An asylum-seeker can be a brave hero too

The very nature of Abas Amini's protest encourages not understanding, but repulsion
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The Independent Online

It is usual for human beings to salute the bravest among us, who go further than most of us know we would be able to, in order to survive against the odds. Earlier this month, the world flinched in admiration, horror and sympathy at the story of Aron Ralston.

The 27-year-old American, while climbing in Utah, had become trapped in a canyon, his arm pinned under a boulder. After five days, out of water and food, he decided to resort to extremes in order to escape.

Twisting his arm until he had broken two bones, he hacked through the flesh and sinews with a penknife. He then applied a tourniquet, abseiled down the canyon, and walked five miles before he encountered a couple who contacted the mountain rescue team which had been searching for him.

What is there to say about this, except that Mr Ralston is clearly a remarkably tough and courageous young man, with a will to survive that illustrates to us all just how precious life is. In exceptional circumstances, he made exceptional choices and took exceptional action.

Abas Amini has also found himself in exceptional circumstances, made exceptional choices and taken exceptional action. His latest exceptional action, like Mr Ralston's, involves self-mutilation in the face of death. Mr Amini has chosen to sew up his eyes, his mouth and his ears in protest against the certain execution he says he would face in Iran if Britain were to reject his asylum claim and deport him.

Beyond this though, the parallels between the two men disappear. Mr Amini says he is now ready to die. He is on hunger strike and holds by him a can of petrol, with which he threatens to immolate himself if anyone tries to effect a medical intervention. He has tried and failed to take control of his life. Now Mr Amini is in control, but only of his own death.

Mr Ralston, even in his most vulnerable hour, remained utterly certain of his overwhelming desire to live, the master of his own destiny. Mr Amini's problem - or one of many - is that he has spent his whole life fighting to achieve such a luxury. First, from the age of 12, he struggled against a government lately identified as part of an "axis of evil". For the last couple of years, he has been the passive victim of a British government policy geared always to distrust and to dehumanise people such as Mr Amini when they arrive on our shores seeking sanctuary.

There was no need for us to see pictures of Mr Ralston's injuries for us fully to grasp what he had done to himself, and why. Mr Amini's face, though, has been published widely. The viewer looks and turns away, turns the page, revolted, fascinated, repelled.

We do not want to see Mr Amini's injuries any more than we want to see Mr Ralston's. But Mr Amini's must be shown, for they are not the simple result of a death-defying survival choice. Instead, they are something more complex - a political protest and a symbol of oppression. Mr Amini has deliberately rendered himself unable to see, to hear or to speak, in order to illustrate how unable the world is to see him, to hear him or to speak with or for him. This gesture ought to be a powerful one. Instead, the gesture is as powerless as Mr Amini clearly feels himself to be.

This is not only because Mr Amini, after many bureaucratic setbacks, has now been granted asylum, even though this is an important aspect of the ghastly tale. Those who rail against asylum-seekers, and rubbish them as bogus, like to believe that they remain in sympathy with genuine cases, even though they prefer to close their own eyes, ears and mouths to the realities of what impact their vile propaganda has on those genuine cases.

The story of Mr Amini ought to give them pause for thought, even though already it can be seen that it is not. Mr Amini took action when a decision to give him asylum - this man with evidence of torture written on his body, and evidence of trauma etched on his mind - was appealed against by the Home Office on a technicality. So it is easy to dismiss Mr Amini's pain and protest not as the result of a widely prevalent mindset, but as the result of a government's inability to "get a grip on the issue". In this way, Mr Amini's self-harm can be seen as confirmation of government failure rather than of racial victimisation.

Further, if any people are despised more by the propagandists of this new and sinister mutation of racial hatred than asylum-seekers themselves, it is those in this country who speak for them and form into pressure groups campaigning for change. These people are seen as the enemy within, politically correct ideologues motivated by their disdain for "British values".

Mr Amini is now being portrayed not as a victim of the West's lack of willingness to offer refuge. Instead, he is said to be the pawn of these extremist groups, which have somehow manipulated Mr Amini into doing not what is best for him but best for their cause (as if the two things were different).

This in turn feeds right back into the basic, inhuman, policy that those who revile asylum-seekers employ. By claiming Mr Amini is not responsible himself for his protest, the promoters of hate employ an old trick which calls into question the autonomy and independent humanity of asylum-seekers, and presents them as victims so passive or even amoral as to be sub-human.

Finally, the very nature of Mr Amini's protest encourages not understanding but repulsion. Those wishing to distance themselves from Mr Amini's distress will find it easy to do so. The fear and hatred of asylum-seekers, as is usually the case, is rooted in the distrust of their difference. The very fact that these people have suffered so greatly, under circumstances we cannot imagine, makes them fearful in the eyes of many.

Mr Amini's act will simply confirm many of those crude fears. Asylum-seekers are extreme people from different cultures, unamenable to our own, dangerous to the social fabric, goes the argument. Whatever sympathy many feel for his plight, it will be overlaid by need to push the humanity of Mr Amini away, instead of embracing it.

On the same day as the first pictures of Mr Amini were published in the national press, the "think-tank" Civitas published a report on asylum policy. "Britain appears to be in the process of being turned upside down," claimed Richard Coleman, "particularly in respect of policing, criminal justice and immigration control, by inappropriate reactions to tragic individual ethnic victims and the demands of pressure groups." The implication - that asylum-seekers are criminals and that sympathy for the inhuman treatment they may have suffered is foolish sentimentality - is plain.

Mr Coleman also opined that these unspecified problems were caused by the "failure of the British political system to control migration flows in the first place and to establish better integration policies". Again, the implication is plain - that too many asylum-seekers are allowed into Britain.

The truth is that last year's record numbers of asylum-seekers - 120,000 - are a drop in the ocean of suffering that millions undergo in the world. The wonder is not that so many turn to Britain but that so few do. Mr Amini's face tells us why that is. But in a society that would rather cut someone else's arm off to save its advantages for itself than risk a scratch on its little finger, Britain is not a land that even acknowledges heroes, let alone welcomes them.