Archive for June, 2012

No place like home


‘Borders can become stifling and murderous.   The dotted lines on the cartographer’s map can be transformed into walls of flame’ (‘Bricolage: An Interview with Michel Butor’, YFS, 84 (1994), 17-26)


All this week, I’ve been blogging about refugees.  I set myself the task of posting at least once a day on this theme, and whilst it’s been demanding (given the day job, and all that) to keep to that, there’s never been the remotest danger that I would run out of stories to tell.  The stories have spanned more than a century (Ukrainian Jews relocating to Sheffield at the end of the 19th century, through to Medecins sans Frontieres’ bulletin from South Sudan, and campaigns in the UK for refugees facing deportation and destitution), but only two continents, and every continent, every nation has its refugee stories.


The refugee story is perhaps the true story of our age.   In the chaos of Europe after the Second World War the numbers of people displaced – because they’d fled, or been deported, or been driven out of their homes by fighting or bombing – were so great (around 40 million) that for the first time the idea of the refugee was given serious consideration.   Our legal definitions come from that period, though they have evolved and adapted since.    Estimates of numbers vary considerably, based on the nuances of the definitions – from 8.4 million to 62 million if we include people displaced within their country of origin, as well as those outside it.


The classic definition – a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’ – is based on the idea of a national identity, and of national borders.  Borders change, of course, and are in the main arrived at through conflict, occupation or colonisation – or by nature’s arrangements of sea or mountains.   Nigeria’s ongoing hideous turmoil is felt by many to be a product of the arbitrary lines drawn on a map by colonialists with little notion of the land those lines were enclosing or the peoples who inhabited it.


Borders can be absolute – one step over and you are in safety or in peril – but there’s also the notion of ambiguity, in the old Marchlands – borderlands rather than borderlines – which were dangerous places where the rule of law might not prevail.  And there were also sanctuaries – places where the rule of God rather than man prevailed and so one could be immune from arrest.   That notion is powerful and long-lasting, despite the terrible roll call of abuses.   The flight to a hoped-for place of safety sometimes did the work of genocidal mobs for them, as in Rwanda where a church in Nyarubuye and the technical school which had been a UN base had attracted many hundreds of refugees, who were surrounded by the Interahamwe and massacred.


The frontier can represent the limits of exploration (‘Space.  The final frontier’), to be boldly gone beyond, with all of the implications that what lies beyond may contain unknown and unimaginable dangers.  It’s a romantic notion in a way – and one which when given a historical context such as the American West reminds us that beyond the frontier wasn’t empty space to be occupied but homelands and homes  and people to be displaced and destroyed.


‘I think I belong on the border.  I feel safer psychologically if I have two countries, two places to go’.  Carmen Bugan still feels this, decades after leaving Romania.  W G Sebald, no refugee, but an exile, unable to feel at home in the place of his birth, said that his ideal station might be ‘a hotel in Switzerland‘ – a non-place in a neutral country.   Going home – if one can – may be as painful as being a stranger in a strange land.  For Carmen, returning to Romania two years ago to revisit her family home and old school was “one of the worst experiences of my life”.  ‘Yet there is still an inescapable desire to reconnect. Her writing is circling ever closer to Romania. “Do I want to turn back?” she wonders. “Is Romania really the sun and am I the sunflower?”‘  A S Byatt said of Sebald’s narrator in Rings of Saturn that he “journeys in great circling spirals in order not to go home, to get away from his origins”.


Every day’s papers bring more news of people forced to make unimaginable choices, people for whom home is no place.   South Sudanese refugees facing expulsion from Israel, boats carrying Sri Lankan asylum seekers capsizing in the Indian Ocean, Ugandan Asians returning to the homes from which Idi Amin drove them, Burmese Rohingya refugees seeking help in Bangladesh, refugee camps filling up in Turkey, in DRC.  It would be terribly easy to despair.   But the other side of the picture is, as it always has been, the story of generosity and hospitality, of people giving a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, of the marginalised and spectralised finding a place in a community and people to listen to their stories.


