Blogging the road 2 Timbuktu
When Free Movement Is Banned The Free Should Keep Moving
Trump's Muslim travel ban is non-sensical but western travellers have been listening to nonsense politics and banning themselves from Muslim countries for years. It is time for travellers to realise their power to change the world.
The US must be at a very high security risk for its President to be banning people from entering the country on the basis of nationality or creed. There must be high grade intelligence, 'noise' on the airwaves, someone somewhere must know something.
Of course assumptions of a correlation between policy and reality are naive in our brave new alternative fact world of Trump and Brexit. Trump's travel ban on some Muslim countries (forgetting the 9/11 Saudis) is similar to the Brexit demand to curb free movement. Both are really about political expediency rather than the issue they seek to address: security in the case of Trump, jobs in the case of Brexit. The travel ban will not prevent a terrorist attack, curbing free movement will not create one job. Indeed in both cases the opposite of what is intended is likely to happen, the travel ban will fuel resentment from the Muslim world and curbing free movement will reduce jobs.
In the case of Trump's travel ban, what is the difference between banning Muslims coming in to western lands and the west warning their citizens from visiting Muslim lands? In both instances the act of travelling is deemed the risk, the creed or nationality of people deemed the problem, prevent the traveller going to certain places and you will kill the risk of terrorism, it is assumed. One problem: terrorism does not respect borders, visas or advice.
Some of us have been watching the west build these walls of nonsense around travel for a long time. For years now western governments have been advising, alerting, and warning their citizens from travelling to Muslim lands. Imaginary walls have been erected across Africa, Arabia and Persia.
But there is one crucial difference. Here it is not just the politicians who are to blame. It is mainly you, the western traveller. You have been Trumping yourselves because unlike Muslims travelling to the US, you were not banned.
You banned yourselves. You stayed away, you went elsewhere, you took some other plane, perhaps to Paris or Brussels or South Africa instead, somewhere you felt safer. South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in Africa and yet no one thinks twice about travelling there BECAUSE it is not a Muslim country.
Since 2008, travel alerts were placed on Mali because of the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism. Malians were bemused. At this point, to most people in Mali, terrorism was something that happened in the west. The first "terror" incident against tourists within Mali's borders was in November 2011 when 3 tourists were kidnapped. This was far more to do with the the fact that a month earlier Colonel Gaddafi had been murdered and half his army had fled across the Sahara to Mali than to general internal insecurity.
What was the reality of the risk to you the traveller in the 4 years between alerts and event?
Well, in the Sahara region, an area the size of the USA, about twenty five Europeans were kidnapped, of whom a handful were tourists and one was killed. Most hostages were NGOs or 'expat' workers as their movements are much more easily tracked than tourists'.
In the same period that the Sahara had 6 tourists kidnapped, America lost about 50,000 people to gun crime on its own streets.
You might feel I am not comparing like for like. So let's look at this differently.
America has a population of 300 million. Mali about 15 million. Mali is 5% the size of America in terms of population. In an average year America loses about 12,000 people to gun crime on its streets. At 5% of 12,000, if Mali was as risky as America, it would lose on average 600 people to guns.
In January 2012, following events in Libya, Mali fell into a crisis that went from a rebellion to a coup d'etat, to a rebel take over of half the country followed by an Al Qaeda invasion to usurp the rebels, and finally a French military intervention to liberate the north. In all this under 400 lives were lost, the vast majority were military combatants of one type or another. Even in Mali's year of total crisis when it had no government and Al Qaeda occupied half the country an American, or any tourist for that matter, was safer wandering around Bamako than New York.
Like Trump's ban and Brexit, these alerts had the opposite effect from that intended which was presumably to secure the traveller. In turning yourselves away from Mali you travellers created the vacuum that sucked in the terrorists. They were not here when you were here. But once you left our guides, hotels, travel operators, artisans, cooks, waiters, drivers, beggars and shopkeepers had nothing to do, less income, nothing to look forward to. They got poorer, desperate and angry and the resentment divided the country along the very line where tourist could and could not go. Perhaps, as angry people do, Malians listened more attentively to the crazy man at the lectern spouting nonsense for "votes" and pointing to you as the source of their problems, just like Trump and the Leave campaign did. The migrant traveller is always to blame! When four tourists who could see beyond the scaremongering arrived in Timbuktu in November 2011 they were more visible, more noticed and the natural instinct inherent in all communities to protect the stranger and their own economic interests was diminished, because the tourist income had gone, the few that were there were small fry.
The whole Saharan and West African regions, and Mali in particular, are on their knees still today, not because there is insecurity but because there are no tourists. Manny Ansar, the director of the Festival In The Desert, once said to me "When there are no tourists it is like you are blind. You cannot see yourself and forget what you look like." As we have seen in Mali, the effects of blindness and communities wandering in the dark are devastating.
Travel alerts do not protect tourism, they kill it. If you kill tourism you create the conditions of insecurity that you are warning against - exactly what terrorism wants. In the internet age, the notion that you can protect people physically from an idea or an event that is by nature borderless and unpredictable is frankly ludicrous.
As Manny Ansar pointed to, the traveller is a mirror to us all of our common humanity, a great force for communication and understanding in our divided world.
For those of us not affected by the ban we'll carry on going to America. We know that despite Trump's fear mongering America is a pretty safe travelling bet. We know that despite the ban, Americans will continue picking up guns and walking into their schools, or blowing people away in the streets and that the gunman we are extremely unlikely to meet is much more likely to be white and Christian than black or Muslim, but we also know that despite all of this, the chances are we'll have a ball, even if the airport is a hassle and awash with Robo Cop security.
The traveller is the best ambassador for peace that the world has. Rise above the fear, resist the politics and travel to save the world. Despite all the noise we are living in the quietest and safest of times for travel.