The Courage of Migrants
By George Packer
The New Yorker
|The Rohingya—stateless Muslims who have taken to the Andaman Sea by the tens of thousands to escape oppression in Burma—are throwing themselves into the unknown without any saving illusion of the promised land. - PHOTOGRAPH BY S. YULINNAS / AP|
In the summer of 1983, I made the rash decision to get on a small cargo boat in the port town of Victoria, Cameroon, and sail across the Gulf of Guinea to Calamar, Nigeria. My Lonely Planet guide to West Africa had misinformed me that a weekly passenger ferry made the same route. When I discovered that no such ferry existed, there wasn’t enough time to exit the country overland before my Cameroonian visa expired at midnight. At the dock, a forty-foot vessel called the Beg God, with a single outboard motor, a cargo of nails in wooden boxes, a crew of three or four young toughs, and a pilot named Abraham was leaving that night for Calamar. For a price that seemed extortionate, I would be allowed on board. Abraham wouldn’t say how long the trip might take. It was the height of the rainy season and the ocean was wild, with five-foot chop. I was twenty-two and didn’t think twice.
There was another passenger on board the Beg God that night, a non-paying one. He looked miserable, and he wasn’t interested in talking. After the first hours of drenching waves and seasickness, neither was I. But I learned a few details: he was Nigerian; he had been living in Cameroon illegally, doing menial work in Douala, and had gotten into some sort of trouble that I no longer remember but that at the time seemed fairly mild. Instead of paying the cost of imprisoning him, the Cameroonian government was having him “repatriated” to Nigeria, via cargo boat.
That was all—I never learned more. The trip lasted thirty hours. At dawn on the second morning, we docked at Calamar. As I prepared my explanation for the Nigerian port authorities, I noticed the man being led away by a pair of customs officers. His head was down; he had become completely passive. But for a second I caught his eye and had the strongest sense that he didn’t intend to remain in his own country for long.
Even in the early nineteen-eighties, African cities were awash in migrant workers. Lagos had its Ghanaians and Cameroonians, Douala its Nigerians and Chadians, Abidjan its Malians and Burkinabé. It was striking that many of them were just trading places: Mauritanians sold cloth in Lomé’s central market, while Togolese drove taxis in Nouakchott. Statistically—by the standards of the World Bank, say—their life chances might have been no better in the other place than at home, and perhaps worse; but this was seldom a consideration. The incredible decision to uproot oneself—to say goodbye to home and family, travel hundreds or thousands of miles into the unknown, and risk ruin and death with hardly a naira or West African franc to one’s name—didn’t always answer to facts. They weren’t nearly as strong as the impulse behind this mass movement of human beings to and fro across national borders: the belief that life must be better somewhere else.
During the year and a half I lived in Africa, I saw the consequences of migration everywhere. Lonely men, trying to survive in foreign cities, would have that particular look of anxiety, expectation, and defeat on their faces; the women they left behind in villages like the one where I was an English teacher waited for the next installment of money, falling into depression when it didn’t arrive. (And it often didn’t.) The toll on everyone seemed immense—the hardships, the uncertainty, the longing. I could tell the migrants by their aloofness, the way they concealed the pain of dislocation behind poses and jokes. There was something heroic about this effort, and migrants were some of the most compelling people I met. They saw themselves, their origins, and the world with more openness and more clarity than those who lived with what was given. Whether consciously or not, they had chosen to make themselves anew. They would be changed forever, and perhaps they would never be at home anywhere again. It was a modern impulse, and in tearing themselves loose they joined the modern world.
One of the books that meant the most to me in Africa was V. S. Naipaul’s novel “A Bend in the River,” which had been published a few years earlier. A character named Indar tells the narrator, his cousin Salim, the story of his journey from a village on the east coast of Africa to London:
We have to learn to trample on the past, Salim. I told you that when we met. It shouldn’t be a cause for tears, because it isn’t just true for you and me. There may be some parts of the world—dead countries, or secure and by-passed ones—where men can cherish the past and think of passing on furniture and china to their heirs. Men can do that perhaps in Sweden or Canada. Some peasant department of France full of half-wits in chateaux; some crumbling Indian palace-city, or some dead colonial town in a hopeless South American country. Everywhere else men are in movement, the world is in movement, and the past can only cause pain.
It isn’t easy to turn your back on the past. It isn’t something you can decide to do just like that. It is something you have to arm yourself for, or grief will ambush and destroy you.
In those days, relatively few Africans made it to Europe. The immigration policies of countries like France, Britain, and Spain were more liberal then than they’ve since become, but the costs and logistics of communication and travel were prohibitive. Every now and then you heard about someone who had made it to Paris or London, and they were regarded with awe, like the explorers of centuries ago, and also with envy, and even a little pity, because they would be truly alone and gone for good. But the world was still too big for the imagination of most African villagers to conceive of Europe.
Today, the only true destination for African migrants is Europe. Whether or not life is harder in Ziguinchor, Ouagadougou, N’Djamena, and Enugu than it was thirty years ago, globalization has shrunk the distance and expanded the imagination. When we read about the boat tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea, the thousands of Africans—and Middle Easterners and Asians—drowned on the lethal voyage to the shores of Europe, we think of desperate souls struggling to escape the hell of their lives. And it’s true.
It’s also true of the Rohingya, stateless Muslims who have put themselves in the hands of murderous smugglers and taken to the Andaman Sea by the tens of thousands to escape oppression in Burma, the only country they know as home. The Rohingya are throwing themselves into the unknown without any saving illusion of the promised land. The neighboring countries—Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia—offer them no hope of a refuge. The lucky ones are allowed to stay as unwanted guests without access to jobs or school. More recent arrivals have been turned back to sea in dangerous vessels, or tolerated on a short-term basis. No nation on earth, including ours, is willing to take in more than a few Rohingya—except for Gambia, a hopeless sliver of a country in West Africa, whose own citizens are fleeing to the coast of Libya.
But in addition to being desperate, these new boat people are courageous, and not just physically. They have the heart to leave everything they know behind, to make themselves anew somewhere else. In this sense, they’re better than most of us. They deserve that recognition, if not a home as well.
By George Packer
The New Yorker
(Click here for the PDF copy)