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Stories of flight

12 May 2005

Peter Mares reviews a new book that reveals the complex and diverse reasons why people leave their home country

Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees
by Caroline Moorehead
Chatto & Windus, $44.95

CAROLINE MOOREHEAD is the kind of journalist and writer that Germans would describe as engagiert - committed. She does more than just write about a subject, she engages with it, becoming both practically and emotionally involved. In Moorehead’s case this meant finding the time and the money to help establish a legal advice service and educational programs for asylum seekers stuck in limbo in Cairo, and trying, over the course of several years, to keep track of a group of young men and women (mostly men) from Liberia - she calls them ‘the lost boys of Cairo’ - as they struggled to build new lives in new lands. Some of the stories have a more or less happy conclusion; others end in tragedy.

Philip Ruddock would describe Moorehead’s lost Liberians as ‘queue jumpers’, since they did not deign to wait indefinitely in long term refugee camps in Guinea but instead sought a future for themselves as illegal immigrants in the Egyptian capital. The brutal uncertainty of life in Cairo’s slums offers some prospect of opportunity and change; in the camps, there is only boredom and slow-motion starvation. When Moorehead takes us to the camps, we can be left in no doubt that the young Liberians’ decision to leave was justified.

Moorhead’s epic ‘journey among refugees’ takes in the site of a shipwrecked asylum boat in Sicily; a former nurses hostel called ‘Angel Heights’ in Newcastle in the north of England, to which asylum seekers have been ‘dispersed’ to get them out of London; the refugee camps that have turned into towns in Lebanon, where Palestinians have lived in exile for more than three generations; the fortified US-Mexico border, where highway signs warn drivers to be wary of scurrying families rather than scuttling wildlife; post-Taliban Afghanistan, where displaced people returned in great numbers with great dreams and even greater burdens; northern Finland, where a well-meaning but perhaps misguided program has resettled Sudanese Dinkas from the heat and colour of Africa to quiet apartments in a land of snow and endless night; and, of course, the Baxter detention centre near Port Augusta in South Australia.

In each place she introduces us to characters and tells their stories, reminding us of the complex and diverse reasons for human movement and of the remarkable human capacity to endure and overcome. Along the way Moorehead weaves in a brief history of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, detailed observations on refugee and migration policies around the globe and a thoughtful exploration on the illness of exile and its possible cures.

This is a dense book, yet wonderfully easy to read. But in the strength of Moorehead’s work also lies its weakness. In taking the side of the refugees, she provides us with a compelling account of the failings of the international system of protection in the contemporary world without offering us much in the way of alternative policy. For example, she describes in vivid detail the flow of undocumented migrants across the Mexican border into the US, but does not attempt to disentangle the problematic issue of ‘mixed flows’ - irregular migrants using the avenue of asylum to gain access to developed nations. She does not debate the question of open borders or to what extent border controls might be redesigned or relaxed. But perhaps that was too much to ask given the already ambitious scope of her literary journey. We can only hope that Moorehead’s eloquent story telling will encourage others to redouble their efforts to come up with ‘generous yet realistic measures’ that can improve the plight of the world’s displaced people. •

Peter Mares works at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology and is the author of Borderline: Australia’s Response to Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the Wake of the Tampa (UNSW Press 2002).

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