What could I say, to sum up what this week has been about?  Just that, as I said in my first Refugee Week post, every story that can be told is precious, a little bit of light in the darkness.






PS – Many thanks to all those who’ve retweeted and reblogged these posts to bring them to a wider audience than I could reach.





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On the way to freedom


Walter-Benjamin (Photo credit: doylesaylor)

On 25/6 September 1940 a man took his own life in a hotel in Portbou, Catalonia.   He was 48 years old.  He was a writer, an intellectual, whose work, cut terribly short as it was, is still hugely influential.   He was Jewish, and had crossed the border from France, having escaped Paris ahead of the German army. He’d just heard that all transit visas had been cancelled, and that he and his fellow-travellers would be forced to return to France.

The UNHCR’s campaign for World Refugee Day focused on the ‘choice’ faced by refugees – to stay or to go, either one fraught with danger.  Walter Benjamin – and many others – took a third option.   He had contemplated suicide before, seeing Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.  He’d recently been interned in France as a stateless person, and knew already that the Gestapo had instructions to arrest him.

His choice is made bitter by our knowledge that his travelling companion, Arthur Koestler, took morphine tablets too, but survived and escaped, and that the embargo on visas was lifted a few weeks later.  As Hannah Arendt says in her introduction to Illuminations, ‘only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible’ (p. 18).

It’s also bitter because, if the scope of his influence on the humanities is so great on the basis of the work he published in his short lifetime, it could have been so much more had he lived.  In the words of his friend Gershom Scholem, his ‘genius united the insight of the Metaphysician, the interpretative power of the Critic, and the erudition of the Scholar’. (Reflections, vii).   Anyone interested in the city, in maps and labyrinths, in Baudelaire, Kafka or Proust, in text and translation, history and memory, will encounter Benjamin.

Walter Benjamin stands, in this context, for our loss, the loss of those who didn’t escape, and particularly those – notable and anonymous – who chose this third way.   On the memorial to Benjamin in Portbou these words are inscribed: IT IS MORE ARDUOUS TO HONOUR THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS THAN THAT OF THE RENOWNED. HISTORICAL CONSTRUCTION IS DEVOTED TO THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS.

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Hannah Arendt (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)

Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Peter Demetz (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)



Free to be me

Seventy or so years ago, homosexuals were arrested across Nazi Europe – around 100,000 of whom between 5 and 15 thousand were sent to concentration camps, where 60% of them are believed to have been killed.   Their place in the Holocaust was not recognised officially for many years – after all, survivors could not tell their stories openly in societies where their sexuality was still criminalised and stigmatised.

Today in Uganda the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, apparently withdrawn under intense international pressure, has been reintroduced to parliament.  It would broaden the criminalisation of same-sex relations by creating two categories: aggravated homosexuality (e.g. acts committed by someone who is HIV positive, is a parent or authority figure, a repeat offender, commits acts on a minor or using intoxicating substances),which would attract the death penalty, or the offense of homosexuality punishable merely by life imprisonment.  This legislation extends to those who engage in same-sex relations outside of Uganda, and includes penalties for supporting gay people or LGBT rights.  Uganda is not alone – homosexuality is punishable by death in a number of other countries, and criminalised across much of the globe.   In these countries, not only are LGBT people subject to judicial punishments but to unofficial violence, against which they can have no hope of redress or protection.

Despite this, for a long time in UK asylum law, the idea that one’s sexual orientation could be grounds for seeking refugee status was not accepted.  As a result, even where people could show that they had faced persecution because of their sexuality, and that their home country criminalised homosexuality, they were told to go home, and be discreet.   Two years ago this was overturned by the UK Supreme Court.

