Review: Ethnic and Racial Studies

Vol. 30 No. 1 January 2007

by Liza Schuster
Department of Sociology
City University

This beautifully and accessibly written account of many journeys is a much needed addition to the current literature on migration. Eschewing categorizations such as asylum-seeker, refugee or economic migrant, Yaghmaian tells the stories of migrants from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan on their journeys west into Europe, chronicling not only the many difficulties and barriers they face, but their extraordinary resilience, courage and tenacity.

The title is interestingly misleading: the book details the attempts of the migrants to embrace the European infidels, and the rejection of the migrant infidels by Europe, and yet the religion of the migrants seems one of the least significant factors on their journey.

Yaghmaian doesn’t engage in analysis or generalizations, instead allowing the stories to speak for themselves, and the reader to reach her own conclusions. Reaching the end of the book, it was striking that although there are divisions and distinctions among the many migrants Yaghmaian encounters, these seem to have much more to do with language than with religion or anything other identifying factor. People adopt national or ethnic identities strategically.

The power of the work lies in Yaghmaian’s humanization of what is all too frequently presented as a faceless stream of others washing up against Europe’s borders. At the same time, by following the trajectories of a dozen individuals, he illustrates the problems common to all. Yaghmaian relates the stories of the mostly young men, some older men and few women he meets in Istanbul, Sofia, Athens, Patras, Rome, Paris, Calais and London.

One is struck by the warmth of the relationships he forges with the people he encounters, and re- encounters on these journeys, and by the degree of trust they grant him. Although this is not an academic work, statistics and the texts of laws are few and far between and there is no explicit exposition of a methodology, one is struck nonetheless by how this professor of political economy has used ethnographic methods so well.

Yaghmaian does not romanticize the people he comes to know, and shares with us some of the misgivings he develops about the behaviour or motivations of some. One story among the many striking and painful accounts in the book, is that of Purya and his determination to cross from Bulgaria into Greece. Caught and returned four times to the Bulgarian police, beaten and punished more severely each time, he becomes only more determined to reach Greece and, eventually, he succeeds. This is what each of those forced to cross borders illegally count on Á that on the next attempt, they will get through. And each failed attempt counts as a further investment into their migration project making further
attempts inevitable.

The migrants are often not well informed about what to expect across the next border on their journey, in spite of contacts who have made it to the next halting place. Nonetheless, they are clear about the risks and dangers that they face. The brutality meted out at the borders does not deter, it just makes life more difficult and the need to succeed more urgent.

As a result of the relationships sustained over time and across borders, and the cumulative force of these personal histories, this book offers important lessons, lessons that must filter through to policy-makers and shapers if we are to end the brutality and human rights abuses that occur at the borders and in the territories of the European Union. More than any single work, Yaghmaian weaves together the many and disparate reasons why people leave their homes, and what pushes them onwards from one country to another whether it is deadly homophobia threatening the Iranian Tufan, the boredom of repressive regimes, or poverty. These motivations are not explored in order to justify or excuse
someone’s decision to migrate, only to explain. By allowing people to speak for themselves and refusing to judge, moralise or prescribe, Yaghmaian has written what will become a classic of migration literature.

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