Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Posts Tagged ‘Refugees’

‘City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp’ by B. Rawlence

In R.Richardson, Reviews on May 3, 2016 at 4:51 pm


‘City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp’ by Ben Rawlence. Published by Portobello Books.


Ben Rawlence, the author of this remarkable book, is a human rights watch observer. Over the course of four years he was a first-hand witness of life in Dadaab, Kenya, home to half a million refugees. Dadaab is deep in the desert where only thorn bushes grow, hundreds of miles from any other settlement. Aid is provided by the UN and channeled through an army of charities and aid workers, and the city runs on a grey economy.

Most of the refugees are Somali fleeing from the consequences of the civil war of 2008, when control of most of the country was seized by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida-linked organisation. Others are from Sudan, Ethiopia, or Darfur. Many of them walked for days, often in family groups, to reach the comparative safety of the camp.



Rawlence interleaves the stories of nine individuals – and touches on many more – into his account of life in the camp. There is Guled, taken as a child soldier, who manages to escape and hitch a lift to Dabaab.  Through his story we learn the hugely protracted process of registering in the camp for aid.

Other characters include Kheyro, a dedicated student pinning her hopes on escaping the camp by means of one of the very few available scholarships. There is Tawane, a youth leader, who organises distribution for the newcomers to the camp and does his best to stay out of trouble.

With so many different nationalities in such an environment, unsurprisingly conflicts arise. And there’s always the risk of infiltration by al-Shabaab.  Indeed, terrorist activity erupts more than once, resulting in the temporary withdrawal of aid workers, so that refugees like Tawane with a measure of responsibility have to ensure that basic services keep running.


The inhabitants of Dadaab are in limbo. No-one wants to acknowledge that it has become permanent, but some have been there for over twenty years.  A few decide to return to their homes and are given a resettlement package, though war in Somalia is by no means over.  A very few are given papers  for a new life in the western world. And some decide to strike out on the long and dangerous journey to Europe by way of the Mediterranean or Turkey.


City of Thorns came to my notice through an article by Ian Birrell in the “i” newspaper, entitled “Exposing the refugee camp myths”. Clearly, says Birrell,  these camps are not a humanitarian answer, though it is a convenient one for politicians.

Sir Alan Duncan, then Minister of State for International Development,  said in 2014: “You know where they are  when they are in camps.”  Birrell writes, “What human being wants life trapped in limbo dependent on others for everything?”  What they need, says Birrell, is the right to work legitimately so they can build a fresh start.


There needs to be a proper resettlement plan in which all first-world countries play their part. At present the West is considering a deal with Turkey to contain up to two million refugees within their borders, housed in huge UN funded camps. Anyone who thinks that this is an acceptable solution should read ‘City of Thorns’.  We need investigative journalists like Ben Rawlence to tell it like it is.


RE-DRAWING THE MIDDLE EAST: And re-visiting the film “Lawrence of Arabia”

In John Wilmot on September 3, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Recently I’ve been re-watching the classic 1960s film, Lawrence of Arabia.

It was much acclaimed at the time, winning a clutch of awards. It was directed by David Lean but backed by American money through Sam Spiegel at Columbia studios – and the US influence does tend to show through.

Much of it follows the heroic (and sometimes manic) actions of T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) attempting to unite the Arab tribes against the Turks during the First World War. Thus much of the action takes place in the scorching heat of the desert as the various tribes quarrel, unite, and then go on to score stirring victories over a disintegrating Turkish army. They manage to gain control of  Damascus just ahead of the British forces led by General Allenby.

But here Lawrence’s dream of creating an independent Arab state falls apart, as the various tribes once again quarrel amongst themselves, divide the loot, and leave the city.


And we become aware of a sub plot to all this action. The major players had no intention of allowing the emergence of an independent Arab nation. Instead they had plans to divide the Middle East amongst themselves.

France was to be given what became Syria (further subdivided into Syria and Lebanon), whilst Britain would take control of Iraq.  And so, as they say, it came to pass.

The Middle East and much of North Africa was to be carved up between the European nations. France had much of Morocco plus of course Algeria, and now added Syria to its portfolio. Italy had already seized control of Libya in 1912 and it was to be administered as an Italian colony until 1943.  Meanwhile, Britain added Iraq and what was then known as Transjordan to its “sphere of influence” – that already included Egypt.


It was of course a case of the imperial powers sharing out the booty. And, to complicate matters even further, under the “Balfour declaration” we also promised a “home for the Jews” in “the land known as Palestine”.

The declaration was contained in a letter sent by James Balfour, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, to Lord Rothschild in November 1917.

True, the declaration stipulated that respect should be paid to “the existing inhabitants” of Palestine. And, at the time, it was not intended that it should become effectively a Jewish state. But what the letter succeeded in doing was to spread both hope and mistrust amongst Arabs and Jews alike.

Meanwhile, Britain was given the mandate to govern Palestine by the League of Nations (fore-runner of the UN) which it fulfilled until the late 1940s.

The territory was handed back to the United Nations, which decided on partition as a solution to an increasingly intractable problem. The rest, as they say, is history.


The Arab nationalism that T.E. Lawrence had bought into so avidly endured until perhaps the 1950s. The notion that a better world, for all Arabs, could be built has now fragmented and sadly has been replaced by a divisive, sectarian, religious fervour that is tearing parts of the Middle East apart..  That sense of Arab identity still exists on paper in the form of the Arab League, but in recent conflicts it has proved to be powerless.

