by Claire Chambers
On 19 October I am presenting at a York Explore Library event entitled Refugees, Asylum and Women's Human Trafficking in Fiction. While preparing for the talk I was reminded that in November 2013, three women aged between 30 and 69 were rescued from a house in Lambeth in south London where they had lived as modern-day slaves since 1983. The youngest woman had been born into slavery. All of them were brainwashed by, and under the control of, the girl's father Aravindan Balakrishnan, an Indian from Singapore, who had founded the Workers Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought in Brixton during the 1970s. This left-wing organization quickly became a quasi-religious cult. Its leader and figurehead Balakrishnan forbade his women members to leave the premises on their own, submitting several of them to grave physical and sexual abuse.
As I understand it, in their forthcoming book Child Migration, law experts Kathryn Cronin and Jemma Dally will challenge the current global legislation around refugees. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees led to authorities in countries across the world working to deny refugees entry, because once displaced people come under their jurisdiction they become their responsibility. Essentially, this means that the entry system is closed to anyone who is poor. If a refugee can afford convincing forged papers, she can get on a plane. If not, she can only turn to the criminal network of smugglers and agents. The Convention has spawned an irregular type of travel almost completely dominated by a criminal network: an alternative economy of forgers, lorry drivers, agents, an elaborate infrastructure and various specialisms. As authorities get wind of one trafficking route, it alters its course, in a game of cat and mouse. Also commonplace is the enormous amount of debt bondage that exists within this system.
Cronin and Dally show that more children than ever before are refugees. These minors find themselves detained at various points along their journey, and are compelled to engage in exploitative labour relations as their families back home run out of the money intended to help them move inexorably towards Europe. Yet lawyers merely interrogate the child migrant's age and the reasons for his asylum claim — a test which he is set up to fail. Rarely is the child asked about his background and his leave-taking from his family, which is an enormously significant and gut-wrenching moment. Few child migrants have any knowledge of their destination or the army of officials they will meet there, instead being told vaguely that they're going somewhere safe.
Given the prominence of human trafficking in the media, it is unsurprising that issues relating to refugees, asylum seekers, and contemporary forms of slavery have found their way into women's writing. For example, Monica Ali's third novel, In the Kitchen (2009), features a varied cast of characters from Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation, Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa, working as employees at the Imperial Hotel in the postcolonial metropolis of London. Through the focalization of her chef protagonist Gabe Lightfoot, who is unusual as a white British member of staff, Ali writes:
Every corner of the earth was here: Hispanic, Asian, African, Baltic and most places in between. … It was touching, really, to watch them all, every race, every colour, every creed.
Here Gabe unknowingly echoes Paul Gilroy's delineation in After Empire of contemporary London as a rapidly internationalizing space, which is the site of mostly 'convivial' encounters between highly diverse people. Despite this optimism, it comes to light that a Slavic man who operates the kitchen's grill is conspiring with other employees to traffic women. Coming from many different nations, these girls are sold by the gang 'like [the] meat' plied by the Slav on his grill.
Lebanese novelist Nada Awar Jarrar's An Unsafe Haven (2016) — as signalled by its title — concerns issues surrounding personal security, belonging, and asylum. The novel conveys the troubling impression that even when refugees achieve their goal of finding asylum, what seems like a safe space in a neighbouring country or the West can prove to be as perilous as the situation they ran from. Jarrar takes inspiration from one of the greatest human rights catastrophes in living memory: the global refugee crisis. Predominantly set in Beirut, An Unsafe Haven is the first novel written in English to deal with the Syrian refugee calamity. One plotline traces the repercussions of gender-based violence committed against a woman refugee. Fatima is the most damaged migrant of the several Jarrar's readers are introduced to over the course of almost 300 pages. She is protective of her young son Wassim, but appears indifferent towards the baby she has had outside of marriage. Thought to have had an affair, Fatima -– like many women refugees –- has actually been raped. Even though she was the victim, her conservative community passes judgement on her. Jarrar's narrator reflects that,
for Fatima, the experience [of finding asylum] has been something like stepping out of one black hole and falling straight into another that is deeper and darker because it is unknowable, something like losing your past and not having a vision of the future to sustain you through the present.
The diction of space evokes the vastness and incomprehensible nature of the crisis whereby women's bodies are repeatedly violated as part of both the chaos and strategic violence of war.
Trafficking is not just a problem for refugees, but also impacts internally-displaced women who have to leave their homes and find refuge elsewhere in their own countries. Anuradha Roy won 2016's DSC Prize for South Asian Literature with her third novel. Set predominantly in India, Sleeping on Jupiter is partly about the issue of child trafficking amongst internally-displaced people. As a young girl, the protagonist Nomi is impoverished and lives in a warzone. After being forcibly evacuated from her home, she ends up in an ashram orphanage in the temple town of Jarmuli. There she is abused by the ashram's guru, in scenes reminiscent of the real-life case of Aravindan Balakrishnan discussed earlier. In incantatory tones, Guruji tells her:
'You think you have nobody […]. That is not true. I am your father and your mother now. I am your country. I am your teacher. I am your God. […] Whenever you are frightened, think of my face. I will keep you safe. You have come to my ashram now. This is your refuge. Nobody will harm you. There is food and there are clothes and you have friends to play with and you will go to school.'
Here we see another instance of an unsafe haven, a demagogic man, and sexual exploitation. At the ashram Nomi and the other girls are given new names and told never to step outside its perimeter, for '[o]utside the line was danger'. When teachers or pupils try to flee this coercive regime they are beaten up and forcibly returned to the ashram. The novel centres on Nomi's return to the temple town years later to confront her abuse and those abusers still living.
This column has taken a gendered approach to asylum, focusing on how women and girls regularly experience sexual violence and may be forced into prostitution or human trafficking through their experiences as refugees or internally-displaced people. For these female subjects, what seems like a haven — a domestic space where they can settle, suspending their relentless flight from danger at least for a time — can prove unsafe, since cruelty, often sexual in nature, rears its head. Through examination of the fiction of Ali, Jarrar, and Roy, among other authors, greater understanding of women asylum-seekers' multiply-layered predicament may be reached.