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Embracing the Infidel

Recent decades have been marked by mass migrations of people leaving their homelands in search of a safe haven or greater opportunity elsewhere in the world. While their journeys are often dangerous or difficult, a new book suggests that may be especially true for Muslims. The book is called Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West, and it was written Behzad Yaghmaian, a political economist who teaches at Ramapo College in New Jersey.

As an American citizen who was born in Iran, Behzad Yaghmaian has faced his own share of difficulties at border crossings. But he wrote Embracing the Infidel mainly out of concern for what he calls "a great humanitarian crisis." He says growing numbers of Muslims are fleeing war, political persecution, and economic hardship in their homelands, only to find the borders of Western nations closed to them.

Security Risk?

"You have millions of people who are in a state of limbo," says Professor Yaghmaian. "They cannot go back to their place of birth and they are not accepted where they want to go. At the heart of the question of migration is a quest for human security. But on the journey of migration, they realize their personal security is compromised in many ways and when they reach the West, the West regards them as a threat to national security."

Behzad Yaghmaian spent two years following the trail of Muslim migrants, on an odyssey that took him from cities like Istanbul and Athens to London and New York. For people leaving countries in the Middle East and Africa, Istanbul is a transition point between the lives they left behind, and the lives they hope lie ahead.

According to Yaghmaian, "Turkey has a long border, both sea border and land border, with Greece, which is one of the countries in the European Union. So they get on small boats, they walk on land mines and they literally risk their lives to enter the Union. There is a large network of friends, family members and human smugglers who arrange the journey for them. And depending on how much money people have, for some, the journey takes only a few months, for others, 12 years, and they are still in Istanbul."

Dangers of Migration

Behzad Yaghmaian visited crowded urban ghettoes, refugee camps, tent cities, even prisons, to write Embracing the Infidel. He heard stories of migrants who had been abused by local police, beaten by border guards, and attacked by dogs. Two people he met later died.

"One was an Iranian I met in Greece. He was living in an abandoned truck in the port city of Patras. Two months later, when he actually succeeded in leaving Greece to go to Italy, he hid in a watermelon truck in the middle of summer and the watermelon truck was boarded on a ship. When he got out, he died after two hours," says Yaghmaian.

What kinds of special challenges do the children of migrants face?

According to Professor Yaghmaian, "You have many children who for practical reasons cannot go to school. If the journey is two years, they are out of school for two years. And we have seen a lot of children who unfortunately because of the dire conditions were forced into prostitution. I have an example of a Somali mother who came to Turkey with five children. The oldest was a 15-year-old girl. And toward the end of their stay in Turkey, the oldest daughter was prostituting because that was the only way for them to survive."

Behzad Yaghmaian met migrants who did succeed in starting new lives in Europe or the United States, often after repeated attempts and failures. But many others remain stranded, and some go home. As an example, he cites efforts to repatriate people from Afghanistan.

"When the Taliban was overthrown, Afghanistan was declared a safe country. But there are no jobs and not long after the Taliban fell, new types of violence began in Afghanistan. So you have a large population of Afghans who don't want to go home, but they are now being forced to go home," says Yaghmaian.

Challenges of Migration

Emilio Viano is a professor at American University's School of Public Affairs in Washington. He says migrants have historically been subjected to prejudice and hostility, but he agrees that Muslims may face heightened discrimination. He says that in addition to being concerned about terrorism, many of the countries the migrants pass through are still adjusting to the social and economic impact of other massive migration waves.

Professor Viano says, "We know that in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, there has been enormous upheaval for the last 10 or 15 years, with people trying to get out of war in Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia, mostly to Western Europe. And that started this major new phenomenon of being either the country of destination or the country of transit for illegal migrants, something that was basically new to them."

Author Behzad Yaghmaiain says the challenges of massive migration require new kinds of international programs. He says, "The only organization that exists is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and it can only provide a new home for those who are considered political refugees, and there is a very strict definition of who is a refugee. That calls for new consideration for who actually needs and who is worthy of international protection and that is the job the United Nations should take on. We need an organization or an international agreement to come up with ways to help this population."

While the two years he spent among Muslim migrants revealed huge problems that are still unresolved, Behzad Yaghmaian says he made a positive discovery as well. No matter how treacherous their travels were, the migrants remained hopeful about their futures, and the author says that is what he took away from his own journey among them.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.