Other side of border controls

Ben Lewis notes a tragic subplot in the mysterious disappearance of flight MH370

Over the last two weeks there has been extensive media coverage of the Boeing 777 plane that vanished on March 8 during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, presumably killing all of its predominantly Chinese passengers in the process.

The ins and outs of the flight’s path, the military radar technology used to detect air traffic, possible incompetence on the part of the Malaysian authorities and so on have all been rigorously scrutinised. Some of the grieving families are now even considering hunger strikes in protest at the time it is taking to locate the missing aircraft. The question may be feeding into political disputes as well: several governments in the region have been particularly damning about the inadequacies of the search and some have even drawn links between the flight’s pilot and a prominent leader of the Malaysian opposition, Anwar Ibrahim.

Throughout the coverage there have been a number of twists and turns, and the plot continues to thicken. Several possible explanations and conspiracy theories are being cooked up. In this article I merely wish to concentrate on one political issue that came to light in the coverage of the missing passengers. It is one that has also proved controversial in the Weekly Worker’s letters pages1: namely, that of the free movement of people across the globe.


A few days after the disappearance, it was discovered that two young Iranian men, Pouria Nour Mohammadi and Mohammadreza Delavar, had boarded the flight using stolen passports. This revelation rapidly found its way into many international media outlets. After all, there is little that feeds on and exploits the fears and prejudices of the western world more than such a story: terrorism, Iranians, missing flights ...

Indeed, it was obviously music to the ears of those who remain intransigently opposed to the recent (tetchy and limited, yet real) rapprochement between Iran and the US, with obvious attempts to make as much political capital out of it as possible. Thus even on March 16 (that is, long after Interpol had refuted any terrorism link) the Israeli Times ran with the headline: ‘Ex El-Al expert: Iran likely involved in MH 370’. The former security chief of the Israeli airline, Isaac Yeffet, was quoted as saying: “My guess is based upon the stolen passports, and I believe Iran was involved … They hijacked the aircraft and they landed it in a place that nobody can see or find it.”2. Many of those commenting on the article seem to infer from this that these young Iranians are simply waiting for the right moment to carry out the jihadist will of ayatollah Khamenei. Presumably it is only a matter of time before the two will fly their fiendishly well-concealed Boeing 777 into a building in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem … Doubtless other such ‘explanations’ have been offered by the Saudis or the US neocons.

However, even before Interpol scotched stories of ‘terrorist links’, and before one of the boys’ friends in Kuala Lumpur had appeared on the BBC and elsewhere to explain that he was not a terrorist and was simply seeking asylum in Europe, many familiar with the rigmarole of Iranian asylum politics would have instantly questioned the link being drawn.

After all, especially since the repression meted out by the Iranian regime following the disputed presidential election of 2009, many Iranians - youngsters in particular - have been seeking to leave Iran and gain asylum in Europe at all costs. Not all of them are left or liberal politicos. Some simply want to start a different life for whatever reason. In doing so they often risk life and limb: even if these people actually possess an Iranian passport (something that is more or less impossible for young men who have not completed their military service) it is extremely difficult to simply travel, for example, straight from Tehran to Berlin or London because of restrictions on immigration in the form of complex, bureaucratic and arbitrary visa systems. One way around this is a student or marriage visa, although this can also prove to be a real struggle.

From the route taken by the two young Iranians, it would appear that they actually did initially possess Iranian passports, and as such were able to fly from Iran to Malaysia, where entry does not depend on a visa. Here, however, things get a little more complex. As with the prohibition of drugs, the banning of the free movement of people gives internationally operating smugglers and gangs disproportionate power and influence over the ‘commodity’ of refugees. Many Gatsbys will have emerged from this particular ‘trade’. Most probably, the two Iranians had already established contact with their smugglers back in Iran, who arranged for the fake passports (stolen from Thailand in this case, apparently) to be given to them in Malaysia - all in return for a suitable fee, probably amounting to thousands of dollars. In a process that can then take quite some time, the local smugglers will have arranged a flight at a time when one of their contacts in passport control was on duty, who would have waved them through.

The men were then headed for Germany via Beijing - one was to be met by his mother in Frankfurt, where she lives, and another was to go on to Copenhagen, to settle either in Denmark or nearby Sweden. Depending on the local laws of the country where Iranians travelling illegally to Europe arrive, they either ditch the fake passport before attempting to claim asylum, or risk getting through immigration with it. In Britain, for example, the latter would be a very unwise move, as travelling with a fake passport is a crime that invariably leads to a prison sentence: in other countries it is treated less severely.


While the two Iranian men appear to have ultimately met a tragic fate, the underlying tragedy here is the system of border controls itself - a system that forces human beings to go to the most desperate lengths to escape grinding poverty, repression, political persecution, the tragedy of war, famine and so on.

