“Bordered Lives” by Hsiao-Hung Pai (2018)

The demonisation of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers has been a prominent part of political discourse in the UK (regardless of party) for longer than I have been able to vote, and has always been closely tied with issues of racism, ethnonationalism and Islamaphobia. This discourse reached a new low recently with false claims from government ministers that it is illegal under international law to enter the UK in order to claim asylum, and proposals to deploy naval vessels against those risking their lives to do so. The desire to make crossing the Channel “unviable” through military action seems to entail a willingness to make a dangerous journey even more deadly – a willingness which depends upon the lives of migrants and refugees being thought to be worth less. The dehumanisation of migrants and asylum seekers by the British media has been highlighted by criticisms of news coverage as more akin to voyeurism or sports commentary than to sensitive reporting. Shortly after this incident, the death of a teenage migrant attempting to cross to Britain was received on some sections of the internet with horrific levels of glee. In circumstances such as these, it is important to listen to the experiences of immigrants and refugees, to learn about their struggles and to better understand and appreciate their fundamental humanity (at a time when the media attempts to dehumanise them).

My decision to read Bordered Lives: How Europe Fails Refugees and Migrants by Hsiao-Hung Pai arose partially out of this political urgency around questions of immigration and asylum. It was also motivated by the realisation, when working through Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, that my conception of race and racism has focused almost entirely on people of colour born in white-majority countries rather than those who have moved to such countries as migrants. These groups have distinct and different experiences, but anti-racism work must encompass both of them, just as racism and racist violence is directed against both groups. This book also provides an interesting contrast to another recent read, Afropean by Johny Pitts: whereas Pitts’ tour of African migrant communities across Europe painted a picture of creativity and solidarity on the margins and in the shadows, this book gives a greater sense of hopelessness, isolation, static uncertainty, and the need to endure and survive in a system which does little to help.

It is worth being clear about what this book does not set out to accomplish. It is not an explanation of the rise in anti-migrant sentiments or in far-right extremism; it does not explain the circumstances elsewhere in the world which force people to seek asylum in Europe; and it does not try to persuade the reader that migrants and refugees deserve to be treated with respect and basic humanity. Neither does it cover the situation in the UK in much detail, as I had expected. Pai follows the journey of migrants from the island of Lampedusa to mainland Italy, and then on to Germany and France. Although the introduction and afterword talk a little about wider political movements, and the legal situation in a few other countries, the bulk of the book consists of personal experiences and conversations with migrants and refugees stuck in the system. These stories are interspersed with statistics about the number of refugees who either die or must be rescued while crossing the Mediterranean, with a rough sense of chronology (approximating the temporal stages of Pai’s own journey), and conversations with some of the people who try to help migrants or advocate on their behalf. Pai’s focus is on the horrific living situations of refugees who have made it to Europe, but must wait in limbo to see if their claims to asylum or settled status will be recognised. In many cases, the refugees whom Pai meets early on in her journey – such as the three boys from Bangladesh, Asif, Jaheed and Saeed, encountered in Lampedusa – reappear later in the book, and it’s clear that she has earned their friendship as well as their trust.

The experiences which these refugees recount make for quite difficult reading. Before starting this book, I had an idea that the journey into a given country could be deadly, and that the legal process of obtaining asylum was harsh and full of unexpected traps, but I didn’t realise what the situation was like in the camps and reception or detention centres. This is no accident: as Pai explains, such places are heavily policed and kept out of sight to avoid offending citizens and tourists. Many of these are focused more on cutting costs and maximising profits (from government allowances) than on helping refugees; in southern Italy, Pai finds that many centres are thought or known to be sources of income for the Mafia, and money which is meant to be given out as allowances is retained by the centre owners. Residents of these centres often lack bedding, clothing, privacy, healthcare, education, running water or edible food. Throughout the book, it is clear that the claims of various governments that they need migrants to assimilate and integrate are at odds with a process which separates refugees from local people, severely limits their ability to learn a language or make friends in a local community, and forces people to turn to underpaid and exploitative illegal work by forbidding legal means of obtaining the money needed to live. Centres which are supposed to support refugees end up more like the worst kind of prison. Many of the people encountered throughout this book have chosen periods of homelessness because this is preferable to life in the camps: the structures in place can be directly blamed for what is often presented as a migrant “crisis”.

It is clear that refugees who seek asylum in Europe come from desperate situations, but as Pai shows, these situations are made worse by the restrictions placed upon refugees, and their inability to access legal help. Many of the individuals in this book accessed Europe via Libya, and most were robbed, beaten, enslaved, imprisoned or threatened at gunpoint as part of this journey. Once these individuals make it to Europe, they face unrelenting racism from authorities and far-right groups in the local community, and unacceptable living circumstances which drive them to keep moving on, in the hopes of being able to settle somewhere better. Pai’s account helped me to understand why migrants and refugees often do not settle in the first “safe” country they enter. There is often a sense of optimism, as well as touching levels of solidarity and friendship with other migrants and refugees, in networks stretching across the continent, and an emphasis on enduring great hardship in the hope of being able to support one’s family elsewhere; but equally, this book highlights how this optimism is ground down into despair by the isolation, chaos and uncertainty which characterises life as a refugee.

This important book is not for the faint-hearted, but reading these horrors is obviously incomparable to the experience of living through them. This book makes it clear that the systems put in place across Europe to process and support refugees are not fit for purpose, and that people who have every desire to integrate in society and work hard to support their families are being prevented from doing so. It offers a necessary and welcome counter to the current discourse which aims to dehumanise and vilify migrants and refugees, and I hope it will encourage readers to stand in solidarity with migrants against those who would happily destroy their lives for personal gain.

Particularly recommended if you’re interested in: the horrific consequences of stringent immigration policies across Europe; reasons why refugees don’t always claim asylum in the first country they enter; the lived experiences behind the statistics on migrants and refugees.

272 pages + 16 pages of limited notes and a more comprehensive index, although there is no bibliography, in the New Internationalist paperback edition (RRP £9.99). Content includes descriptions of arson, child abuse, civil war, drowning and other deaths at sea, family separations, far-right extremism and terrorism, hate crimes, homelessness, homophobia, imprisonment, Islamaphobia, murder, organised crime, police violence, poverty, racism and xenophobia, rape, sex work and trafficking, starvation, threats of violence, torture, and trauma and associated mental health issues.

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