Help From Your Consulates?

By Haider Rizvi

At four o’clock in the morning, he opened his eyes and saw that the train was still at the City Hall station, the doors wide open. He looked around inside the subway car but there was no one around. Suddenly, he realized his bag was gone and there was no wallet in his pocket either. The bag was full of important papers, including his passport and Green Card.

The next day, the 40-year-old freelance writer, who declined to reveal his name, went to the police. After hours of hostile interrogation, he finally got what he needed: a piece of paper that said: “Passport stolen.”

Next came the part that he had dreaded most. He was supposed to submit the police report to his native country’s consulate to obtain a new passport. But he was not sure if it would be possible for him to do so.

Ten years ago, he fled his home country of Pakistan, where he had been beaten up by Islamist militant groups and harassed by a number of state secret agencies for having secular humanist views.

“I prefer to have no identity rather than go begging for what I rejected a long-time ago,” he said about his original nationality.

What happened to this man may be unusual, but it is not unique. Many immigrants who left their home countries for political reasons prefer to have no contact with their consulates, even in times when they should be seeking help from them.

“How could I ever ask the consulate for any help?” said Zafar Ahmed, a human rights activist and doctoral student at the State University of New York, who recently suffered at the hands of police for a minor traffic violation.

He fled his native Pakistan about five years ago, after being accused of treason for launching a campaign against the use of child labor by the carpet industry.

There appears to be no formal studies of how many immigrants who have moved into the United States for political reasons without seeking refugee status, but rights activists believe many came from countries that went through internal political conflicts in the recent past, such as Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Haiti, Peru, Columbia, Chile, Indonesia, Cuba, the Philippines, Palestine/Israel and Brazil.

But political opposition is not the only factor that makes it nearly impossible for immigrants to seek help from their embassies and consulates. Immigrants who come from developing countries often accuse their consulate officials of corrupt practices and discriminatory attitudes towards the poor or even average citizen.

“I tell you about the Indian consulate,” said Partha Banerjee, an Indian-American immigrant rights activist. “If you don’t know anybody there, you don’t get the service. But if you are a rich businessman, you have no problem. It has been going on for many years.”

A senior Asian journalist who has spent more than 25 years in New York agrees with Partha. “A large number of consulates from the Third World in New York don’t really care much about the needs of their citizens because they know most of them do the kind of work that Americans do not want to do.”

Similar complaints come from immigrants of Bangladesh, one of the heavily populated countries in the South Asian region. “People tell me that the attitude of the consulate officials is not good,” said Qazi Shamsul Haq, editor of the New York-based Bengali-language weekly newspaper Akhon Samoy. "They say officials are rude.”

Haq said during the "special registration" drive for adult males from Muslim countries earlier this year, the Bangladeshi immigrants said their consulate “did not do enough.” He, however, added that the Bangladeshi consulate is still doing much better than India and Pakistan in providing services to its citizens. “My impression is it’s neither good nor bad.”

Recent census reports indicate there are more than 200,000 South Asian immigrants living in New York City, most of whom work for low-paid jobs for less wages and more hours.

Immigrant rights activists say the quality of the relationship between the immigrants who come from poor Latin American and African nations is not so different from those from South Asia. In this context, the only exceptions are the immigrants and visitors coming from the Western European nations.

“It’s unthinkable that our consulate officials would treat us badly. They know that it’s their job to help their citizens as efficiently as possible,” said Thierry Kranzer, a French national who works for the United Nations and has been living in New York for several years. “The consulate officials are accountable to their people and their government.”

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