And maybe we can trace much of the conflict back to divisions created by the European powers at the end of the Firs World War. It’s said that we can learn from history (if we’re prepared to do so) – but sadly we can never wind back the clock.



In R.Richardson on March 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm

The Truth behind the headlines: 

RUTH RICHARDSON examines the rival claims on the impact of immigration on jobs,

On January 10, headlines in the “i” newspaper read “Immigration has no impact on employment”. The following day the Daily Express’s front page declared “Migrants do take British jobs.” Even allowing for the different political perspectives of the respective newspapers, this seems a contradiction too far.

What confused the issue was that there have been two recent reports on immigration that appear to be in conflict on whether there is an association between inward migration and rising unemployment. The report by MAC (the Migration Advisory Committee) seems to suggest such an association. But to quote MAC’s chair, David Metcalf, “there is some displacement but it isn’t huge, and it doesn’t happen in buoyant economic times.” Moreover, evidence of competition for jobs is confined to the skilled sectors, which suggests that immigration is not a factor in the recent rise in youth unemployment.

The other report, by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) concludes that immigration has had little or no impact on employment.


So, why the difference? Mainly, says MRN (Migrant Rights Network), the two reports used different data sets. The MAC report used labour force survey material which extends across all eleven regions of the UK. The NIESR on the other hand used data from National Insurance number registrations, which provides more detailed material on people moving to the UK to work. This methodology enabled researchers to look in detail at smaller areas, giving their study more focus and accuracy.

The MAC report points out that there are many more aspects to immigration than the impact on the jobs market. In devising an immigration policy the Government needs to be clear on whose needs and interests are being prioritised. The well-being of the resident population in terms of public finances, housing and transport should be the focus, says MAC chair, David Metcalfe.


Both the MAC and the NIESR are respectable research bodies which seek to present their findings accurately and without bias. However, in searching the internet for background to this story, I came across the website of Migration Watch. Set up about ten years ago, this organisation sees itself as a watchdog to guard against the UK being “swamped by immigrants”. Visitors to the website are invited to sign an e-petition to keep the UK population below 70 million. I found particularly unpleasant a section called “reports” which contains short news stories concerning anything that shows an immigrant in a poor light. Daily Express readers will find all their prejudices confirmed here!

Immigration Minister, Damien Green, says “this Government is working to reduce net migration… controlled immigration can bring benefits to the UK, but uncontrolled immigration can put pressure on public services, on infrastructures and on community relations.”


Personally I find it sad that it is taken for granted that any immigration policy we devise should only be for the benefit of the UK. Surely as one of the richer countries in the world (even in these straitened times) we could see it as our duty as citizens of the world to welcome those who need a haven. Economic migrants are not evil. They simply want a better chance in life for their families. Don’t we all?

I found the stories behind the headlines of the Express and the “i”  quite complicated and the reports needed careful reading. But it was a salutory lesson in how facts can be plucked from their contexts to give credence to a pre-determined view.


In R.Richardson, Reviews on February 21, 2011 at 1:40 pm

by Benjamin Zephaniah

(Pub. Bloomsbury £5.99p ISBN 0-7475-5086-7)

Most people, if they have heard of Benjamin Zephaniah, think of him as a poet. And, indeed, he has had many of his collections of poems published since 1980. He has also, however, written five novels and it was one of these, Refugee Boy, that I came across recently.

It is the moving story of a 14-year-old boy of a mixed Ethiopean/Eritrean family, caught up in the war that broke out between those two countries in May 1998. The boy, Alem, is brought to England by his father, who then returns home believing that his action will secure the safety of his son.


We follow Alem through the complicated procedures of social workers, a children’s home, foster parents and, crucially, the application to be allowed to stay in the UK. Alem is a thoughtful and stoical boy, and the story is told simply and directly. But we feel his pain when he is subjected to bullying and racism as he tries to fit in with his new life. Fortunately his foster parents are patient and understanding as they tread the difficult path between guiding him and giving him his own space.

Eventually Alem’s father arrives back in England, with the news that his mother has been killed. Father and son submit a joint application to stay in this country. It is rejected, prompt

ing a swelling of support for them from the local community. Sadly, before their appeal is heard, Alem’s father is shot dead – probably by an Ethiopean or Eritrean group. Subsequently Alem is given leave to remain in the UK and the book ends on a positive note.

“If good can come from bad, I’ll make it,” says Alem.


It’s a sentiment that no doubt comes from the heart for the author. Benjamin Zephaniah, I discovered, had a difficult childhood. His family was from Jamaica and he was born in Handsworth, where he spent some time in an approved school and was barely literate when he left. Coming to London at the age of 20, he joined a workers’ co-operative in Stratford and embarked on his career as a poet. He is a left wing activist and regards Tony Benn as his mentor. Much of Zephaniah’s work is with disadvantaged youngsters, and to them he can speak with an authoritative voice.

Although Refugee Boy turns out well for our protagonist, Alem, it reminds us of the many whose cases are rejected and who are sent back to face an uncertain future in their country of origin. Although the Ethiopian/Eritrean war officially ended in 2000, there are still tensions, and border disputes rumble on.