At some point in the last two or three decades, immigration became something it was impossible to have a reasonable conversation about. It is a domestic and international issue that has been politicised and magnified beyond reasonable conversation. The right doesn’t like immigrants because it thinks they erode British culture and drain welfare capital. The left doesn’t like immigrants because it thinks (on dubious evidence) that they take British jobs (and also, refugees cannot always be trusted to express constructive opinions of the absurd religions and nasty, thieving dictatorships that so many leftists in the UK support). Neoconservatives worried that immigrants had too much potential to be radicalised and become terrorists. And there are also some people who don’t like immigrants because they have racial prejudices against people from foreign countries or with different colour skin.
A sense of raging unreality replaced the reasonable conversation. A few reasonable voices demurred. Centrist leader writers quoted from economic studies, Quakers worried about the humanitarian consequences of indefinite detention and deportations. But the raging unreality created its own compelling discourse, so that immigrants can drain the welfare state and take British jobs, can reshape English communities and fail to make a social commitment to the ‘host country’, refuse to learn English and simultaneously speak it far too well. When the crisis came, when thousands drowned in the Med, a few reporters wandered around Calais for a few days, but still the focus of the debate remained on the impact of immigration upon the UK. The public sector mantra ‘no decision about us, without us’ never applies to migrants. What doesn’t get asked is: who are the refugees? Why are they coming? And what are they running from?
Ben Rawlence spent four years, on and off, in the Dadaab refugee camp on the Kenyan/Somali border – one of the many grey zones and process centres that are created, and expand, when the rhetoric of the open world meets national protectionism. The camp complex is funded by the UN, is the size of a small city and has existed for generations. Somalis ran there fleeing warlordism, starvation and al-Shabaab. (It took some guts to do so. Rawlence explains: ‘The camps lie seventy miles inside Kenya across the barren scrub of the border country and the crossing is dangerous. The police in Kenya jokingly refer to undocumented Somalis as ‘ATM machines’. Rape is routine.’) Once inside the camp, accommodation and work are scarce: refugees make a pittance shoeshining, or selling khat from a stall. (The UN also has an ‘incentive worker’ scheme where people the National Security Council designates as Islamists in embryo, risk their lives detecting and defusing al-Shabaab IEDs.) The common situation of the migrants doesn’t guarantee solidarity. Rawlence meets numerous refugees whose lives have been put at risk after falling in love with someone from the wrong religion or tribe. How do you imagine a refugee camp? It’s not Buchenwald. It’s more like an open-air prison – complete with beatings, headcounts, hustles, desires, hatreds, segregations, and plots to escape.
If the city of thorns is a prison, parole is extremely difficult. Migrants crowd around the UN building daily to check the few resettlement slots that become available. For those without nous or connections to get moved up the list, the wait can last generations. Some people can’t handle the wait, and sign up with a trafficker. ‘If you get a good one,’ a restless young man told Rawlence, ‘you can reach quickly and safely’. If you don’t get a good one, you can die in a broken-down hotbox truck in the desert, or be ransomed back to your relatives by corrupt cops. Even if one escapes by lawful means, freedom can be short lived. A man Rawlence met, named Fish, came to Dadaab feeling a civil war in ’92 and eventually made it to Nairobi, but had to head back to the camp when the Kenyan authorities cracked down… and ‘cracked down’ in Nairobi meant more beatings, arbitrary detentions and rapes.
Just like in prisons, a listlessness takes over, drains thought and energy. People spend whole days chewing khat, or creating Facebook photos of imaginary lives in Europe or America. There is a Dadaab word for this feeling, buufis, ‘the name given to the longing for resettlement out of the refugee camps. It is a kind of depression rooted in an inextinguishable hope for a life elsewhere that simultaneously casts the present into shadow.’ The emotional detail is typical of Rawlence, who narrates City of Thorns in terms of the complex relationships and inner lives of the people he meets there. The flailings and machinations of various governmental and NGO bodies, as they try to deal with unprecedented eruptions of globalisation and war, he recounts briefly – and perhaps with a little dark irony. (Rawlence is particularly scathing on the corporate aid agencies: ‘At five o’clock sharp, they left their cool offices and their computers glowing with warnings and got into their cars…. through the streets wet and slick to some house party or restaurant glittering with laughter and money, and the lights of the city sparkled in the puddles.’) Mainly, Rawlence gives his voice to the voiceless. As Fish says: ‘We talk, but our voices are never heard. We move, but only inside a cage. We have many skills and talents, but we are denied our chance to maximise our potential’.