Images of the Jungle at Calais and Syrians and other displaced people crossing the Mediterranean, throwing themselves on the mercy of the West fill our screens dailyLeave a Comment
Ben Rawlence, a former researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of Radio Congo brings us City of Thorns, a book that could not be more topical. Images of the Jungle at Calais and Syrians and other displaced people crossing the Mediterranean, throwing themselves on the mercy of the West fill our screens daily, making immigration the issue du jour.
Rawlence – who assumes the position of the storyteller onstage at the Independent Bath Literature Festival, legs crossed, seated in an armchair – visited the Dabaab refugee camp in Kenya over a period of five years. A semi-permanent metropolis, it is the sort of camp that exists in multiple incarnations the world over. Home to approximately 350,000 displaced persons, mainly Somalis, it may be an “unimaginable place”, but Rawlence brings it vividly into focus with his narrative reportage that follows the lives of nine of Dabaab’s inhabitants. We meet Guled, a former child member of al-Shabaab; Monday and Muna, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet’; and Nisho who has learned to tamp down his ambitions, amongst others.
Dabaab is the size of Bristol. There is no plumbing, no established electrical grid, no coherent infrastructure; no one is allowed to leave, and no one is allowed to work. The earth is red, the acacia thorns black, the sky an implacable blue. Yet, schools and cafes, football leagues and cinemas have sprouted there. There is an organic civic structure and an annual black market turnover of US$25 million. If the Kenyan government were to allow refugees to work legitimately, Dabaab could be a self-sustaining economy. But any progress is sabotaged by the authorities.
Reaching Dabaab itself is challenge enough: it lies 90 miles beyond the border of Somalia and Kenya across desert plains where bandits and the Kenyan police forces ‘rinse the refugees’ for all their money. Once in the camp, there is no guarantee of a good life, and even less of prospect of ever leaving. A very few do, but the options are severely limited. Living in Dabaab, Rawlence says, is like being in a pressure cooker: with social, political, economic and cultural tensions all bubbling away constantly. And with the cut in the UN quotas, provision of food to the camp’s inhabitants has been reduced.
Incessant conflict in lawless lands and the effects of climate change, especially in the Horn of Africa will lead to the creation of many more ‘Dabaabs’, Rawlence predicts. “This is just the beginning. We need an international system of co-operation that deals with displaced people.”
He has been heartened to see the positive local response to the question of refugees and immigration while touring to promote the book and wishes to see that replicated on a national level. The biggest myth about migration, he believes, is the myth of control. There is no way to stop the flow of people travelling abroad with hope for a better life elsewhere. What needs to be addressed urgently and globally is “the apocalyptic problem” to counter “the essential threat that borders will be compromised and the integrity of nations changed.”
And poverty should not be conflated with radicalism. In his experience, Rawlence says, refugee camps are not a hotbed of fundamentalism: rather they are places of refuge from such extremism. To be a refugee is to be scared and humiliated and eager to make a better life for oneself and one’s family. Where we can help, we should.
The 21st Independent Bath Literature Festival continues until Sunday 6 March view the full programme here
Bath Box Office 01225 463362