Sunday, October 1, 2006

Travelling People (2006)

Book Review from the October 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Caroline Moorehead: Human Cargo: a Journey among Refugees. Vintage.

The title says it all really: human beings shunted from one place to another, in response to political events, and treated as objects to be kept at arm's length or sent back as quickly as possible to wherever they came from. There are perhaps 12 million refugees in the world today, and twice that number of internally displaced people (IDPs), who get less attention, and also less financial support when they return to their homes.

Caroline Moorehead visited a number of areas where refugees live (or survive is perhaps a better word) and talked to many people. She starts in Cairo, full of 'lost boys' from other parts of Africa, originally mainly from Sudan but now increasingly from Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and elsewhere. Many asylum-seekers from Africa travel first to Italy, to Sicily and to Lampedusa, a small island less than 100 miles from the coast of Tunisia; many drown on the way there.

Between Mexico and California is a fence designed to reduce the flow of Mexican migrants northwards. The border is deliberately kept semi-closed, as the US needs some (but not too much) cheap Mexican labour power. But it is still policed in a draconian manner: for instance, a canal which provides a possible crossing point has been converted on the US side so that it's hard to climb out once you've swum over. Over two thousand people have died trying to cross the border, ten times the number who lost their lives trying to escape over the Berlin Wall.

Meanwhile, Australia has an extremely tough line on asylum, following its earlier racist 'White Australia' policy. Would-be migrants from Indonesia and elsewhere in south-east Asia have a hard time even getting there, following the introduction of Operation Relex, which involves naval vessels and aircraft turning back boats of asylum-seekers. Many of those who actually make it to Australia may be locked up indefinitely, despite having committed no crime.

Some Palestinians who fled their homes when Israel was established in 1948 have spent over fifty years in refugee camps - not many, though, because life in a refugee camp is hard and few can survive that long. Many more in number are the children born in camps, to parents who were themselves born there too.

Often, also, refugees are driven to suicide since their stories of violence back home may not be believed. One young Iranian killed himself in Newcastle in 2003, leaving a note that said, 'You have to kill yourself in this country, to prove that you would be killed in your own country.'

One encouraging aspect of the book is the way that local people, from Sicily to Australia and Newcastle, have rallied to support and help refugees in their midst. It is one thing to rail against those who are allegedly coming to steal jobs or live as scroungers, but it is quite another to encounter the hopelessness and destitution of people who just want somewhere to live without persecution and bring up their family.

Moorehead makes a number of good points: that migration is 'the unfinished business of globalisation', and that nobody wants to be a refugee. 'Why', she asks, 'should something as arbitrary as where one is born determine where one is allowed to live?' The answer, sadly, is that under capitalism, artificial lines on maps divide the world into different camps, which enable those who own the earth to defend their bit of it and to make claims on other bits. A sensible society would have no concept of refugeehood or any of the other states of oppression so movingly described here.
Paul Bennett