US, with ‘mild’ Muslim travel ban, welcomes flood of visitors

Image caption Mohamed Nasser, a Palestinian from Gaza whose wife and two children died in a US-bound plane crash in Sudan in 2015

As the United States reopens its borders to Muslim people following President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban, the number of international arrivals has surged.

The largest increase came from four Muslim-majority countries, according to data from the US Customs and Border Protection.

Women traveling alone have seen a 50% rise.

Countries which account for 63% of overall entries are the majority of Muslim states.

They are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Syria.

Amir Shahriar Peirce is a religious affairs specialist at Iranian embassy in London.

He told the BBC that prior to the travel ban he regularly saw the embassy bracing itself for large numbers of Iranian families, seeking to return home from neighbouring countries such as Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

In the summer of 2016, he said the idea was accepted there were “urgent situations” on the continent and that more people needed to be protected.

It was necessary, he said, that their numbers were checked before entering the United States in case they were on a no-fly list.

“They [families] would apply for [passports] knowing that going to the US is not a guarantee to travel,” he added.

Those numbers surged this year when the United States banned certain foreign nationals from six countries from entering the country.

The regulations appeared to have been blocked by a federal judge in Seattle, who agreed that “for the 21st time in six years… discrimination … is based on nationality”.

Musharraf Ismail, a political analyst in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, says security-related changes happened “following the Paris terrorist attacks and the California shooting”.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had said the US travel rules “represents a violation of the rights of all Muslims”.

ISIS had also threatened to strike the US, Mr Ismail says.

The surge in visitors means the US has now exported more tourists than it has spent, meaning that “they have enough now to cover their spending”, Mr Ismail says.

‘Very nervous’

Iranian-American social worker Ali Akbar Akhavan agreed that this summer “the number of arrivals from the Middle East was very high and it was a shock to us”.

“I heard a lot of discussions in the past weeks about terrorist attacks and how this added to the scale of the problem,” he says.

In 2016, about 8.6 million people travelled from the Middle East. But this year numbers are almost triple the level of last year.

For US-based Shahriar Peirce of the Iranian embassy, the mood has changed too.

“Iranians are very nervous,” he says.

“Many Iranians travel regularly but this last [year] they were coming to the embassy with more demand and the process has become more protracted and more complicated.”

According to the US government, 100 people in total arrived in the US on tourist, business and student visas in January-May of this year.

It’s not just Muslim countries where there has been a spike in international arrivals.

There has been a 75% increase in Iraqi and Pakistani nationals – who are predominantly Christian and Muslim respectively – being granted asylum over that time.

Only 9,337 people from 65 countries were granted asylum in May, the lowest total ever seen during that time period.

Image caption Refugee, Ayid, fled Iraq in 2010

A Yazidi Yazidi from Iraq fled the Isis stronghold of Mosul as soon as the Islamic State group overran the city, Ayid Hikmet remembers.

“The terrorists first began praying and then began to cleanse the city. We arrived to camps that were filled with many Syrian families, who had moved here when Daesh took over Mosul,” he told the BBC in London.

He does not think they stayed much longer than a few days before refugees were forced to flee or they were killed.

The US is now home to 3.3 million refugees – about 21% of the world’s total.

All passports and visas submitted to US authorities have to be verified by another country before they are issued, although this is not absolute protection.

Interviews by Zainab Bega, Hannah Evans, Rekha Rajgopal, Dan Cassock, Ashley Heapy and Yazan Mawas

Leave a Comment