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Human Cargo: Journeys Among Refugees

alt Author: Caroline Moorehead
Published by: Chatto & Windus
ISBN: 10: 0099492873 13: 978-0099492870

Reviewed by: Melita Sunjic
In Conflict Trends Issue 3 of 2005

Caroline Moorehead has been a journalist covering human rights issues for more than twenty years. In this capacity, she heard hundreds of refugee stories from all over the globe, some tragic, some with a happy ending, but all of them charged with emotions and human suffering.

Moorehead captures the essence of her book in these words: “a record of what happens to people when their lives spiral out of control into horror and loss, of the lengths they will go in order to survive, of the extraordinary resilience of ordinary men, women and children when having to accept the unacceptable, and also an account of how the modern world is dealing with exoduses that far exceed in complexity and distance anything the world has known before.”

Today, this flow of modern-day nomads is mixed. There are refugees, defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention as persons who were forced to leave their countries because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, and who cannot or do not want to return home. The other group are migrants, legal or illegal. They are persons who voluntarily decide to leave their home country in search of work, to join family or to study.

The two categories are often confused, yet the distinction is a crucial one. Refugees are entitled to asylum, which is a special protection status granting them legal residence and safeguarding them from being forcibly returned to the country where they face persecution. Migrants do not have these kinds of privileges.

Although the book carries the word Refugees in its title, it not only deals with ‘legitimate’ refugees but also with people who claim to be refugees. Caroline Moorehead “started with no preconceived ideas, beyond the recognition that among the asylum seekers there are certainly people who have no history of persecution, and that not everything said to her would be true”.

Each refugee’s fate is an individual one, full of very personal and intimate experiences. Yet there are things that all refugees have in common, the phases they experience, the manner in which they are dealt with by authorities and even the motions they endure. Hence the chapters of the book are very aptly named Leaving, Arriving, Afterwards, and A Mode of Being, in that sequence. Although, in her foreword, the author claims that she did not attempt to cover all parts of the world, she in fact does so. By including all continents and carefully choosing her topics, the pieces of the puzzle, in the end, give a complete picture of contemporary refugee issues.

There are the horrors of people crossing from North Africa to Sicily on small, inadequate boats. There is the infamous fence between Mexico and the USA, stemming an ever-increasing flow of poverty-stricken migrants. Moorehead covers life in African refugee camps, as well as the hopeless refugee lives of Palestinians that continue generation upon generation.

But the author also records the happy endings of those who finally return home, or those who have resettled and started new lives in strange countries.

Through refugee’s stories, Moorehead also explains the system of those who take care of refugees: the authorities, aid organisations and, last but not least, the UNHCR. She does not embellish anything. Dealing with refugees is emotionally demanding. Only few manage to keep the right balance between empathy and professional detachment. The author describes them all: the hard-hearted bureaucrats, the ones who take advantage of refugees, and the professional, committed humanitarians who do their best to bring relief and protection. She also illustrates the difficulties these agencies are confronted with, such as dangerous environments, uncooperative governments and financial restrictions.

In all, Human Cargo is reality television for readers. The stories are thrilling and compelling, full of human drama and emotions – but all of them as true as life. By giving names, voices and faces to refugees’ fates, the author almost stealthily manages to inform readers about the state of the world’s refugees and to explain the political, security and humanitarian implications in refugee policies, without ever boring them. It is a highly educational page turner, and an illuminating read.

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