Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees

Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees

by Caroline Moorehead

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National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

Traveling for nearly two years and across four continents, Caroline Moorehead takes readers on a journey to understand why millions of people are forced to abandon their homes, possessions, and families in order to find a place where they may, quite literally, be allowed to live. Moorehead's experience living and working with refugees puts a human face on the news, providing unforgettable portraits of the refugees she meets in Cairo, Guinea, Sicily, Lebanon, England, Australia, Finland, and at the U.S.-Mexico border. Human Cargo changes our understanding of what it means to have and lose a place in the world, and reveals how the refugee "problem" is on a par with global crises such as terrorism and world hunger.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312425616
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 03/21/2006
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Caroline Moorehead is the author of Gellhorn, and has been a columnist covering human rights for two British newspapers. She has worked directly with African refugees in Cairo in recent years. She lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Human Cargo

A Journey Among Refugees

By Caroline Moorehead


Copyright © 2006 Caroline Moorehead
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0073-7



* * *

Displacement is like death. One thinks it happens only to other people.


When Henri Dunant arrived home from the battle of Solferino in June 1859, full of disgust and pity at the treatment of wounded soldiers, Geneva was a small, pious, scholarly city, where people lived modestly and regarded themselves as enlightened conservatives. In the narrow streets of the fine old town, up and down the Grande Rue where the rich, long-established families lived, they had long felt pride not only in the number and variety of their philanthropic endeavors, but also in the welcome they extended to the people they called aliens, the foreigners and political refugees like Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who had come to settle along the shores of their lake, and whom they regarded as assets and not as liabilities. For all their instinctive misgivings about Dunant's impetuousness and touches of vanity, the Genevois quickly perceived that there was much luster to be gained for their city in his impassioned pleas for humane action in the conduct of war. Soon, committees were meeting to draft articles on the laws of war, on the care of wounded soldiers, and on injuries caused by particular kinds of weapons. They were not the first proposals for the regulation of warfare, but they were more ambitious than most that had gone before, and the timing was right. In 1863, the Red Cross movement was born and the next year the first Geneva Convention was drafted and presented for signature to the nations of the world. The Genevois took immense pleasure in their new initiative, though by now Dunant himself was an outcast, victim of a foolish financial speculation, consigned to obscurity until unexpectedly awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize as an old man nearly forty years later.

Geneva's credentials for the new humanitarian movement were excellent. Switzerland was strategically placed at the heart of Europe, its absolute neutrality sanctioned by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and again by the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, since when it had welcomed a steady flow of people at times of European unrest. It was prosperous and it was pacifist. Not surprising, then, that when millions of people were made stateless by the dismantling of the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and the collapse of tsarist Russia, it was to Geneva that the world looked for the creation of an organization to care for those fleeing chaos, famine, and persecution. By then the League of Nations had been set up in the Palais des Nations, not far from the lake. For the International Committee of the Red Cross, just up the road, deeply involved in refugee matters and enjoying considerable international prestige as a result of its work during World War I, it was an obvious step to put pressure on the new League to care for refugees.

In 1921, the League persuaded the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen — he was sixty and would have preferred to pursue his scientific interests — to take the job of negotiating the repatriation of some 500,000 Russian prisoners of war; the following year, he was appointed the League's first High Commissioner for Refugees. Nansen received little funding, but he possessed a great deal of passion and energy. He persuaded governments to recognize travel documents for stateless Russians — the "Nansen passport"— and then turned his attention to helping the hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians, Romanians, Magyars, and Armenians — the latter, survivors of the Turkish massacres — all now wandering around Europe, repeatedly turned away at borders. "Once they had left their homeland," wrote Hannah Arendt in the 1950s, "they remained homeless; once they had left their state, they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their rights, they became rightless, the scum of the earth."

Nansen worked extremely hard all through the 1920s. By his death in 1930, he had almost single-handedly helped a large number of people and established a principle of moral responsibility for the displaced; but that principle had as yet very little bite, and could do little to help the Jews who by the early 1930s were already looking for safety from Nazi rule and finding the doors of western states closed against them. In 1933, the League of Nations set up a High Commissioner for Refugees from Germany, but so anxious was it not to offend the German government, still at this point a member of the League, that it agreed to regard the treatment of Jews solely as an internal affair and to confine its attentions to emigration and travel documents, with no questions asked about domestic conditions and the causes for flight. An outspoken early commissioner, James G. McDonald, resigned in despair in 1936. Two years later, the Germans left the League, but even so the Western governments remained reluctant to offend them. When it came to human lives, McDonald urged bitterly but without effect, "considerations of diplomatic correctness must yield to those of common humanity."

