Posted in BOOKS

Book Review: What Is A Refugee?

“In early September 2015, a single photograph produced what may become one of the iconic images of all time. Its roots lay in Maelstrom that is contemporary Syria. Alan Kurdi, of Syrian Kurdish background, was only three years old when he drowned from an inflatable boat in which he and his family were attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece capsized. His mother and brother perished at the same time. A picture of his tiny body, lying face down on a sandy beach, flashed around the world, serving as a terrible reminder of the dangers that face people who are seeking to flee danger.”

The question here arises why should we bother about Alan Kurdi or millions of people like him who struggle every day with their lives, just to ensure survival?

We are one species sharing one profoundly interconnected world and all humans are “our” people. And when the oppressed and the marginalized die because they are oppressed and marginalized the powerful people should be held responsible.  As Maley rightly puts it, “refugees are human just like us. The problem is all too often we fail to treat them as human, something that says more about us than them.”

Three-year-old Alan Kurdi would have been alive today had his family were welcomed by the European Union, or Canada or USA or any other country. The reason the world reacted so viscerally to that image of the dead boy on the beach is that instinctively we all knew that his blood was on all our hands.

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UN HCR) had repeatedly stated, this massive flow of people will not stop until the root causes of their plight are addressed. For that, we need to understand the world of refugees from the very core. The first step to this humanitarian approach is reading the book “What is a Refugee” by William Maley.

In his book, Maley offers his readers a comprehensive insight about the estranged world of refugees. All the eight chapters of the book concentrate on the apprehensive tensions around the refugee work and divulge related information on a broad range of topics: legal framework, political and historical considerations as well as modern considerations.

The book does not have a single theme but multiple recurring themes which help readers comprehend the book from a wider perspective. First, Maley puts forward the ideas of exile and refuge. According to him, “All too often, those who speak of real or genuine refugees prove to have a poor understanding of what is a refugee, and instead substitute their own ideas of what a refugee should be like.” He explores the above-stated theme by critically approaching the definition of “refugee” as well as simultaneously analyzing major historical events that led to the forced exodus. The conclusion which penetrates throughout the book is that helping the refugees is a humanitarian act which is constantly challenged by political interests.

Second and the most prominent themes of all which is persistently echoed in the book is about how behaviour is driven by motivation. Maley states that “Real people in the real world almost always have a range of motivations for how they behave which makes it dangerous to draw conclusions about how they should be viewed if they seek to be recognized as refugees.”  He justifies and elucidates on the theme by providing various illustrations and persuades the readers to believe on the notion that in general people want better lives, and refugees who voice such a hope should not be spurned on that basis. In addition to that Maley also reflects on the complex motivations which the states, be it autocratic or democratic pursue. The conclusion being, “those in dire peril should be wary of assuming that government will hasten to their rescue.”

The third and the last theme that runs throughout the book is that refugees are the products of the “system of states”, rather than threats to it. He explicates the theme by tracing the origin of the modern system of states to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and detailing about the implications: the state would carry responsibility for the well being of subjects or citizens.

To sum up, I would like to conclude that this book is an invaluable asset because it educates about a crisis that is known by everyone but felt only by a few. Even from the academic point of view, the book holds paramount importance as it captures the milestones of the development of refugee law in a chronological order and illustrates that an image of refugees taking over jobs and demanding money from the host state, is far from reality. It engages the readers by repeatedly providing recent cases of refugees in a narrative and easy to read style. Therefore, this book is a must read for people seeking to comprehend the convoluted refugee crisis.

Thanks for reading.


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