Refugees and asylum seekers have risen high on the political agenda in the European Union. In the United Kingdom, most of the debate is conducted in the media by activists from across the political spectrum, but little information is available for non-specialists who want to understand the issues involved. The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man's Gate by Jeremy Harding, a senior editor at the London Review of Books , fills this gap very well. He successfully combines the global with the local and brings some humanity to this subject, which is first and foremost about desperate people facing a hostile world.
Harding begins with an account of a night spent with Italy's Guardia di Finanza just off the coast of Brindisi intercepting the traffic in i clandestini being shipped over in inflatable rafts from the Albanian ports.The defence of "the integrity of Fortress Europe" through the pursuit of human traffickers is contrasted with the plight of those who are trafficked. He tells the tragic stories of some of those who have made it to the shores of Italy, and illustrates the mixture of circumstances underlying flight but also the commonality of desperation. The issue of human trafficking remains topical with the recent discovery of the bodies of 58 young Chinese in a truck at Dover and the affirmation by governments of further measures to crack down on those who operate this lucrative business. However, this is not a black-and-white issue, as Harding demonstrates. In Schindler's List the traffickers were the heroes. It is the combination of the circumstances in the countries from which people are fleeing and the attitudes of governments in the destination countries that is critical in the development of trafficking and its role in refugee flows.
Harding details the emergence of legislation in Europe, and the United Kingdom in particular, that has been designed to make it more difficult for people to "abuse the system" but which runs increasingly counter to the spirit of the Geneva Convention. He questions the notion of abuse that has played such a large part in recent political rhetoric and media headlines, and refers back to the writings of Hannah Arendt and the reactions of nations in the 1930s: "those whom persecution has called undesirable become the undesirables of Europe". Little appears to have changed. Abusers of the system in the United Kingdom are labelled economic migrants, and this term has taken on a negative connotation. The book challenges the contradictions inherent in the realities of economic migration into the European Union. It also questions the extent to which grinding poverty in the developing world as a basis for movement can so easily be categorised as voluntary migration as opposed to forced migration.
The strength of the book is the way in which Harding interweaves sympathetic accounts of the personal experiences of refugees with an examination of the global context, government activities and the political arguments. It is not an academic text as such, but a piece of very high-quality journalism motivated by a desire for Western Europe to reconsider its "morbid reluctance to come to an accommodation with people in distress".
However, it is perhaps one of the most readable books available at present that gives an overview of the refugee crisis and the attendant issues. It can therefore be recommended for those who wish to be better informed on the essential nature of the debates on refugees and asylum seekers and as an introductory text for undergraduate modules on this topic.
Patricia Ellis is senior lecturer in refugee studies, University of East London.
The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man's Gate
Author - Jeremy Harding
ISBN - 1 86197 211 3
Publisher - Profile
Price - £5.99
Pages - 128