The economic depression that spread across North America and Europe in the 1930s did much to set back the refugee cause. National interests, governments argued, would be best served by imposing tough limits on immigration. In country after country, ever more restrictive laws, aimed at keeping out all but carefully selected groups, were passed. Only under considerable pressure from Jewish associations did President Roosevelt agree, in 1938, to call an international conference at Evian, at which to discuss ways to resettle the Jews now trying to escape Austria and Germany. Evian is a shameful milestone in the history of refugee affairs. Delegates from most of the major Western powers rose to talk about their own national levels of unemployment and to argue that the movement of so many Jewish refugees could only be "disturbing to the general economy." Evian offered no lifeline to the Jews of Europe. All it achieved was the creation of a feeble intergovernmental committee on refugees, unable either to persuade Germany to allow its Jewish citizens to emigrate with money or possessions, or to convince Great Britain not to curtail the immigration of Jews into Palestine. Germany, encouraged by the world's evident indifference to the suffering of the Jews as well as to the other unwanted members of its population, set about stepping up its own punishments and restrictions. Nansen's dream of a world that took responsibility for the fate of those who fell victim to human rights abuses and were forced to flee their homes lay in ruins.

* * *

BY EARLY 1945, there were more than 40 million people drifting about Europe, stateless, displaced, lost. There were Germans, trying to go home; there were the survivors of the concentration camps of occupied Europe; there were the people whose countries and homes had been swallowed up when borders had been redrawn and territory changed hands. Many of these people, Russians and Czechs, Poles and Hungarians, Ukrainians and Romanians, found themselves in Germany, where almost everything — houses, roads, railway lines, water supplies, industry, agriculture — had collapsed.

The Western powers had been preparing for this moment. In November 1943, meetings had been held by the Allies to discuss what relief measures would be necessary when the Axis countries were at last defeated. Mindful of their lack of generosity in the prewar years and appalled by the knowledge now emerging from the occupied countries of the German atrocities, forty-four states agreed to donate large sums to assist and repatriate the displaced. Between the autumn of 1943 and the summer of 1947, a UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, employing at its peak more than 27,000 people, spent $3.6 billion, the bulk of it given by the United States. One of UNRRA's many tasks, debated at some length at both the Yalta and the Potsdam conferences, was how to repatriate as quickly and as efficiently as possible all those wanting to return home at the end of hostilities. Unlike its predecessors, UNRRA proved effective. In the first five months of peace, three quarters of the displaced went home.

However, it soon became apparent that not everyone actually wanted to go home, particularly as news began reaching the West that Stalin was sending many of those who returned straight to the gulags. By 1946 repatriation had all but stopped, and a million people were still in Europe's refugee camps. Unlike earlier refugees, who had fled their countries in the 1920s and 1930s and could not go home because they were not wanted, these were people who were wanted — if only for reasons of revenge — but who were themselves unwilling to go home.

It was in New York and Washington, rather than in Geneva, that the next step in the refugee story took place. At the heart of the postwar sessions debating the new United Nations, and among those drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the talk was all about the rights of people, their right to flee from oppression, to express their own views, to practice their own faiths, and to choose for themselves where they wanted to live. Refugees, lacking state protection, became people of international concern and subject to international protection. And their problems were no longer understood simply as a matter of groups of people, fleeing and assisted together, but of individuals, with their own cases, their own choices and fears and anxieties. According to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration, every individual was to have the "right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

UNRRA had been established to deal with repatriations. As its chief funder, America now decided to wind up its activities. In the face of bitter opposition from the Eastern Bloc, which continued to call on its former citizens to come home, the United States voted to create a new body, the International Refugee Organization. The IRO's mandate was subtly different: to "resettle" people uprooted by war. The Soviets refused to join, accusing the West of turning refugee camps into centers of anticommunist propaganda and using them to recruit the forced labor needed to rebuild western Europe's shattered countries. But an important step had been taken. Under IRO's mandate fell a vital new element: the protection not merely of groups but of individuals with valid objections to being repatriated. During the four and a half years of IRO's existence, barely 50,000 people returned to their former homes in central or eastern Europe.

The question now was what to do with those who remained in the camps for displaced people. The fit and healthy were soon recruited for the very labor schemes so condemned by the Russians. In return for volunteering to build roads, or work in the mines, industry, and agriculture in the United States, Canada, and Australia and across Europe, refugees could apply for citizenship in the countries that offered them work. No one, however, wanted the sick or the elderly, and as the Cold War dragged on, 400,000 "hardcore" cases lingered on in the camps. Before finally shutting down its operations — which, at $428.5 million, had proved expensive — IRQ officials warned that what once had seemed a temporary phenomenon would in time turn out to be a very permanent one.

