We Are Not Refugees: True Stories of the Displaced by Agus Morales
Mass migration is in the news almost daily, but what’s lost in stark headlines and impassioned tweets is the human element. But people don’t leave their homes or their countries, often for good, without a story—often a devastating one. Spanish journalist Agus Morales’ We Are Not Refugees, which is brimming full of people’s stories, heart and humanity, is a corrective to rapid-fire soundbite consumption about mere names such as Syria, immigrants, Mexico, and the wall.
We Are Not Refugees: True Stories of the Displaced (written in Spanish and translated into English by Charlotte Whittle) is a work many years in the making. As a journalist, Morales has covered migration crises in conflict-torn countries from Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In South Sudan, he visits large camps of internally displaced people, or IDPs, who are technically not refugees since they are still in their home country but are still susceptible to violence, disease, and hunger. He worked aboard a Doctors Without Borders ship performing rescues off the coast of Libya; the organization invested in boats to pluck migrants out of the Mediterranean Sea, which has one of the most deadly migration routes in the world. And Morales tracked people fleeing Central America’s deadly Northern Triangle aboard the limb-stealing freight train migrants hitch rides on known as the Beast.
Through his reporting from war zones, refugee camps, and stops along mass-migration routes, Morales witnesses living conditions that most people in the so-called developed world would find shocking. His interviews with people living in these situations are often heartbreaking in how frank they are—and enlightening to those of us who grew up with a modicum of security. He drives past dead bodies in South Sudan; the worn phrase “war torn” is too tired a cliche to describe the fresh hell he sees there. Walking through a United Nations Protections of Civilians camp, he skirts a river of open sewage (the photographer he’s there with, who steps in it, isn’t so lucky). The PoC camps have saved lives by providing safe, U.N. peacekeeper-protected sites for civilians when violence flares. However, “these camps were originally devised for an emergency, not as a long-term solution,” he writes. But that’s what they’ve become—permanent camps. That, and a bureaucratic mess.
We Are Not Refugees is a necessary read for understanding human migration, but it’s not an easy one. As he notes, “Violence is the driving force behind exoduses.” Morales visits a camp full of women in the Congo who were displaced from their homes via sexual violence, a common weapon used on women in conflicts worldwide. A woman shares a soul-crushing story about being raped and how she’s lucky her husband stayed with her, because most men leave after their wives are raped. This woman is an IDP, not a refugee, and she can’t go back home. She knows she’ll just be raped again if she does.
But one of the defining themes of We Are Not Refugees is that the horrors that Americans might imagine when they think of a refugee camp are just a fraction of the global migration story. Morales interviews a moneyed businessman who owned a large factory in Syria that was smashed by the war. When Morales meets him in transit in Greece, at the port of Lesbos alongside thousands of others fleeing the war, the man cannily says, “My factory was the size of this whole port.” He’s taking his family to Oslo, but he wants to return to Syria to reopen his business.
In Central America, Morales continues his quest to unpack the definitions that governments and the media use to broadly categorize groups that aren’t so conveniently monolithic. He meets men who he’s sure are smugglers, just as he does on the Doctors Without Borders boat picking up migrants who have passed through Libya and are heading for Italy. He also meets mothers traveling with small children and boys who were maimed by the Beast, which lurches and speeds along the tracks with riders clinging to the roof of the train’s cars. The distinction of “economic migrant,” a phrase we often hear in U.S. immigration discussions, gets awfully fuzzy when Morales meets people who have fled Honduras because the local gangs were extorting more than they could pay from their meager earnings and then threatened to kill them and their families.
You won’t find a deep legal dive in this book. As a Spanish journalist telling people’s stories, Morales doesn’t explain that in the U.S., gang members threatening your life isn’t enough to qualify for refugee or asylee status. (As an American journalist who has covered immigration in the U.S., I can explain. The U.S. grants asylum requests on the basis of five qualifiers: You must fear persecution in your home country based on race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. Does a grandmother in Guatemala running a tiny fruit stand who is threatened at gunpoint by gangs qualify? Not until immigration law starts including “small business owner” as a persecuted social group in the world’s most corrupt and gang-infested countries.)
However, Morales does cover how politically motivated decisions—such as closing the borders in Eastern Europe, which pushed migrants off the land route and onto a far more dangerous one across the Mediterranean—affect migrants, as well as the labels we use for them, which often translate into policy. As Morales tells people’s stories, he makes one thing clear: He has too often witnessed the dehumanization of the people we call refugees. “Refugees are people … no matter how much we keep talking about refugees … it will, unfortunately, be necessary to keep saying that word: people. It isn’t naive to call them people: this conscious decision contains a desire to reinforce their identity as humans rather than refugees, which is what, for many, defines them, and which is meaningless, since it isn’t how they see themselves,” he writes.
And that last bit—that they don’t see themselves as refugees—is the crux of Morales’ reporting. The talking heads on every side of the debate can say what they want. Morales lets these people tell their own stories. The question now isn’t what to call them, but whether we’ll listen.