‘The Home Office argument paralleled the idea that if Anne Frank could have avoided persecution by hiding forever in the attic, then she wouldn’t have qualified as a refugee. Sir John Dyson calls this argument “absurd and unreal”. The test essentially creates two parallel persecutions – the objective risk from the state or society one comes from, and the living lie required to hide from it. Moreover, the court holds that there is no possible yardstick for measuring when suppressing ones sexuality is “reasonably tolerable”. The question the court of appeal posed regarding what is “reasonably tolerable” is fundamentally unanswerable. As Lord Rodger points out, in the final analysis, “there is no relevant standard since it is something which no one should have to endure”.’ (Bernard Keenan, ‘Milestone victory for gay refugees’, Guardian, 7 July 2o10)

This was obviously a huge step forward.  And the refugee organisations who helped to bring about this change also lobbied for improved training for UKBA staff, to enable them to deal with these issues more sensitively, and with a greater cultural understanding (see Stonewall’s report for the background to this).  Things may well have improved in this area too, but the number of cases where gay asylum seekers are currently threatened with deportation suggests there is some way to go.

Julia Kristeva argued that the stranger/refugee multiplies masks and false selves.   In their homeland the refugee may have had to ‘pass’, as conforming to whatever set of beliefs and behaviours will make them acceptable.   In their place of sanctuary, the immediate threat may have been removed, but they still need to keep themselves as inconspicuous as possible, given that the very fact of being a stranger makes them vulnerable.   And if the reason for their exile is their sexuality, their claim for refugee status is dependent upon their ability to be open about something that has been a source of shame and fear, something that may still expose them to violence.   A new report from the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration says that  ‘LGBTI individuals are virtually invisible in the international refugee protection realm despite being among the most pervasively and violently persecuted in the world. Moreover, they are placed in housing where they are exposed to violence, or are compelled to hide the true reason they were persecuted, which puts their legal status in jeopardy.’

So, if the gay asylum seeker conforms to the norms of mainstream society, they may not convince officialdom that they are genuinely in need of asylum because of their sexuality.  If they conform to officialdom’s expectations of gay identity, they put themselves in even greater danger should their claim fail and they be deported, and they expose themselves to prejudice and aggression here – most poignantly, the communities which for many asylum seekers provide a vital support network, their compatriots in exile, may be the most hostile.    Double jeopardy.

Stonewall, No Going Back: Lesbian and Gay People and the Asylum System, 2010

Julia Kristeva, Etrangers à nous-mêmes (Paris: Gallimard, 1988)

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Refugee Stories

Médecins sans Frontières report from South Sudan:

Upper Nile State in South Sudan has seen an influx of some 35,000 refugees over the last three weeks, with a further 15,000 refugees said to be on their way. Most arrive on foot, carrying their most precious possessions. Many have been walking for weeks and some describe having had to leave the weakest members of their party by the roadside.

Most are fleeing fighting in neighbouring Sudan. They arrive to find refugee camps already overcrowded and aid workers struggling to provide enough water for the 70,000 refugees already in the area, because of this thousands chose to walk to other temporary camps.

“All these people in the camps are normal people who had normal lives. They had houses and clothes, and then one day, they had to pack their things, leave their lives behind and start to walk. If they were lucky enough and strong enough, they made it to one of these camps. And if they weren’t, then they died along the way” – Chiara Burzio

Meanwhile, closer to home, Refugee Action‘s appeal will be broadcast on Radio 4 this weekend:

Tune in on Sunday 24th June at 7.55am and 9.26pm when we’ll be broadcasting a very personal message to 1.9 million Radio 4 listeners. The Refugee Action appeal will focus on how, with your support, we’re providing a lifeline for thousands of destitute asylum seekers across the country by giving food parcels, clean clothes and small amounts of money for a hostel bed for a few nights. It will be read by Santok, one of our caseworkers. Please share this with your friends, family and colleagues so we’re able to let as many people as possible know.

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Nigeria, 1966/World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012

Nigeria, 1966

During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria.  Many more fled to escape the massacres.   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.

