The Strangers’ Case

Editor’s note: An edited version of this was published by the Times Literary Supplement. (Photo: Anna Pantelia)

By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

The only surviving example of William Shakespeare’s handwriting is preserved at the British Library in the manuscript of the play The Book of Sir Thomas More. Shakespeare’s contribution to the co-authored play is a speech by deputy sheriff Thomas More addressed to a mob rioting against immigrants. He appeals to mob’s empathy by inviting them to imagine themselves in the shoes of the “strangers”, exiled from home.

What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

Over four centuries later, empathy for the stranger remains an uncertain virtue. Since 2015, when the media elevated refugees to the status of a “crisis”, their influx has sharply declined (from a peak of over 221,000 in 2015 to less than 11,000 in 2018). However this reduction has yet to be acknowledged in the fevered registers of Europe’s political discourse. Immigration—or, rather, its perception—is roiling an entire continent, empowering the right and seducing even left-wing populists into xenophobia. The consequences have been catastrophic, in political, economic, and human terms.

In August 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel had shown unusual political courage in offering asylum to refugees reaching German soil. The image of the young Aylan Kurdi had stirred even less hospitable parts of Europe into momentary generosity. But the moment passed and sympathies withered. Its legacy is not less xenophobia but a political regression fuelled by burning resentments and retreat into tribes.

As with all human progress, the cycles of generosity and insularity have also accelerated. Europe’s fleeting magnanimity was bookended by the same mountainish inhumanity that has persisted since More’s time. Before Europe found its conscience, on October 11, 2013, Italian officers had ignored appeals from a sinking ship to let 268 Syrian and Palestinian refugees, including 60 children, drown. Since 2015, inhumanity has been enshrined into policy, with human trafficking laws being used to penalise aid and rescue. The consequences have been deadly. In June, following the lead of Italy’s far right populist government, the EU issued a warning to rescuers against providing assistance to migrant vessels in distress. By July 12, over 600 people had drowned in the Mediterranean as humanitarian assistance was discouraged by European authorities.

In all of this, Europe has been aided by the anonymity of the victims. It’s hard to mourn people who don’t have names, faces, or histories. Larger numbers, psychologists have determined, have a way of dividing and overwhelming the human capacity for empathy. Four new books seek to restore migrants from the anonymity of statistics back to humanity.

Daniel Trilling, the editor of The New Humanist, has devoted many years to the subject of migration and exile. His book, Lights In the Distance (Picador 2018), is the product of rigorous reporting, deep research, and abiding empathy. Part of his passion, Trilling reveals, comes from his own family’s experience of persecution and exile. His Ukrainian grandmother Teresa had suffered exiled twice, as had his Russian Jewish grandfather. Both were finally able to settle in Britain. They were lucky, because, as Trilling notes, “the British government had largely kept its doors closed to Jewish refugees in the late 1930s, under pressure from much of the press, who cast the displaced as an alien threat”. This characterisation of the refugee has persisted. And Trilling has set himself the task of pushing back by recording the stories of the individuals who are part of this exodus. Having spent many years reporting from the frontlines of the crisis—in Greece, Italy, Ukraine and Calais; and by treating his subjects as individuals with histories rather than as victims without agency (which is often the flip side of the perception of the refugee as a threat without cause), Trilling is able to separate the individual from the label and tell a human story of persecution, hardship, movement, dislocation, and exile, attended by all its uncertainties, exclusions and inhospitality.

The book’s title is drawn from a recent incident where a group of wounded men left to the die in the desert by Malian soldiers used city lights in the distance to guide themselves to safety; but it also alludes to the flicker of hope that compels people to risk deadly obstacles in pursuit of dubious sanctuaries. Trilling’s other protagonists include Jamal, a Sudanese youth, who escaped persecution in Khartoum only to find himself, after five years of futile attempts to cross the English Channel, in European limbo; and Hakimah, who left Afghanistan with her child to join her husband in Greece, where she ended up in an Athenian slum, foraging for food each night (her husband having been incapacitated in a racist attack). Relatively more fortunate is Zainab, an Iraqi Kurd who, after ISIS her kidnapped her husband, fled with her three children to London, but not before enduring unspeakable hardships on the way, including being conned out of her savings by a fellow Kurd. By treating his subjects as fully conscious individuals rather than as a mass of victims without agency (often the flip side of the perception of the refugee as alien threat), Trilling brings human detail – individuality – into focus.

