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Moving tale of refugee life fails to provide a fix

Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees, By Caroline Moorehead, Holt, 330 pp, $26

Shayan was only 5 years old when his family, fleeing persecution in Iran, took him to an Australian refugee camp. Surrounded by violence and rioting caused by the horrid living conditions, Shayan began wetting his bed. When the family was placed in the infamous punishment block, not for wrongdoing but to make room for other arrivals, the terrified Shayan stopped eating.

''After eleven months, it was clear to everyone that Shayan had become extremely disturbed," reports Caroline Moorehead, a writer and human rights activist based in London. ''Doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder." A counselor's report ticked off symptoms: ''bed-wetting, nightmares, anorexia, insomnia, fearfulness."

Shuttling him to another violent camp didn't improve things. A psychologist warned the government that Shayan had to leave detention or he would sink into chronic trauma. The immigration minister ignored appeals to release the family on humanitarian grounds.

More than two years after the ordeal began, a court ruled that the family qualified for refugee visas and could find housing. It could not repeal Shayan's insomnia, nightmares, and bed-wetting, which persisted as Shayan recently neared his 10th birthday.

Moorehead is not your typical travel writer. The paths she wanders bypass boutique-bedecked squares to traverse cramped, sewage-strewn quarters in the world's refugee camps; her subjects in ''Human Cargo" are the estimated 20 million human beings who can't go home.

Some run for their lives from butchers, whether on a government payroll or fighting to overthrow governments. Some seek escape from poverty. Being a refugee may improve upon the hell they've endured, but it remains for many an odious purgatory. United Nations officials responsible for refugees are swamped, Moorehead reports. ''There are too many cases, too much suffering, too little time."

''Human Cargo" tries to personalize a tragedy by detailing the stories of individuals like Shayan and Zainab, a Palestinian woman who has been a refugee for more than a half-century, all the while longing to return to the home she fled when the state of Israel was founded in 1948: ''That dream, the certainty that return will happen, has sustained her . . . it has held her together during the years of poverty and deprivation, through the shelling and the civil war, the fear and the uncertainty," Moorehead writes. ''It has made possible an entire life lived in a corridor of the mind. Like all dreams, it has become an alibi, a shadow; and like all such shadows, it does not bear disturbing."

Summing up Kuankan, a refugee camp in the African nation of Guinea, she says: ''The poverty of the camp refugees is about more than just not having things; it is about having no way to get them, no means of altering or controlling one's own life. Their poverty curbs and crushes all hope and expectation. Kuankan's refugees are destitute of possibilities."

Moorehead is better as an observer than as an analyst. She largely ignores a cardinal rule of advocacy writing: Never pose a problem without prescribing a solution, however tentative. That may be the reason that her book, while often compelling, seems repetitious. With one poignant tale after another, it triggers a reader's feelings of outrage and tragedy. Yet at some point, tragedy and anger numb. Moorehead convinces you that policies on refugees are botched around the world long before she reaches her epilogue.

''There are things worth trying," she writes, ''from the speeding up and improving of the asylum process, to the spreading of more accurate and realistic information about true conditions in the West and the dangers and pitfalls that await immigrants, to the setting up of regular programs so that people can travel legitimately and not take the asylum route. But none can ever achieve enough, unless the root causes -- poverty, violence, and instability -- that send people abroad in the first place are addressed."

Jesus said that we will always have the poor, and millennia of human history suggest that some degree of violence is endemic, so all of this is grim news indeed.

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