istanbul a week later was equally informal. This is a blissful world built on trust and confidence, I thought, with no black swastikas looming on the horizon. Turkey soon shattered my optimism.

Not to start with however. The illusion of liberal faith was maintained when we landed at Istanbul airport where officials barely glanced at the electronic visa I had myself obtained through my laptop sitting in my friend’s flat in Piraeus. Nor did they ask where I would stay or for how long. I could have saved myself the trouble and the $ 20 fee I thought. It wasn’t till we were leaving Turkey to return to Athens that the fun started.

Usually, immigration and customs officials are glad to see the backs of visiting foreigners. It’s good riddance to bad rubbish; the quicker they can push you through the formalities and out of the country, the better. But not here. Judging by the scrutiny to which the Turkish official at Istanbul airport subjected our passports, one would imagine we were absconding with the Ottoman jewels of the Topkapi Palace.

He stared at all the old and expired Schengen visas (valid for the European Union but not Turkey) in my passport and at the long-term UK visa as if he had never seen them before. He looked at my current multiple-entry three-month Schengen visa top to bottom, and bottom to top, front to back and back to front. He touched it and felt it and ran his finger over its surface. At one moment, I cried out in alarm because I thought he was trying to peel off the visa from the page.

Watching in mounting impatience and irritation, I told him I had already spent a week in Greece and they would surely have said something if the visa was in any way faulty. He didn’t hear me or didn’t understand what I said or if he did, took no notice. Instead, he produced a little pencil torch and began peering at the back of the visa in its light.

“I am not returning to your country!” I snapped and got the first squeak out of the man. “Why?” he asked. Because no one has ever subjected my passport to such intense scrutiny, I told him. He explained then that Turkish immigration officials were under special orders to examine the documents of anyone going from Turkey to western Europe. I retorted that could apply only to unemployed Turks bent on slipping into the European Union with forged papers.

I am sorry I said that because I now know that while Turkey is booming, Greece is suffering a depression. Those who cross illegally from Turkey into Greece en route to better-off European countries are not Turks but Afghans, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. I might easily have been one of them!

The traffic in manpower is so busy that, as between India and Bangladesh, Greece has erected a 25-foot high fence across the land border between its Thrace province and Turkey. Thrace, incidentally, is the only part of Greece where Muslims still live and where some mosques can still be seen.

The fence has forced smugglers to take migrants in small boats down the Aegean Sea, south of Crete, across Libyan waters, and up the Ionian Sea to the Adriatic and Italian coasts. Clandestine traffic on this route tripled from 1,500 in 2011 to 4,400 in 2012. Fatalities are common since traffickers use leaky tubs in rough seas.

A sailing boat following that route sank off the coast of the Greek island of Kythira where we were staying recently, taking 122 migrants’ lives. At least 48 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean earlier this month. Nevertheless, thousands of illegal migrants are waiting in Istanbul to pay $ 1,000 each for the dangerous crossing to what they hope will be a new future.

It’s a sad fact of life that the lowest form of existence in Europe represents a tremendous improvement for the vast majority of Asians. Even the scruffy young Pakistani trying to sell me contraband cigarettes in Piraeus harbour or the ragged Bangladeshi selling cheap toys above the spectacular sunset at Oia on Santorini island are better off than in their native habitat.

Hence Greece’s Operation Xenios Zeus in 2012, which rounded up thousands of immigrants and subjected them to prolonged interrogation at detention centres. With Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland suffering recession and forced to adopt austerity measures, ultra-nationalist politicians are assured of support if they blame the foreigners in their midst for their troubles. Some countries even penalise Gypsies who have lived in Europe for centuries, though with remote Indian roots.

Recent constitutional changes will allow the new European Parliament to decide for the first time who will lead the next European Commission, Europe’s executive body, which initiates legislation and supervises implementation. Next week’s election results will also decide the next European Commission president.

The return of the militant native bodes ill for the relative outsider. A swastika painted on a rock in Santorini above the legend “Hellas Brigade” says it all.

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