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We live in a world where human sympathy is in short supply, even towards people who have survived civil wars, massacres and the most appalling sexual violence. The popular press foments hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers until the occasional tragedy - dozens of Chinese suffocated in the back of a lorry, or drowned in Morecambe Bay - mutes the onslaught for a few days. Then it is back to the dominant discourse about immigrants, in which Eastern Europeans, Roma and other foreigners shamelessly exploit our welfare system, creating a demand for even more draconian methods of exclusion. What lies behind all this is a state of ignorance and confusion about immigration, infused with racism.
Few people complain about immigrants from Western Europe, who are entitled to come here under EU rules and do so in large numbers. Figures are quoted selectively or extrapolated until they make no sense, producing the notorious claim in the Daily Express that more than a million Roma were poised to arrive in the UK after the enlargement of the EU on 1 May 2004. It did not happen, a circumstance barely acknowledged by newspapers that ran the scare. The impression remains that the West faces the biggest refugee crisis in history.
In fact, as Caroline Moorehead points out in this marvellous book, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is currently looking after just over 17 million refugees, displaced people and others "of concern" around the world. This compares with more than 40 million displaced people in Europe in 1945 - Russians, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians, some of them survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. As early as 1943, the Allies had begun to make plans to deal with these people and no less than 44 states agreed to donate money. In four years, the UN spent $3.6bn, most of it donated by the US, and in the first five months of the peace three-quarters of the refugees returned home.
Of course, this option is not open to many 21st-century refugees. While the popular press in Britain fixes its sights on Central and East Europeans, it is Africans who form the largest block of the world's displaced people: 40 per cent, while 70 per cent of people with HIV and Aids are African. Many African refugees never reach the West, sheltering instead in neighbouring countries, such as Guinea, as civil wars and massacres drive them from their homes.
Contrary to popular prejudice, Moorehead says that refugee numbers are actually falling, from a peak of 19 million in the 1990s to around 12 million today. Her use of figures is sometimes confusing - I don't know how this statistic relates to the 17 million being cared for by UNHCR, for instance. But she also says that asylum claims in Europe have fallen to the lowest in four years, down by more than five per cent, another fact rarely quoted by critics of UK asylum and immigration policy.
The book's brilliance lies in her interviews with refugees, whose stories are told in vivid, mostly unsentimental prose. She starts in Cairo, where she encounters a group of young Liberian men scraping a meagre living while waiting to be accepted by Western countries.
The book opens with a disappearance, the first of many in its pages, when a Liberian refugee calls on a friend, a tailor from Sierra Leone, at his flat in Cairo. Dinner is waiting on the stove but there is no sign of his friend; eventually the Liberian finds a package containing a newly-made pair of trousers, a shirt and a tie, a farewell present from the tailor. "Forgive me," the accompanying note says, "I have wanted to tell you every day for many weeks now, but I have been too cowardly. I was chosen for resettlement in Canada". The Liberian changes into his new clothes and returns to the streets where he is living.
Later in the book, Moorehead visits refugee camps in Guinea to discover where the "lost boys", as she calls the Liberians in Cairo, have come from. In 2003, according to UNHCR, 185,000 refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone were being protected and cared for in Guinea.
In Kuankan camp, 700 miles from the capital, Conakry, she finds Fatima, a Liberian woman in her thirties, living in a 10 square-foot section of a tent with five children. Fatima fled with the children when rebels attacked her village, only discovering much later that most of her family had survived and were in other camps.
The refugees are hungry and bored, banned from hunting or farming and dependent on rations from the World Food Programme. "I wish, at least, we were learning," another young woman tells Moorehead. "It is the fact that we sit here declining that is so hard". She has this in common with refugees in other countries, including the UK, where Moorehead meets asylum seekers who are forbidden to work while they await the outcome of their applications.
Dispersed to the North-East, some find themselves alone in strange towns, with nothing to do and in some cases no one who speaks the same language. On New Year's Day 2002, a young man from Guinea climbed onto a bridge over the Tyne in Newcastle and fell to his death. Sulieman Dialo told his few friends he had fled after his family was murdered; he had scars on his back from torture and walked awkwardly after being beaten on the soles of the feet.
Dialo died when he heard that his asylum claim had been turned down, telling friends he would never return to Guinea: "It had taken too much to get to Britain, too much emotion and courage and too much money, and he had nothing and no one to go back to", Moorehead explains.
At some points, the accumulation of human misery in these pages becomes overwhelming. Clearly the system, if it deserves that name, for dealing with refugees is failing in most Western countries. There are many reasons for this, not least the difficulty of having a proper debate about our obligations and limitations in the context of a hostile and hysterical press.
Movements of people from country to country have come to be seen as damaging, ignoring the diversity on which our cultures were built. Moorehead wants immigration to be discussed from the starting-point that it needs to be managed, not stopped, which seems a sensible aspiration. But it is so far removed from the experience of the refugees in her book that it also feels, at the moment, like an unrealisable dream.
Joan Smith's most recent book, 'Moralities', is published by Penguin
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