In Hara Hotel (Verso, 2018), Teresa Thornhill takes a different approach. Much of her material comes from two trips volunteering at a refugee camp set up around the titular hotel in Greece, near the Macedonian border. Her fluency in Arabic allows her to have spontaneous interactions with a broader demographic of refugees. Her past experience of volunteering in the Middle East and her familiarity with its history and politics give her clear-headed insights into the plight of the Syrians she meets. Indeed, the book combines absorbing accounts of her day-to-day interactions with an astute overview of the conflict that has displaced her subjects. The narration can shift from describing the challenges of distributing rice pudding to camp children to providing an analysis of how the peaceful demonstrations in Syria devolved into an armed insurgency.

Like Trilling, Thornhill learns about the  experiences that have brought people from different regions of Syria and Iraq to the camp. By focusing in particular on the story of a young Syrian Kurd, Juwan Azad, she also provides a vivid picture of the hardships that even the more fortunate ones may have endured en route and on arrival. Some of the challenges are mundane: acquiring tents, finding food and taking showers; repairing spectacles. Others have life-and-death consequences. Which borders to cross? Which rivers to ford? Which seas to sail? Juwan’s story is compelling because it combines all these elements, from Dickensian reversals of fortune to a Homeric odyssey across Europe’s fatal obstacle course. Hara Hotel is also a valuable ethnography of the volunteer aid groups filling the breach left by major aid organizations, whose work is constrained by international politics and frugal donors.

While Thornhill’s book ends with a gripping account of how Juwan makes the arduous trek through the Balkans to Austria, Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Bordered Lives (New Internationalist, 2018) sets out to explore the myriad bureaucratic obstacles that Europe has erected to stem arrivals. The book would be impressive for its exhaustive investigation of the EU’s detention facilities alone: from the fire hazard of the Centro Accoglienza in Lampedusa and the “open prison” of Cara di Mineo in Sicily, to the dangerously overcrowded Notunterkunft Winsstrasse in Berlin where 200 migrants are crammed into a former gym, “the size of a basketball court”. Through this are woven deeply personal of those trapped in administrative purgatory. There is the Bengali trio of Asif, Jahid and Saeed, navigating Europe’s byzantine asylum bureaucracy; the Oscar-nominated Afghan filmmaker Masih Tajzai, confined to an overcrowded shelter in Berlin; the Gambian Banta, whose hope of a better life led him to traverse many European states before ending in disappointment in Germany, where he currently works for €1 an hour.

The conditions in which most refugees subsist while they await their fate is a scandal: overcrowded, underfed, exploited, constrained and abused by the system; feared, disdained, assailed and rejected by society. Less known are the commercial arrangements behind this immiseration. The reception centres and shelters are outsourced to third parties and, with the state paying £35 per person per day, most are run as businesses. “They simply pocket the cash from the state”, one investigator tells Pai. In Sicily, many detention centres are run by the Cosa Nostra; and because migrants can’t work legally, the mafia is also able “to profit from migrant labour by involving them in agriculture, drugs and prostitution”. Even in supposedly hospitable Germany, the profit motive has left refugees in unliveable conditions, with gyms and failing hotels turned into migrant shelters, inevitably overcrowded since the managers receive more money the more people they take in. No wonder, in many cases, refugees strike out desperately on their own.

