‘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.