Saturday, September 22, 2007

Human Cargo - Caroline Moorehead

Title: Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees
Author: Caroline Moorehead
Country: UK
Year: 2005
Rating: A
Pages: 397 pgs.

First sentence: One day a man in a country in Africa was arrested and accused of belonging to an illegal opposition group.

This is my last selection for the Non-fiction Five Challenge hosted by Joy at Thoughts of Joy!

It is a rarity to see a book published about refugees, and even fewer are geared towards the general public. Ever since I first heard about Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees, I couldn't wait to see what it held. What I found is a book interesting to both individuals who know very little about the immigration system, and those who work in the refugee field.

Although many personal accounts are included in the narrative, much of the book is an examination of the refugee protection system in various countries around the world. A large focus is on the process of being declared a refugee (although a refugee is always a refugee, it only becomes official when the UNHCR or country providing protection declares you as one), and the stories are of asylum seekers in the midst of this process (asylum seekers, or asylees in America, is the term used to describe a person whose application for protection is currently being determined). Caroline Moorehead presents facts that are concise and well-researched, while gently reminding the reader that we are talking about real people who are being treated inhumanely.

I was delighted to find a book largely about asylum seekers, since I have worked with many people in this stage of the refugee application process; it's about time their experiences after fleeing persecution are brought to light. Her argument mirrors the same stand that I took in my master's thesis on forced migration (and our sources also largely overlap, as we were apparently researching the same topic around the same time): that there is a lot of gray area in regards to the issues that cause people to flee their home, and there is not a clear-cut distinction between economic migrants and refugees. 'For him, the distinction between economic migrant and asylum seeker has little meaning, when people are driven to the margins by need: "Do people have to die in order to work? Something has to be wrong."' (p. 86)

The 1951 Refugee Convention, which gives the world its definition of a refugee, is outdated and needs to be changed. Moorehead also backs up my belief that came about through my work experience that the Australian government has introduced one of the most exclusionary immigration policies of any democracy (p.119). However, I was saddened, but not surprised, to see that many of the problems I witnessed in Australia and America (asylum seekers denied the right to work and support themselves, huge backlogs, difficulties with providing evidence and accessing interpreters, general feelings of aimlessness and depression) are found throughout the world, as countries make somewhat irrational distinctions between "good" refugees--those from communist countries, or those who wait in a fictional queue in a refugee camp--and "bad" refugees: asylum seekers.

The Other Lost Boys: Liberians living in limbo in Cairo:

"What these lost boys had seen and been forced to do is not something others cared to hear about." (p.10)

"What is happening in Cairo today is happening all over the world; as the funds are cut and the number of asylum seekers keeps on growing, as the West becomes more fearful and more isolated, those who man the gates in Cairo are under pressure to search ever more keenly for lies and inconsistencies, while refugees despair." (p.12)
One asylum seekers' despair:
"But who is to say what is credible when you have been shot at by rebels, when you have seen your mother raped and your brothers and sisters burnt to death in your house, when your father has disappeared and you are now alone in the world? When you are ashamed to describe to the young woman sitting across the desk from you with her tapping pencil and inquisitive eyes what the soldiers did to you and how you are afraid that you may have AIDS from being raped by the guards and how you ache for news of your family whom you really know perfectly well that you will never see again?"(p.23)


Literary Feline said...

This is a book that is on my wishlist that I someday hope to read. Your review solidifies its position on my wishlist. I definitely have to read this one.

Nyssaneala said...

literary feline - I read the book straight through, but it is also set up almost as a series of essays, which makes it easier to pick up and put down at your leisure. I look forward to hearing what you think after you read it!

Jeane said...

This sounds like such a good book! I am going to put it on the top of my wishlist. Great review!

Vivian said...

We are starting an international book club next month focused around refugee issues. Human Cargo will be the first book we read. Although you clearly have read it some time ago, we would love for you to take part and offer your comments. Please check us out at and contact me, Vivian for more details. It is my hope to get more people aware and involved with the refugee issue. Thanks.