Pai doesn’t make  the distinction between refugees and migrants. In many instances the desperation of migrants isn’t any less urgent than that of refugees, and all are exposed en route to the same perils – human traffickers, counterfeit Samaritans, ruthless smugglers, disintegrating vessels, hostile borders and exploitative relatives. Once in Europe, the situation of a migrant is often more precarious – more anonymous – than that of a refugee; and Africans always fare worse than their lighter-skinned counterparts. The big shock, for many,  is the gap between inflated expectations and the reality that greets them. Many migrants find themselves working menial jobs with employers exploiting their vulnerability to pay sub-minimum wages. Female migrants, particularly from Africa, often become trapped in prostitution, struggling to pay off their traffickers (according to the United Nations, 80 per cent of Nigerian women who arrive in Europe are forced into sex work). Again, in Pai’s account, the only relief seems to be provided by volunteers who organize rescue operations, shelter, clothing, food and legal assistance. Occasionally, too, the burden of exile is lightened by acts of generosity by common people – such as the baker in Sicily who coordinates food donations; activists in Calais who defend refugees against far-right assailants; volunteers in Greece who receive arrivals with water and blankets; and  the Open Arms rescue missions in the Mediterranean, funded by the Spanish businessman Òscar Camps.

It is broadening this spirit of generosity that is the aim of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Migrant Brothers (Yale University Press, 2018). His moral vision of a world without borders may be politically impossible but economically not as utopian as it sounds. Even the Economist acknowledges that a world of free movement could be $78 trillion richer.  But Chamoiseau is not concerned with numbers. He follows a poetic logic—because, as he argues, “poetics will usher in politics”. He does not so much fear inhumanity (because “inhumanity is still part of humanity”) as “dishumanity”, the fixing of inhumanity into bureaucratic mechanisms, because in it “the principle of humanity itself is threatened by a systematic entity”. No man is an island; but a system can be an island, a prison, or a morgue. Beset by resurgent nationalisms, the EU is creating a system that is often all three.

Exile is rarely voluntary: ordinary privation or tolerable threats don’t lead humans to take extraordinary risks for uncertain futures. Part of having a global vision is not only to empathize with strangers, but also to put oneself in their shoes before they cross deserts and oceans. If there is one strand that connects these books, it is the affirmation, obvious enough, that refugees are inextricable from the political realities that create or thwart them. The emphasis tends to fall on  the realities that hold refugees at bay – but it is important to acknowledge the indifference that often blinds us to others’ distress before they have been forced from their homes. The irony is perhaps best illustrated by the case of many of Britain’s left-wing campaigners and politicians, who withheld solidarity from the Syrian citizens fighting oppression only to embrace them as depoliticized victims once they were forced into exile. Their concern is, of course, welcome, though it does little to address the conditions that produced the refugees in the first place and leaves the most vulnerable – those without the means to leave – trapped in unrelieved misery.

It is the virtue of Chamoiseau’s book to take a more global view, recognising the mass exodus as a symptom of a deeper malaise with its political, economic, and moral dimensions. To the sterile logic of globalisation, with its exploitation and cupidity, Chamoiseau counterpoises a “global politics of hospitality” that is as open to the flow of people as the former is to the flow of capital. Chamoiseau also recognises the causes of the exodus in tolerated repression—the counter-revolutions that extinguished revolutionary sparks across the Middle East and North Africa (“people’s springs crushed by steel-gray winters”). “Aleppo, abandoned by all, is now nothing more than an eternal indictment of all”, he writes—even before its bedraggled survivors could reach the “closed gates of the European sanctuary”. But the survivors of persecution, genocide, and famine are now running into the “ethical drought” of Fortress Europe.

In the spirit of Shakespeare’s Thomas More, these authors have undertaken the stranger’s case, but theirs is not merely an idealistic invitation to empathy; it is also a call for self-preservation. “The election of Mr. Trump began with the first migrant shipwrecked with his family in a sea of indifference”, writes Chamoiseau. Events in Syria have shown that injustice left unchecked can have consequences that cannot be contained (“No pain has borders!”)

But if for some the pain is a spur to sympathy, for demagogues it has become a resource. Fear of the stranger is helping them to revive an old form of politics based on what  Timothy Snyder calls “sadopopulism”: social welfare is abandoned in favour of security and exclusion. For too long the West has favoured strongmen elsewhere to protect itself from the twin fears of terror and migration. But democracy at home can only be preserved if democratic forces are supported abroad. It will be less costly than erecting more fences, and these empowered citizens will come to seem more like us, strangers no more.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

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