Reviewed by Fiona Graham in SBR 2015:1
Review Section: Non Fiction
‘None of us can say we didn’t know. Now you know too’, notes Erik de la Reguera laconically, seeing security guards at the Greek port of Patras beating up undocumented migrants – in broad daylight, in front of crowds of tourists – as they attempt to stow away on a ferry to Italy. Unlike those who looked the other way in the face of Nazi persecution, today’s Europeans will not be able to feign ignorance.
Gränsbrytarna tells the stories of Norma and Oscar from Guatemala, Abou from Ivory Coast and Jamal from Afghanistan, as they struggle to cross the chasm between Third and First World. Abou and Jamal are both fleeing from persecution; Abou, a Muslim, from the followers of President Laurent Gbagbo, a militant born-again Christian; Jamal from the Taliban, who brook no dissent in his Pashtun village. Both are bound for Fortress Europe. Norma and Oscar, like so many other Central Americans, risk everything to reach the United States – not to seek refuge, but to raise their families out of the poverty which keeps half of Guatemala’s children chronically malnourished.
De la Reguera skilfully weaves a brief history of human migration and an analysis of political thought about human rights, citizenship, nationhood and freedom of movement into his narrative. His central question – why is it that certain categories of human beings can use the world as their playground, while simply crossing a border makes ‘illegals’ of others – might seem naïve to the likes of UKIP voters in these times of growing xenophobia, but it is a valid one. The historical background serves as a reminder that the time is not long past when millions of Europeans, including poor Scandinavians, crossed the Atlantic to seek their fortune.
A foreign correspondent who spent several years reporting on Latin America, first from Argentina, later from Mexico, de la Reguera clearly has a real empathy with his protagonists. Not surprisingly, his account of the odyssey of the Guatemalan couple and their companions is particularly vivid. The reader who does not feel for Norma and Oscar as they travel through a lawless and often hostile Mexico, clawing their way on to the ‘tren de la muerte’ (‘death train’) and narrowly escaping bandits and kidnappers, must be stony-hearted indeed.
But de la Reguera is much more than a deft storyteller. His book is based on careful research and analysis, and reveals some startling – and shocking – connections. In the chapter entitled ‘The Deportation Industry’, for instance, we discover that the notorious ‘Arizona Law’, which allows police officers to demand ID for the flimsiest of reasons (such as being a Latin American), is the result of aggressive lobbying by the privately-owned penitentiary sector. This is a clear instance of democracy giving way to plutocracy – and it is migrant workers, held in lucrative custody, who suffer as a result.
This is an important and timely book which deserves a wide readership in Europe and the United States. De la Reguera gives a face and an identity to migrants and refugees, who are all too often reduced to statistics on drownings off Lampedusa, or death by dehydration in the Arizonan desert. His book is a call for reflection – and action.