Thursday, February 05, 2004

Displacement and forced migration... 

I've just returned from another of the Amnesty lectures, this one delivered by novelist/playwright Caryl Phillips. This was the first of the lectures which I would think of as being strictly 'on-topic' (the series is called "Displacement, Asylum, Migration"), though the others have perhaps been more intellectually interesting. I found the lecture very moving, though and quite appreciated the light relief (I haven't slept properly in weeks, and am rapidly losing the will to go on).

He began with an anecdote, about someone who'd been his personal taxi-driver for several days while he was in Western Africa, and who wanted to go to work in America. He talked of the barriers in the way of doing so, with the introduction of online forms requiring 'a new form of literacy' and the man not entirely possessing the old and having missed the due date for the application form. The rest of the lecture was both very personal and historically and politically significant for all of us. He talked of the migrations in his own life, starting from a move from St. Kitts to Britain as a baby, and the deep prejudice, hostility and even hatred that his parents had (not naively) been willing to face in order to provide 'an opportunity for growth' for him, and later for their other children. He talked of later moves, to America where after a long time he had begun to feel at home without ever intending to do so, and of the displacement he and others felt who'd moved, not out of necessity, but in pursuing this personal growth. They'd all been willing, his parents, his associates and himself, to face the suffering involved in displacement, and would always have been willing to do it despite this cost.

This he contrasted with the much deeper pain involved in forced migration. While it may take as little as a few generations to feel the warmth of belonging when one has moved voluntarily, the psychological and spiritual trauma of forced migration was something that would perhaps never die, or would take longer than any of us could imagine. He referred, principally, to the Atlantic slave trade and to the lasting memory of that for all Africans of the Diaspora and those born out of the forced migration, saying that that was one migration which he would always regret, the effects of which all of us, whatever our origins, are still living out, with that sense of difference sown into our culture at the very roots. He said it was pernicious to argue that the 'cultural renaissance', which had come from the diaspora, was a 'benefit' of the slave trade. He said that Duke Ellington and all the rest could have their achievements, but that his sympathy, every time, would be with the people who had suffered in the forts on the Western coast of Africa, and those cultural achievements could not, even taken all together, make up for the suffering of even one person there. Because no African wanted to leave Africa, and many who are their descendants still feel 'a long way from home'.

Whatever the reason for forced migration, he argues, the psychological and spiritual price is almost always too high. This appleis as much to internal border crossing as crossing national borders, as evidenced by the experiences of refugees in the Sudan and Sierra Leone. The trauma which results from these experiences is far more enduring than any physical trauma, and cannot be treated with humanitarian aid. Forced migration can never be worth it. Yet at the same time humans do have a huge capacity to absorb feelings of displacement, when they choose to do so voluntarily, searching for growth. The taxi driver was an example of this. No matter what difficulties would face him, he was willing to go through them to make something of himself in America. Ultimately, the crossing of borders to grow is one of the most natural human instincts, which we should all, always encourage.

I guess that's a bit of a rambling summary, particularly given all these lectures will be published eventually, but I just wanted to write something of what he said, because I was quite affected by it at the time, though looking back it's really all very simple stuff....

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