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Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees    by Caroline Moorehead order for
Human Cargo
by Caroline Moorehead
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2006 (2005)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

To write this 'Journey Among Refugees', Caroline Moorehead traveled for two years across four continents, connecting with countless people in desperate circumstances. She presents them to us both as groups -including Liberians in Egypt and in Sicily, Mexican migrants seeking entry to the U.S., asylum seekers in Australia and in Britain, refugee camps in Guinea and in Palestine, Dinkas in Finland, Afghans heading home from exile - and as individuals seeking better lives than those assigned to them by a cruel fate.

Moorehead wisely opens on a poignant Refugee Story about the effects of loss and torture, and hanging on by clinging to the familiar. She segues into several tales of individual lost boys of Africa, living half lives in the margins in Cairo, while waiting for a chance at a future. She offers her book as 'a record of what happens to people when their lives spiral out of control into horror and loss, of the lengths they will go to in order to survive, of the extraordinary resilience of ordinary men and women and children who must 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.'

Moorehead covers the history of the Geneva Convention and the Red Cross movement post World War II, as well as UN organizations set up to assist stateless people. But she tells us that no one envisaged 'a world in which refugees would keep on coming', that 'half of the world's refugees today are under the age of eighteen', and that the world's poorest countries bear the heaviest burden of receiving the displaced. She also speaks of a new 'global spirit of intolerance and unease' reducing funds and available help, of how moneys are spent, and of an 'estimated $5 to $7 billion revenue' from world traffic in smuggled people.

She describes how asylum seekers are housed in different countries (in Permanent Temporary Centers in Italy!), in total idleness in enclosures in which severe depression is common and self-mutilation endemic. She quotes Wayne Cornelius of the University of California at San Diego as saying (of recent US efforts to prevent migrant crossings from Mexico) that 'there is something deeply immoral in a policy that deliberately puts people in harm's way.' She describes the impact of 9/11 on the U.S. immigrant population and on asylum seekers there, and she goes into the implications of Australia's Migration Act, with examples of what happens to adults and children in extended detention.

It's hard to keep on reading as the horrific stories continue, while the response of Western governments seems to be to keep as many as possible of people 'destitute of possibilities' from our shores. Moorehead mentions the Swiss reponse to Jewish refugees in 1942, that 'The boat is full' - a response that we seem to be repeating now. In my traveling days, I often saw people of all ages in dire states in places like Tangiers, Jakarta and Calcutta. It always struck me that if they were transplanted to any first world small town, few people would be able to pass by without helping. It's hard to react to the refugee problem as a (distant) theoretical one, but surely more people would do something if they were offered direct opportunities to help specific individuals.

Read Human Cargo, which documents a horrendous situation already much worse than most of us realize and with no end in sight - you will think about Caroline Moorehead's journey as well as the desperate journeys she records, and want to talk about them to others. It will make you ponder, and keep on pondering why humanity can't do better to protect its most vulnerable members ... and what that says about the rest of us.

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