Although it seems that the two Iranian men were sadly unable to realise their aim of moving to Europe, in terms of their attempts to get here they were actually quite fortunate, in that their route through Asia - apparently a new way for people seeking to get here - appears to have been relatively smooth: they appear to have had Iranian passports and the necessary money to purchase flight tickets (always the most expensive way of travelling) and the connections to get hold of fake papers. As is always the case when it comes to getting around the strictures of the law, money, state contacts (as with the citizenship request of David Cameron’s nanny!) and international contacts make everything easier.

Yet it is obviously the case that the overwhelming majority of those who are forced into fleeing their countries can often barely scrape together the means to get by, let alone pay smugglers and so on. More often than not they find themselves in a situation of fraught isolation and have to cobble together everything they possess. Desperate times call for desperate measures and these refugees are often thrown into the hands of criminal gangs out to make as much money as possible in the quickest possible time. It is difficult to tell just how many find themselves on the move in today’s world, yet obviously, given the millions of people displaced by the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and the recent social turmoil and civil war in Syria, etc, we are dealing with an enormous figure.

And these numbers reflect the dynamics of the imperialist pecking order itself. Not only do the most oppressed and war-torn countries throw up the most refugees: those from such countries tend to be treated worse by the smugglers too. Thus even within a single group of smuggled people Iranians, for example, will tend to be treated better than Afghans.

However, while there are quite rightly campaigns for Syrian refugees to be let into Britain and so on, some of which have even resonated with establishment politicians, the anti-human system of border controls in and of itself does not even get a mention.


So the two Iranian passengers on flight MH370, or those looking to leave Iran more generally, represent just the tip of an iceberg.

Comrades working in Hands Off the People of Iran will recall some of the truly horrific experiences that young Iranian student activists have had to go through when fleeing the regime’s repressive crackdown. Many of these comrades did not have passports and thus tended to be smuggled across the Turkish border and then on into Europe. This cost them a lot of time, money and on occasion nearly their lives as well. Given that the smugglers are not exactly running some kind of charity, they are hardly too concerned for the welfare of their charges. Some comrades report how they almost suffocated in the back of a packed lorry travelling across eastern Europe. Others talk of smugglers stripping them of all their possessions, including most of their clothes, in the Turkish countryside, seeing them almost freeze to death as a result. Two other comrades recall the horror of having a gun pulled on them in a car driven by smugglers, who were more interested in their laptops, cash and other possessions than keeping them alive. Just hearing such stories makes one think about what millions of other people go through.

Of course, the approach of European states towards people deemed ‘illegals’ is not exactly welcoming either: refugees have often been greeted by solitary confinement, hours without food or drink, long interrogations, prison sentences and so on. It is necessary to point out that if we on the left accept and defend the repulsive system of border controls (whether in the form of the ‘non-racist’ version championed by the recently deceased Bob Crow or the so-called ‘points system’ favoured by those like George Galloway MP) then we are also implicitly accepting and defending both the logic of a capitalist system that compels the overwhelming majority of the world’s population to eke out a bare existence in the most degrading possible way and the fact that restrictions on the free movement of people drives them into the arms of gangs and profiteers. That a toothbrush produced in Asia has more ‘right’ to freely move around the world than a human being says a lot about the deep irrationality of the system of capital, where relationships between humans appear as relationships between things.

Our movement internationally must unequivocally champion the right of people to settle, work and live wherever they wish - not because this is some kind of magic wand that will do away with the evils of capitalism overnight, but because, only when equipped with such a global vision for society as a whole, as opposed to narrow national sectionalism, can our class begin to become hegemonic and thus capable of challenging the rule of capital.

Of course, that was the position of the Socialist International. As comrade Jack Conrad has helpfully pointed out in a recent CPGB political report,3 the 1907 Stuttgart Congress voted against restrictions on migrants and urged trade unions to organise without distinction of race or nationality.

It is undeniable that, all things being equal, the capitalist use and regulation of immigration primarily serves the accumulation of capital, which is to say that it has a tendency to drive down wages and undermine working conditions.4 That is hardly surprising for any Marxist. Yet the task of communists is to question and combat bourgeois ‘normality’ and organise our class internationally against the logic of capital accumulation - not against the likes of the two young Iranians who seem to have met with a tragic fate on flight MH370 l



1. See in particular the letters from Dave Vincent in Weekly Worker February 27 and March 13.

2. www.timesofisrael.com/ex-el-al-expert-iran-likely-involved-in-mh-370.

3. http://cpgb.org.uk/home/podcasts/march-16- 2014-cpgb-political-report.

4. Moreover, it is not particularly helpful to our cause to deny outright that this is the case, as does Socialist Worker (‘Tories try to bury report that busts racist myth’, March 11).