Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: African Migration, Human Rights and Literature



Time to read

3 Minutes

Guest post by John Eekelaar (Emeritus Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford). John Eekelaar FBA was Fellow and Tutor in Law at Pembroke College, Oxford from 1965 to 2005 and also Lecturer and later Reader in Law at Oxford University, specialising in family law and legal theory.

Review of African Migration, Human Rights and Literature, by Fareda Banda (Hart Publishing, 2020)

Migration does not simply involve moving physically from one space to another, even with all the hardships and often dangers that that can involve. It can also confront the migrant with entanglement in a host of legal regulations and bureaucratic behaviours and, on top of that, experience of unfamiliar, and often hostile, social norms and attitudes. Hovering above all this are the norms of international human rights law, which seek to influence the way the migrant experiences these things, but which may often seem remote and inaccessible. In this remarkable book, Fareda Banda seeks to reveal those experiences in the case of the African diaspora. She does this through the extensive literature (including poetry) that bears on the topic. The characters in the literature may be fictitious (though not all of them are), but their stories are rooted in reality, and this is brought home to the reader by the seamless interweaving into those accounts of actual cases from the jurisprudence on human rights in its case law, the pronouncements of human rights bodies and actual texts of human rights instruments, backed up by appropriate references to academic writing.

The material is broken down into a wide range of contexts in which migrants have these experiences. These include strategies for gaining entry, whether in dealing with smugglers or obtaining visas; the process of seeking asylum; dealing with detention and a hostile environment; and various forms of economic exploitation and prejudice. Special attention is given to intersectionality, particularly problems encountered by women (such as trafficking and modern slavery), and issues that arise with respect to sexual orientation and gender identity. Conditions in the migrants’ countries of origin are not forgotten. Among many examples of the integration of literature, academic research and the law are the descriptions in novels by Kiran Desai and Sunjdeev Sahota of measures taken by migrants to raise sufficient sums to pay visa fees (including selling a kidney) alongside references to Belgian socio-legal research and to UK litigation. In the area of people smuggling, works by Chika Unigwe, Leila Slimani, Epaphras Osondu and others are discussed together with the UN Protocols on Smuggling and Trafficking, and case law of CEDAW, the European Court of Human Rights, and the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States. A chapter is devoted to the circumstances of children. This reveals the scope and depth of writing that exists in that genre which takes the reader into the often nightmarish experiences of these children of the process of migration, and also their long term marginalization in their new societies.

The book starts with a more general survey of the role, not only of literature but also of art, both in promoting quests for justice and awareness of human rights and in overcoming cultural and identity division. It is against this wide canvas that the accounts revealed in the literature of migrants’ specific experiences subsequently unfolds. Towards the book’s conclusion, there is an eloquent reflection on the idea of the ‘wall’, not just that of Donald Trump, but that imagined in John Lanchester’s novel of that name and the Berlin wall in Meron Hadero’s story also of that name. We are invited to think about how walls create divisions that harm those on both sides, but also how these can be mitigated, if not overcome, by kindness.

As will be clear, this is not primarily a work of legal analysis, but rather a resource from which those who construct, interpret and implement the relevant laws can acquire better understanding of the individuals who are affected by them and the worlds they inhabit. It does not claim to provide definitive answers to all these painful situations. The journalist Gary Younge’s Utopian advocacy of absolute freedom of movement is considered unlikely to be seen as acceptable or workable. But Banda concludes that there is need for states that send and those that receive migrants to reflect on and adhere more closely to the demands of human rights norms, and for a more accurate and enlightened public understanding of the people involved. This book is a notable contribution to meeting that need.  Hence it serves not only as an important supplement to the legal materials used by those working in the area, but also as an accessible source for enhancing general awareness of and sensitivity to the realities.  The richness and poignancy of the narratives throughout this book show how necessary this is. But there is of course much more to do to overcome the social and economic disadvantages experienced by migrant communities in this country, and elsewhere, as highlighted by the pandemic and acknowledged in the Afterword.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Eekelaar, J. (2021). Book Review: African Migration, Human Rights and Literature. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/10/book-review [date]

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