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Escaping is not new in history

The ten long years of the Trojan War are mostly dull. Skirmishes and stalemates, minor manoeuvres, attack and counter. Both Greeks and Trojans dream of opportunities for heroism, while they languish on the beach or sigh and flag in the listless city. And after Achilles and Hector, comes Odysseus and his great equine gift idea.

While the topless towers burn, Aeneas, a soldier, carries his infirm father out of the city through a secret passage, and with a small group of friends and loved ones, sails away from the city. Their small fleet is tired and they beg the Gods to help them find a home. After years of struggle, false starts and failures, they eventually settle in Italy.

Aeneas’ descendants will found the Roman Empire.

That’s literature. If Aeneas’ world was a little more like ours, we could imagine gangs of shabby Trojans hanging around Italian train stations and park gates, waiting for Carthaginian and Phoenician tourists to drop by, buy some of that crazy Delphic stuff.

It’s not like life, but it holds some instructive thoughts for us. Firstly, the war: Aeneas has to flee from his own country – a war caused by the ambitions of another nation (and not by Helen). Secondly, the struggle: it’s a story of unbelievable and narrow odds that includes loss, drifting and homelessness. Thirdly, the help: the Gods and some people provide respite and welcome to Aeneas and friends, and necessary help for them on their journey. Finally, the sense of destiny which pushes Aeneas on, and pulls him out of despair. This final one is instructive for us, because it’s a reason that we commonly ignore; war and settlements we can fathom, but to believe that people flee when there is no war – that people leave because they want to make better lives for themselves – is dismissed as wrong, or worse, soppy stuff for bleeding hearts.

Aeneas Flees Burning Troy, Federico Barocci, 1598 Galleria Borghese, Rome


Well, Aeneas could escape or face certain death. He may have lived – as a slave – but escape was de facto a necessity, as was the desire to settle too.

Not everyone fleeing Troy was destined for great things, and our perception of Aeneas’ journey is coloured by his sense of destiny. But do we need escapees to be “great” in order for us to see who they are and what they want? When we look at today’s refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, do we even see the person behind the title? Do we allow for the possibility that those people might have had to flee for their lives? What’s more, do we allow for the possibility that those people might have certain desires and intentions to complete their escape? Do we allow for the possibility that migrants and refugees might contribute great things to our society?

After all, Aeneas’ escape was just the beginning of his struggles. Escape isn’t complete until you settle.

What is escape?

The stories we tell are not only forms of escape themselves, but they are often about escaping:

  • The Buddha tried to escape the self.
  • Oedipus cannot escape his destiny.
  • Dante demonstrated that there was no escape from the divine Will.
  • 1984 warns us about having to escape government power.

And nearly every love story ever made has to do with escape – from Romeo and Juliet to Anna Karenina; from Dr. Zhivago to Brokeback Mountain – if only the lovers could get away from it all!

IMDB’s list of the best 250 movies of all time as voted by users, is topped by The Shawshank Redemption – a movie about escaping from prison, and escaping from a form of mental tyranny in which the individual accepts society’s control; where such power over the individual is both normal and justified.

In other words, the stories we tell ourselves aren’t simply about escape per se; they’re not just about unnecessary struggle, nor are they about simply escaping circumstances. They’re about escaping into freedom. Our emphasis on self-determination probably comes from a need to remember its value. We expect it so naturally, our need to repeat stories about struggles towards self-determination is a reminder that there exist forces and constraints which would bind us, control us, rob us of our freedom. Freedom has not been traditionally championed in human history; duty and service have been the chief virtues in many different societies the world over. Even as an idea, freedom has needed to escape certain shackles: the enduring legacy of the Enlightenment is liberty, fraternity and equality, but only for a select few. Slavery, the oppression of women and minorities continues today.

Escape, and the stories we tell about it can act therefore as a challenge to our beliefs: how free are we really? Do we believe in freedom and equality for all? Do we believe in sharing freedom with escapees?

The world is full of people like Aeneas, looking for their chance to escape, and lands in which to settle. Do our stories about escape really live up to the world we’re creating? Do we really allow people to escape into freedom?

Escape in history

Escape isn’t merely a literary notion or device, a way of demonstrating the value of freedom; escape is a reality for people the world over.

Tied up for entertainment: Harry Houdini’s feats in some way dramatise the escapee’s spiritual struggle. Image: Daily News


Escape isn’t a moment, it’s a process. You don’t stop escaping until you’re where you want to be, until where you’re safe; until safe settlement is achieved, the circle isn’t complete. That makes the moment of escape simply the first in an act towards self-determination; the first step is all about trying to create the conditions for you to become who you want to be. Houdini’s feats are probably seen as mere entertainments, but in some way, they enact the struggle towards freedom we don’t see: mental, emotional and spiritual escape. The question is, once you’ve got the chains off, what do you do?

For our ancestors, what they wanted to do and who they wanted to be was pretty straightforward: they wanted to live and be left alone.

“Out of Africa” is the name of the theory. It states that somewhere between 125,000 – 60, 000 years ago, homo sapiens left Africa, and that these humans replaced other populations of the genus Homo. These anatomically modern humans replaced homo neanderthalus in Europe, and homo erectus north Africa and Asia. A competing view holds that homo sapiens left Africa and inter-bed with homo erectus groups.

Both views hold that migrations took place. Using complex genetic reconstruction and historical detection, anthropologists and scientists have created a world picture of early homo sapien migrations, which looks like this:

Map showing early homo sapiens migration and technology. Image:


According to National Geographic, one of the main motivating forces for early humans to leave Africa was the climate; a sudden drop in temperature was the first cause which made humans migrate to every continent except Antarctica, over the course of 50 millennia. .

