Can fiction help change our perception of refugees and migrants?

As we watched the hulk of the overloaded ship finally cast off into the dark, carrying our hopes with it, the chimes of some distant church clock reached us faintly through the damp night air. Twelve o’clock. Time, which had been measured only in the slow forward movement of the throng, now took on a different meaning as a collective slump of despair spread through the thousands still waiting at the port. A seemingly impossible number of refugees had succeeded in boarding the British ship. But now the Stanbrook had gone, tilting low in the waterand we were left stranded, at the mercy of the cruel victors whose arrival could not be far off. How much time remained?

Children were crying, an old man standing near us cursed the fascists, yelling his abuse into the darkness while his wife made futile attempts to calm him. Rumours of rescue passed in forlorn wisps from one group to another, forming and dissolving like ripples on the ocean. But mostly people were silent, exhausted by days and nights on the road, trudging with as many of their possessions as they could carry, defeated, despairing, afraid.

The above was an early draft of the opening paragraphs of The Red Gene. I was still experimenting with possible scenarios, still deciding where to situate my protagonists as the inevitability of a Republican defeat in the Civil War became clear. In the end, I discarded it and took the plot in a different direction; I set Rose and Miguel elsewhere as they faced the prospect of imminent victory for Franco. But the scene I described, in the port of Alicante, was realistic enough by all accounts.


Fifteen thousand people had gathered at the port in the hope of escaping Franco’s forces. The Stanbrook was captained by Archibald Dickson, a Welshman who left his cargo of oranges and saffron on the dockside and instead allowed two and a half thousand desperate refugees to board his vessel, occupying every inch of space above and below deck. Leaving the port, he had to brave missile attacks from the rebel destroyers forming a blockade there. The Stanbrook took its shipload of refugees to Oran in Algeria, where they remained on board for a month in dire conditions before being allowed to disembark. They ended up in internment camps but at least they had escaped Spain.

Those refugees were the last to leave. As thousands more continued to join the waiting crowds over the next few days and no more ships arrived, many committed suicide, drowning or shooting themselves. The rest, some forty-five thousand, were rounded up by the Italian troops fighting on Franco’s side. Families were forcibly separated (does that ring any bells?). The women and children were packed into a cinema, where they had no access to water for washing and virtually nothing to eat, while the men and older boys were taken to the bullring or to an almond orchard known as Los Almendros, basically an improvised concentration camp. Later they were moved to another camp at Albatera where once again they had to sleep in the open with no protection from wind or rain, where they were deprived of food and water beyond a minimum – scarcely enough to keep them alive – and forced to work in the salt marshes. They were frequently beaten; many died of fever or starvation; others were shot, supposedly trying to escape.

During the course of the war, a steady stream of refugees had been heading over the French border as different regions fell to Franco’s rebels. By the time it became clear, in early 1939, that all hope was lost for the Republicans, nearly half a million had fled across the Pyrenees into France. They fared little better than those trapped in Spain. Interned in camps and held in intolerable conditions, large numbers died of cold, malnutrition or disease. Of those who survived, thousands were later transferred to German concentration camps, the majority to Mauthausen, where most ended up in the gas ovens.

Some, however, had better luck. Mexico, one of the few countries to welcome Republican refugees from Spain, sent ships to France, the first being the Sinaia in 1939. During the next three years, Mexico took some 25,000 of the Spaniards who had fled over the border, liberating them from the French camps. On arrival in the port of Veracruz, their passengers were given a heroes’ welcome.

Nowadays the prevailing image of refugees is of black or brown people fleeing from Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq or sub-Saharan Africa. Europe is fortifying its borders against the invading hordes, as many see them. It’s too easy to forget who started the wars or caused the environmental destruction that forced these people to flee. What does it cost to leave your home, your family and friends, your possessions, your country; to embark on a journey you know will be fraught with countless dangers; to expose your children to those dangers? How does it feel to be greeted – if you finally succeed in arriving in a safe country – by hostility and suspicion; to be locked up in a detention centre, deprived of basic human rights and any semblance of dignity; faced with the threat of being sent back where you came from? Who would do it other than as a last resort?


Memories are so short. We are all potential refugees. Eighty years ago, the exodus was in the opposite direction: refugees were fleeing Europe from Hitler or Franco. It could happen again; any minority group is at risk. Right now, sixty-eight million people are displaced due to war or persecution, one in every 110 of the world’s population. The vast majority are in developing countries, their own or neighbouring ones. But since 1993, some 34,000 have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe; countless others have died crossing the desert.

Politicians pander to populist opinion for electoral advantage, while much of the press influences that opinion by using dehumanising vocabulary to describe migrants and refugees. They exaggerate the numbers with terms like swarm and flood and invasion, designed to instil fear. Refugees are referred to as animals, cockroaches, criminals and terrorists, outsiders who do not share our ‘European values’. Hungary’s Victor Orbán has made it a crime to aid migrants and now the EU has ruled that NGOs should stop rescuing drowning refugees, instead leaving it to the Libyan coastguards. Who cares if they are left to drown? Or subjected to torture and slavery? European values??

It seems to me that not only journalists but fiction writers too could play a part here. Stories that give names and personalities to migrants and refugees are desperately needed to counter the depersonalising vocabulary of press and politicians. The image of a dead Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, caught people’s imaginations and led to a call for more humane treatment of refugees (though the effect proved to be short-lived). Novels, poetry, plays, films could perhaps help change the opinions of those who see refugees as a threat. Every migrant is an individual with a history (often a tragic one), a human being who feels and suffers like any of us and just wants a life free from danger. It seems so obvious, yet it’s easy to forget. Reading about individuals, whether real or fictional, helps us to relate, to see the world through their eyes, feel their fear and despair, understand their hopes and dreams.

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