Human Cargo

An Interview With Caroline Moorehead

John Freeman
6 min read
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Caroline Moorehead, the British author and activist, has spent the last two decades writing about refugees and prisoners, but four years ago she decided she’d had enough of sitting on the sidelines.

“I thought to myself, I’ve gotten so much out of the world of human rights,” says the 60 year-old journalist and biographer, “it’s about time I put something back.”

During an interview in New York City, Moorehead described the moment that pushed her over the edge. “I was in Cairo about four years ago and we went out to this shantytown, where mothers would leave for the day and essentially lock their kids up until they got back at night. The kids would just lie there in these tents all day. In the heat. Doing nothing.”

Moorehead went back to England and raised enough seed money from a wealthy friend to start a legal defense fund to help asylum seekers prepare their applications. She also helped start a nursery school so that children in the refugee camp had someplace to go during the day.

“This happens on just $1,000 a month,” says Moorehead, sounding proud, yet looking sad. “It’s so easy.”

Unfortunately, as Moorehead knows well, it’s not always so easy to make things happen for refugees and displaced people. In spite of numbering about 17 million, they are an invisible population to many.

That’s why Moorehead wrote Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees (Henry Holt, hardcover, $26), a profound book made up almost entirely of stories of such people. The book was recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

“I just wanted to tell the stories,” she says. “Their testimonies are all they [have], really. They haven’t got anything else. And so their testimonies become their passports, in a way.”

To read Human Cargo is to encounter the world on a very different kind of passport. In Cairo, Moorehead introduces us to Abdula, a Liberian boy who tells of witnessing his father being roasted alive over an open fire before being chopped to pieces, and Abu, a former soldier who was forced to slice open a pregnant woman’s belly.

When Moorehead met these refugees, they were living nearly 20 to an apartment on just $40 a month, the amount one of them brought in because he had been given official refugee status. Although the dollar goes far in Cairo, it didn’t go far enough. The money allowed the children vegetables a few days of the month, but much of the time they simply lived off bread and water. They rarely left the flat, in fear of being rounded up and shipped back to Liberia, where worse fates awaited them.

Human Cargo starts with that situation and then recounts visits to nine other locations from Australia to Mexico, sketching portraits of lives upended by war and famine and brought to a halt because of a border.

“There’s all this talk about how we live in a borderless society now, about free trade and open markets,” says Moorehead. “All these people will tell you that’s not the case.” And, in fact, many places you might think would be receptive to refugees—such as Australia, which, after all, started as a convict colony—are among the worst for a refugee to wind up.

As Moorehead reminds us, the Howard administration there has stashed some asylum-seekers on the island of Nauru. The ones who make it into Australia itself are funneled into sweltering, overburdened camps, which are surrounded by razor wire.

Conditions are so bad there that an Iranian boy recalled that when an escape riot was quelled in one location, those still inside took the broken glass and were caught trying to kill themselves. Another boy said he was caught digging his own grave.

Given such conditions, she says, it’s no surprise that 90 percent of the world’s refugees show signs of depression. Even successful resettlement can be lonely. In one passage, she describes how Dinkas from the Sudan were successfully resettled in Oulu, a small town in Finland’s far north, where it is entirely dark for several months of the year.

“I thought, ’this is such an image of the world gone mad,'” says Moorehead. “They treat them so beautifully, they receive them, they settle them, they give them nice apartments, they give them enough money to buy clothes, and there they are—they’re all about six-foot-six—these enormous, lonely, solitary black Dinkas wandering around the streets of Oulu in the dark. And you think to yourself, ’it’s mad.'”

Moorehead has done lots of interviews, but she’s especially vulnerable when the stories involve children. “In Afghanistan, a woman began telling me this story about having to leave her baby by the side of the road, and I knew where it was heading. And I just hardly could bear it. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know that I can listen to this.'”

But she did, and she has been listening for years. Moorehead went to work for the London Times in 1980 and shortly thereafter began writing a column about human rights. She started by focusing on prisoners who had been detained in countries where they were neither charged nor tried—such as “enemy combatants” held by the U.S. now in Guantanamo—and told their stories. She moved on to a general human rights column, made films for the BBC and wrote books on topics ranging from kidnapping to apartheid to Bertrand Russell and Freyda Stark.

Moorehead writes that there are about 17 million people being watched over as refugees, displaced people and persons of concern by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. It is only a lucky few who get out, the book says, and the journey they undergo is almost always long and arduous—and often upon arrival, they realize the journey really has just begun.

Though the total number of refugees has dropped, she says, from a high of 19 million in the '90s, conditions for their care have gotten worse. Border zealousness is seen the world round, and even worse than physical barriers, she says, are the legal ones.

“Tony Blair in England has made great mileage by the fact that applications for asylum halved between 2002 and 2004,” says Moorehead. “Why did they? Well, they sure as hell didn’t halve because there were less people needing asylum, they halved because it became nearly impossible to get asylum. And why should we be so proud of that? We should be ashamed.”

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