* * *

IT WAS NOW 1950. The United States, having spent many millions of dollars on refugees in Europe, decided that the problem was no longer theirs to deal with, particularly as they were now helping European countries directly through the Marshall Plan, which in turn would, they argued, benefit the refugees as well. What neither they, nor it seems anyone else, envisaged was a world in which refugees would keep on coming, as the IRC) had warned. War, famine, violence, and poverty would send people fleeing across borders, and as fighting broke out in Korea and Palestine and starvation spread across China, it became plain that yet another measure would be needed to counter these new flows of displaced people. In the United Nations, talks began about the setting up of a new body, an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and a new convention that would spell out their rights. Louis Henkin was a young lawyer at the U.S. State Department, interested in international law, when he was invited by his boss, Dean Rusk, to sit with the U.S. team negotiating what became the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. With him were delegates from twenty-six countries. Professor Henkin, a courteous, upright man with a bony face and rather large ears, is now in his late eighties and the only member of the committee still alive. He remembers many hours devoted to wrangling over the meaning of the word "refugee," and a general ill-defined feeling that the topic did not have great significance for the modern world. There was much talk about whether there should be a "right" to asylum, or only the right to "seek" it. The all-important Article 33, about nonrefoulement — the not sending back of refugees to countries where they faced persecution — was pushed through by the French, who reminded the others of the fate of the Jews trying to flee the Nazis. The nations of eastern Europe declined to attend the sessions, saying that in their view the refugees left in the camps in Europe were all traitors, and the United States argued strongly that the new organization's mandate should be one of protection only, not of assistance or relief, and that its budget should be limited. The meetings, Professor Henkin recalls, which took place in Washington and on the shores of Lake Geneva, were on the whole good-tempered, but not without argument, for the British wanted host states to bear responsibility for the refugees on their territory (and had very few) while the French (who had many) wanted other countries to share the burden. Germany, Austria, and Italy, all of which were overwhelmed by the large numbers of refugees still living in camps, had no voice at the table.

The document that emerged — in a surprisingly short space of time, little more than six weeks — was a simple reflection of the immediate postwar world. The terms it came up with remain in use to this day. The definition of a refugee, according to Article 1 of the Convention, revolved around the idea of persecution, "a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." The phrase "asylum seeker" would apply to someone seeking refugee status. The persecutors, it was tacitly agreed, were the totalitarian Communist regimes, and the refugees were therefore, by definition, "good." "Bad" refugees lay well into the future. In the 1950s, "good" refugees were seen to be useful pawns in Cold War diplomacy. "Migrants," it was spelled out, were people who could go home; "refugees" were those who could not. That there would soon be people fleeing in great numbers from poverty, generalized violence, or lives without bearable futures, was not foreseen. The "durable solutions" to the lives of refugees, which UNHCR undertook to explore, included resettlement in another country, integration nearby, or (only if the refugee wished it) repatriation. In 2004, the Refugee Convention, together with the 1967 Protocol that extended its scope beyond Europe to take in the rest of the world, remains the most important international document on refugee protection. It is the foundation of EU policy toward refugees, and ratification is a condition of European Union membership.

In 1951, however, it reflected the concerns of the day. The decision was taken not to include the 458,000 exiled Palestinians who, for political reasons, were to be assisted by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, with the result that there would be no international organization to protect them. And there was much discussion about what groups UNHCR should concern itself with. "Internally displaced" people — later called IDPs — who had not crossed an international border in their flight, were eventually excluded. Sovereignty was not challenged. While the new agency could assist or at least protect refugees once they had fled over a border, it was not invited to concern itself with what had led them to leave home in the first place. UNHCR, opening its doors for business in Geneva, not far from the Palais des Nations and in the company of a growing number of aid agencies and international organizations now clustering together in Switzerland, was given a very small budget, an emergency fund to be used only in dire necessity, a few rooms, and a handful of staff.


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Table of Contents


A Refugee Story,
Prologue: The Lost Boys of Cairo,
Part One: A View of History,
1. The Homeless and the Rightless,
Part Two: Leaving,
2. Gli Extracommitari: Sicily's Boat People,
3. The Fence: The Migrants of San Diego and Tijuana,
Part Three: Arriving,
4. Fair Go: Australia and the Policy of,
Mandatory Detention,
5. Newcastle and the Politics of Dispersal,
6. Little Better than Cockroaches: Guinea's Long-term Camps,
7. The Corridors of Memory: The Naqba and the Palestinians of Lebanon,
8. The Illness of Exile,
Part Four: Afterward,
9. Going Home: Afghanistan,
10. Dead Dreams: The Dinkas of Oulu,
Epilogue: A Mode of Being,

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