Rooting for lost causes

Refugees in an Age of Genocide

June 2, 2000

Where shall refugees fix their hopes?" asked the official committee of Belgians at the beginning of the first world war. This committee, advising Belgians temporarily in Britain, was sure the answer lay in their home country, but Katharine Knox and Tony Kushner in this book make it clear that throughout this century refugees have not felt that their choice is as clear.

Their book is about the refugee experience but also about those who deal with refugees in different capacities. For them other questions are raised: how best to serve the needs of people uprooted and often afraid? How to persuade not only the government but the general population that refugees are not a threat but are themselves threatened? The comprehensive scope and focused detail of Refugees in an Age of Genocide presents a compelling case for dedicated political activism on each of the levels noted in the book's subtitle - global, national and local.

Having chosen a 100-year period and a broad subject, Knox and Kushner focus on British governments' policies towards refugees, bringing in frequent comparisons with other countries. The authors employ a local Hampshire perspective in order to ground the broader British policies. The method is effective and the authors blend the different levels smoothly, building a picture of people struggling with decisions and circumstances in a national and international context. The voices of refugees and social workers, human-rights campaigners and politicians continue a dialogue throughout the book, sometimes with each other, often speaking past each other or in opposition. The many accounts of refugees in their own words demonstrate the most difficult dialogue - within oneself - again trying to answer the question of where to fix one's hopes - and how to maintain them in the face of tragedy. Knox and Kushner show that, depending on personal, political and economic circumstances, the attitudes of refugees themselves range widely.

The book portrays the crushing psychological burden of surviving the devastation that impels the refugee to flee, and the often-hostile policies that confront them in the new country. They also note, however, the ambivalence with which refugees are sometimes greeted by co-ethnics or nationals who have arrived in earlier waves. Where they might expect comfort, many find suspicion and even resentment. As the refugees construct new lives, the variety continues, as those with the economic and emotional means settle into a more comfortable cosmopolitanism and others continue to struggle with psychological demons, physical ailments and unemployment.

The title's reference to genocide is not sustained in the text, nor is it necessary. The 20th century has indeed been marked by repeated attempts at genocide, but this is not what has uprooted most of the refugees in this book. Instead, the authors make a convincing case for a much broader definition of the refugee condition and argue that attempts narrowly to define the crises that propel people from their homes, are hypocritical and self-defeating, as well as inhumane. This theme is restated clearly at the end: Britain, they write, is "becoming a country committed to asylum without the possibility of entry; of a haven for the oppressed without the presence of refugees". The book is in part an argument with governments and the authors ask why there is a lack of vision for this country. Why, they ask, can politicians not envision Britain as a land composed of very different peoples? They equally question the attitude of the general populace, fuelled, they say, by the media, emoting at images on the television but not sympathising with the real people arriving at the ports.

The book is long, in part because of its comprehensive nature, but it is also somewhat repetitive. A more closely edited version would be of greater use as a classroom text. Another problem is that certain terms, such as "race" and "nationality", are used interchangeably or where other descriptions would be more apt. There is a limit to how loosely these words can be used. I believe that limit has been exceeded, for example, in the authors' phrase "anti-refugee racism" and when they state that Ukrainians were discriminated against because of "their race" (earlier in the text one has read that the majority of the Ukrainians were Jewish). This uncritical use of popular terms does not fit well with the authors' aim of encouraging the reader to consider the complexity of relationships and identities, rather than stereotypes.

The book makes an important contribution in its detailing of grassroots support and care of refugees. The authors point out that the media, while highlighting the terrors of violent extremists, often neglects to give accounts of the compassionate daily work done locally to support refugees. In this way the authors also extend the current debate on the state of Britain, in terms of the so-called national "identity crisis" - "who is Britain?" - to questions of what it means to be a citizen in the age of globalisation.

Refugees in an Age of Genocide is a valuable reference work on the social, psychological and political history of displacement in the 20th century, a handbook about real people and problems that affect all of us and for which we all must take responsibility.

Susan Pattie is lecturer in anthropology, University College London.

Refugees in an Age of Genocide

Author - Katharine Knox and Tony Kushner
ISBN - 0 7146 4783 7 and 4341 6
Publisher - Cass
Price - £47.50 and £22.50
Pages - 505

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