As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping.  I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time.  I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could.  But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity.  I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success.    I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel.  I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.

As Rob Nixon said, in the New York Times, ‘“Half of a Yellow Sun” takes us inside ordinary lives laid waste by the all too ordinary unraveling of nation states. When an acquaintance of Olanna’s turns up at a refugee camp, she notices that “he was thinner and lankier than she remembered and looked as though he would break in two if he sat down abruptly.” It’s a measure of Adichie’s mastery of small things — and of the mess the world is in — that we see that man arrive, in country after country, again and again and again.’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s literary role model is often said to be Chinua Achebe, who himself was caught up in these events.  His writing having brought him to the attention of the military who suspected him of having foreknowledge of the coup, he had to send his pregnant wife and children on a squalid boat through a series of unseen creeks to the Igbo stronghold of  Port Harcourt.   During the civil war which followed, his family had to move repeatedly to escape the fighting, returning to their destroyed home only after the war was over.   His poem, ‘Refugee Mother and Child’, reflects those experiences:

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.
The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.
Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (London: Fourth Estate, 2009)

Chinua Achebe, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005)

Rob Nixon, ‘A Biafran Story’, New York Times, 1 October 2006


World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012

di·lem·ma \ : a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.

No one chooses to be a refugee

Every minute eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.

If conflict threatened your family, what would you do? Stay and risk your lives? Or try to flee, and risk kidnap, rape or torture?

For many refugees the choice is between the horrific or something worse.

What would you do?

World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.

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Small Tragedies

Extracts from Chris Mullin’s diaries, 2002-4

‘…The Savchenkos… were taken away on Sunday.  Although we were expecting five days notice, police and immigration officers turned up at 8 am and gave them an hour to pack.  They were put in a cold, windowless van.  …  The Savchenkos were/are (I keep thinking of them as though they are dead) such dignified, decent people.  They would have made model citizens and the little chap was doing so well at school ….  I can’t get them out of my mind.  If only I could have saved them’ (30 April 2002, p. 284)

‘Customers at the surgery this evening included … an asylum seeker from Goma in the eastern Congo.  He is half Tutsi, which, he reckons, puts his life at risk were he to be returned to Kinshasa.  … The man is terrified and absolutely desperate. … These cases haunt me.  We’ve grown used to watching horrors on television, and then, after a couple of minutes’ ritual sympathy, getting on with our own lives.   But now the victims are no longer thousands of miles away.  They do not go away when we push the ‘off’ button.  They are here, wandering our streets, popping up in our lives. They can talk to us in our own language.  They bleed, as we would, were we to change places.  One day, who knows, we might.’ (10 May 2002, p. 287-8)

Chris Mullin, A View from the Foothills: The Diaries of Chris Mullin, ed. Ruth Winstone (London: Profile Books, 2010)

And meanwhile, in 2012:

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You and the Refugee

you and the refugee

Extracts from You and the Refugee, published 1939:

‘There are some of the saddest scenes in the world from which we British people are forever spared, and of which the keenest imagination among us could hardly form an adequate picture.  …  In the darkness of night, or in the grey of dawn, desperate men and women, sometimes even dragging along a pitiful child, make a dash to get through that double line [of armed police] and risk the rifle shot.  Some of them, like human tennis balls, are driven backwards and forwards, time after time, across the frontier.’ (p 231)

‘Hundreds of Jews are hiding in the German woods near the Dutch frontier.  Whenever they try to cross into Holland they are forced back by the Dutch gendarmes, to be arrested by the German police’ (The Times, 19 November, 1938)

‘In England, when we are aroused in the early hours of the morning by a sharp rap on the door, we think only of the milkman.  But the refugee who is safely in England still finds himself starting up in bed, his heart turning sick at such a sound’  (p. 233)

Norman Angell & Dorothy Frances Buxton, You and the Refugee: the morals and economics of the problem (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939)

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