Vilified Voices

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Review of 'Human Cargo', Caroline Moorehead, Chatto & Windus £12.99

This remarkable book began on a February afternoon in Cairo. The author and journalist, Caroline Moorehead, came across a group of Liberian refugees at a human rights meeting. They told her about their lives: where they came from and where they wanted to be. As the light faded she decided to tell their stories and the stories of other displaced people ignored and vilified by self-serving politicians in the west.

The Liberians had fled the casual brutality of Charles Taylor's regime: some had seen family members and friends gunned down; some had been tortured; others had been raped. They ended up in the Egyptian capital - along with thousands of other stateless Africans - hoping for refugee status and resettlement in the west. Moorehead recounts their tales frankly and honestly. She includes their rivalries and petty squabbles as well as their horrific pasts. Consequently they emerge as neither saints nor devils - but as flesh and blood people struggling to survive in a world of indifferent officials and racist police officers.

Her decision takes her all over the world: she visits the extracomunitari (asylum seekers) shipwrecked in Sicily; the migrants of San Diego and Tijuana plotting to get into California; Guinea's vast refugee camps; Palestinians in Lebanon; Afghani refugees on their way home.

By far the most chilling chapter is about Australia. Over the course of the 1990s and beyond successive governments assembled the most draconian and inhumane immigration system of any modern democracy. In 1992 Labour prime minister Paul Keating introduced mandatory detention for all asylum seekers reaching Australia's shores without a visa. They were seen as 'bad' queue-jumping refugees who were taking the place of patient refugees waiting abroad. Of course, as the Geneva Convention recognises, refugees can't be expected to have all the correct paperwork or arrive through official channels - the flight from persecution is not like a package holiday.

Moorehead meets some of these 'bad' refugees. She interviews six year old Shayan who fled Iran with his family. They spent two years behind bars before they were granted asylum by the courts. But he is still haunted by detention: he wets the bed, has few friends and regularly sees a psychiatrist.

In 2001 events conspired to make the system even worse. On the eve of a general election a Norwegian ship rescued a boatload of Afghani refugees on the way to Christmas Island. The Australian government refused to take the shivering masses huddled on the deck and sent SAS paratroopers to keep order on the ship. It was then that the infamous 'Pacific Solution' was born. The Liberal prime minister, John Howard, decided to intercept all future boatloads of people and process them in offshore detention centres. Quite apart from anything else it put refugees, like the unfortunate Afghanis, out of reach of the Australian courts.

Now this method is being eyed covetously by western politicians. Michael Howard's immigration policy was a carbon copy of the Pacific Solution. But even before all that Labour ministers like Jack Straw were proposing offshore processing centres and withdrawing from the Geneva Convention.

Fortunately nothing came of Straw's bright ideas and the British people rejected Howard. But such popular resistance to scapegoating shouldn't come as a surprise. Ordinary people have more humanity than tabloid editors and right wing politicians imagine. Moorhead constantly encounters generosity and kindness on her travels. She meets groups like Rural Australians for Refugees and farmers who offer jobs to refugees. In Finland she meets refugees from southern Sudan who have been welcomed by their neighbours. In Newcastle she meets workers from the local Refugee Service.

It may be a difficult time to be a refugee - but if there is hope it lies with the quiet benevolence of working people.