The astonishing breadth and scale of human migration shows us one thing: migration and settlement is the story of humanity. Migration is not an exception to the normal human state – for most of our recent history, we were on the move.

The complexity of escape

We’ve seen that escape as a notion might be central to our idea of our own freedom, and we can see that human migration prompted by a need to escape has been normal for most of our recent history. Yet, our notion of escape, and who gets to escape into luxury, and who has to stay in a filthy camp is deeply politicised.

Escape is complex. It is impossible to identify single causes that lead to escape; war or climate alone don’t prompt people to escape. Indeed, conflicts are often linked to resources, and resource scarcity caused by environmental factors. Furthermore, these conflicts often take on a more sinister sectarian aspects. This complexity is also exacerbated by the socio-economic and cultural status of actors in the giving community and the receiving one, if such terms are applicable. Furthermore, add the amorphous media to this mix, with its images of “the good life”, as well as local political climates, and there we really are speaking about intensely complicated issues.

To talk of escape from conflicts, political and economic crises, climate change or even boredom and convention therefore, is an enormously simplified way of discussing the causes of escape.

What’s the difference between a refugee and asylum seeker? How are they different from migrants? We might think that war made Syrians escape – and to an extent, that’s true. But what about the social networks involved in the process? Richer, better-connected people had access to resources, networks and knowledge which not only made their escape efficient, it gave them a different status within the new culture they entered; these people didn’t have to escape through refugee camps.

Map created by UN: Who is hosting the world's refugees?


Think about Spanish and Greek migrants to other EU nations; the current rationale says they’re escaping their countries’ poor economies to find jobs elsewhere. But what about less well-educated people? People tied into a system of reliance on local and family networks? As such, their escape not only becomes unlikely, but when it is possible, makes their escape a function of their status. That’s to say, their prospects in a better economy aren’t all that much better at all. Economic migration, again, is only part of the evidence that helps us understand what escape is, who gets to do it, and where they end up.


Sheltering refugees – a centuries old Indian tradition

When the plight of Syrian refugees is discussed world over these days, many in India and outside do not know that this country has hosted refugees since centuries. 

According to a 16th/17th century legend, the collapse of Zoroastrianism in Iran led a group to migrate to the present Gujarat state. After Partition in 1947, 7.2 million Hindus and Sikhs (and very small number of Muslims) moved to India from Pakistan.

After the abortive 1959 Tibetan uprising, more than 1,50,000 people followed the 14th Dalai Lama, of which 1,20,000 are still in India. Their government in exile is functioning from McLeodganj. In 1960, the present Karnataka state allotted 3,000 acres of land for their settlement.

The Government of India has built special schools for them for providing free education, health care and scholarships for those who excel. They are given a permit to live in India, which is renewed every year or six months, but not to new arrivals. Every Tibetan who has crossed 16 years of age has to apply for this permit. The Government also issues "Yellow Book" to a refugee after one year, which allows them to travel abroad.

During the Bangladesh Liberation War, India opened its border for Bengalis fleeing genocide by the Pakistan Army’s SSG units. Indian states such as West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura accommodated them in camps.

There are also 400 Pakistani Hindu refugee settlements in India. More than 60,000 Afghanis came to India after the 1979 Soviet-Afghan War. In India, they are not recognized as refugees, but UNHCR conducts a programme for them. In 2015, the Indian government granted citizenship to 4,300 Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan. More than 1,00,000 Sri Lankan Tamils were also sheltered in India during the Civil War.

The latest arrivals are Rohingyas from Burma who have been declared as the most persecuted ethnic group in the world by the UNHCR. The Indian government does not officially recognise them as refugees, but has allowed the High Commissioner to operate a programme for them.

As per the latest UNHCR data, the number of refugees registered with it till August end 2015, is 27,000 and asylum seekers 6,000, mostly from Somalia, Afghanistan and Myanmar. A small number of 59 Syrians also live here. Some of the refugees this reporter met said that they are not very happy to stay in an alien country but thanked India for providing them shelter. 

According to Ms Suchita Mehta, senior communications and public information assistant, UNHCR, Delhi, "A refugee is given a card that facilitates him/her to get free education till the age of 13 and medical facilities in government hospitals." But, like any other Indian, they also have to stand in queue for availing these medical benefits.

A Somali refugee, who has been in India for the past seven years, said, “The Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi died once, but every day we die here of our lives.” Another Rohingya refugee, who has been here for the past three years, said, “I want education, a livelihood, and a place to live. The place I live can hardly be called a shelter.”

A visit to their settlement shocked this reporter -- stinking surroundings,  potholed roads, no streetlights and no proper food. Locals think they are rich as they are foreigners. So they charge more for any item they buy. They also face threat from local residents. One cannot take up a job as they have no residence proof. Even if they manage to get one, they are paid less than their Indian counterparts. They end up in doing some menial jobs for a living. For example, a qualified anaesthetist was found working in hospitality business. One refugee said he had to pay $2 to a local resident to get him one SIM card on his identity.

"India’s refugee policy is an example for the rest of the world to follow"

“Traditionally, India was liberal towards asylum seekers and refugees,” said Saud Tahir, project coordinator of Refugee Rights Initiative, a part of Human Rights Law Network. However, no law exists in India to deal with refugees as the country is not a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. “The ad hoc nature of refugee policy in India and the absence of a robust domestic legal framework have led to uncertainty and arbitrariness in the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees,” said Shailesh Rai, senior policy advisor, Amnesty International India.

However, a local raised voice against the government for accommodating these refugees in the country. "Hundreds of Indians go to bed without food every day. Instead of taking care of us, the government is interested in projecting a good image of the country abroad. Many refugees are involved in drug trafficking and women in other illegal activities," rued a youth, Rajinder Singh from a nearby slum. 

* Names of refugees are withheld on their request.