May 11, 2006

Human Cargo

I recently read Caroline Moorehead’s book Human Cargo, A Journey Among Refugees. I still haven’t absorbed all that there is in the book, I think because she writes it as the journalist that she is. She just tells the stories. And, since these stories are about human beings, they don’t lend themselves to easy answers or quick solutions. She begins with a brisk history of the modern human rights movement, starting with the founding of the Red Cross in the nineteenth century, and traces its development through the crisis created by the tens of millions of displaced people in Europe after the Second World War to the present structures of asylum policies, refugee camps, and human smuggling.

The core of the book is a survey of the issues and situations suffered by refugees throughout the world. One describes a group of African asylum seekers, whose boat crashed on the coast of Sicily. At first, the local people, full of sympathy for the refugees, many of whom died in the crash, embraced them and helped them get settled and even found them a little work and support. Over time, though, the situation got more complex, for a whole set of reasons: the refugees’ ambiguous legal status, the limited opportunities for them in this poor section of Italy, the barrier of language difference, and post-traumatic stress.

Another describes the draconian measures taken in Australia to control the influx of refugees, many fleeing the wars Afghanistan and Iraq. These included turning ships away along the coast, even if they were in danger of sinking, locking people up in prisons under deplorable conditions, and arbitrary acceptance policies that, in practice, amount to psychological torture. She also describes the plight of asylum seekers who make it to Great Britain and then find themselves dispersed across the country, isolated from others who share their situation and almost totally without support.

The most harrowing chapters deal with the long-term refugee camps in Guinea and the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Guinea, a neighbor to Ivory Coast and Liberia, has received waves of refugees from those countries over decades. The squalor and hopelessness and rock-bottom poverty of these camps is heart-breaking. Equally so, the plight of the Palestinians, dispossessed during the Naqba, or “disaster” of 1948, and repeatedly brutalized, attacked, moved, and discriminated against in the years since.

The last stories that she tells are some relief, though they are not without their poignancy and pain. With the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and the renewal of hope that the decades of civil war could end, the country experienced a dramatic influx of its citizens from refuges around the world, though mostly from Iran and Pakistan. The hope and energy that these returning refugees bring to the country, still suffering and struggling, offer some evidence that dispossession can be reversed. The final story is about a cohort of Dinka, from the Sudan, who have settled in north of Finland. They, obviously, have had struggles with adjustment, not the least with the cold and the long nights in winter. But the Finns have worked hard to support their new citizens, have made adjustments, and achieved some success. This offers some additional evidence that, if people can’t go home again, it is possible, with the right policies and resources and neighbors and attitude, for them to make a new life, in a new land.

It was nothing but an accident that this latest immigration fuss erupted while I was reading it. It was timely, however, as an antidote to the simplistic and inhumane terms of the discussion. By contrast, this account is a humane, layered, complex, and clear-eyed look at what happens to people when, for any number of reasons, they are unable to stay in their homes.

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