Refugee tales and migration – four books that help us understand a crisis

‘Even the well meaning fail to comprehend the reality of refugee life’: the ‘Jungle’ in Calais in 2016

Even the well meaning fail to comprehend the reality of refugee life’: the ‘Jungle’ in Calais in 2016. Photograph: Francois Lo Presti/AFP/Getty Images

There’s something vertiginous about the speed with which the political climate has soured over the past decade. From an era of falling walls and blurred borders, of globalisation celebrated as an economic tide that would lift all ships, we are now witnessing a backlash of startling viciousness. Narratives of migration have been co-opted by rightwing politicians and their media cheerleaders, who discard both facts and human rights in their efforts to conjure old fears of invasion and cultural subjugation. Literary responses to political crises generally take years to percolate through – JK Galbraith’s definitive The Great Crash, 1929 was published in 1955 – but such is the urgency of the present moment that already there are a host of books, both fiction and nonfiction, seeking to redress the narrative imbalance around the refugee crisis and immigration more broadly.

Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee is a work of astonishing, insistent importance. Like Hisham Matar and Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nayeri speaks firsthand of the refugee experience. She was born in Tehran in 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution. Her mother was a proselytising Christian, and she soon found herself fleeing Iran for the Middle East, then Italy. She was interned at Barba, a camp in a dilapidated hotel near Rome. Nayeri ended up in the US, where she attended Princeton, Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She then travelled back to Europe, to the camps, seeking to find there some relic of her own life as a refugee.

Afghan refugee and child at the Oinofyta camp in Greece
 Afghan refugee and child at the Oinofyta camp in Greece. Photograph: Muhammed Muheisen/AP

Nikesh Shukla’s era-defining collection of essays The Good Immigrant clearly informs Nayeri’s thesis. She recognises that the immediate migrant crisis is masking a deeper issue, the need to treat with dignity those to whom we offer refuge; not to demand assimilation, but to recognise the integrity of their otherness. “Refugees have no agency,” Nayeri says. “Often, they are so broken, they beg to be remade into the image of the native.” It is through writing that Nayeri has managed to “undo the excesses of my assimilation”. It’s a powerful message about the need for such stories in a world that is suffering a collective failure of the sympathetic imagination, where political regimes and rabid rightwing media seek to portray migrants as an abstract, threatening mass, rather than a patchwork of individual lives.

The Orphan’s Tale, rendered by David Constantine, is characteristic of the power of these narratives to move, to make the political coruscatingly personal. Constantine gives voice to M, a traumatised child from Sierra Leone whose parents were killed in the civil war. M came to England, was adopted, grew to be a young man, fell in love, and worked hard to provide for his girlfriend, for her daughter. Then “a clean white hand approaches and between thumb and finger takes hold of the end of a thread and delicately pulls. The unravelling has begun.”

We follow M into the sinister and shadowy immigration system, where he is stripped of his possessions, his identity, his access to his family. We leave him in a cell, where he has spent years listening to “the howling of captive fellow human beings who have been told that early next morning they will be on a plane back to where they came from, however bad that place and whatever their loves and friendships, their loyalties, brave beginnings, notable achievements and aspirations here in this worsening land.”

Children in Smethwick, December 1964, when the Conservative candidate won the seat with a racist campaign slogan
 Children in Smethwick, December 1964, when the Conservative candidate won the seat with a racist campaign slogan. Photograph: Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Jonathan Portes is an economist and academic who wrote a New Labour-commissioned study on the impact of immigration in Britain in 2001. In his short, sharp and compelling book What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Immigration?, he uses the fissures exposed by Brexit as an opportunity to carry out a historical survey of British attitudes to migrants, then to contemplate the current state of discourse in the country. The message of the book is clear – in a war of competing narratives, the line on immigration pedalled by the rightwing press cannot be allowed to stand. An ideological battle must be fought with facts and stories that counter the dominant representation of migrants as a threat to economic stability and societal cohesion.

Alongside this insularity and xenophobia, Portes tells another story: one of a country that embraces others and is built on the labour of immigrants, from the waves of Protestant refugees in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition, to the Huguenots, the Irish, the Windrush generation, east African Asians and those from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Portes notes that in the 16th century, there were immigration processing centres much like those we have now, where immigrants were “allotted to various areas for settlement”. This was not a reflection of their undesirability, though, but rather “the need to take maximum advantage of this economic opportunity”. Britain has always been a refuge for those fleeing political persecution – among them Garibaldi, Giuseppe Mazzini, Napoleon III, Victor Hugo, Karl Marx.

The book draws on a great deal of evidence to prove that immigration contributes positively to the British economy. “Immigrants do not take our jobs,” writes Portes, “nor do they make us poorer. Fears about the wider impact of immigration – on public services, crime or ‘cohesion’ – are overstated.” One of the problems, he argues, is that it has been politically expedient for the Conservative government to commingle two separate issues – austerity and immigration, a “shifting of the blame from political decisions on the allocation of resources to immigration”. He cites several studies that illustrate the lack of correlation between Ukip support and local levels of immigration, but a high correlation between austerity-related spending cuts and rises in support for the party. Brexit and the concomitant rise in extremism, Portes claims, are the direct result of the government’s attempts to rebalance the books in the wake of the financial crash. He ends on an upbeat note, claiming that “public attitudes to immigration in the UK are at their most positive in decades”.

Despite the positivity of Bloomfield and Portes, it’s hard to look at the regimes of Trump and Orbán, the rise of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, the persecution of minorities in Burma, Cameroon, Xinjiang and elsewhere, and not to feel that these are dark days we’re living through, that we’re less open, more inward-looking, less accepting of others than at any time in living memory. Nationalism, xenophobia, human rights, hospitality – these are both the stories we tell about ourselves and how we define ourselves in relation to others. It is these stories that shape the geopolitical world, that give us licence to welcome or reject those who come to us in need. One of the striking messages from this timely collection of books is that political systems are set up to treat people in general, rather than individually, and yet each story, each life, demands to be read, to be acknowledged, on its own particular terms. In ignoring them, we allow the story of immigration bellowed by the rightwing press and self-interested politicians to be the only story.