Commentary Magazine


Escape to Freedom: The Story of the International Rescue Committee, by Aaron Levenstein

Refugee Relief

Escape to Freedom: The Story of the International Rescue Committee.
by Aaron Levenstein.
Greenwood Press. 338 pp. $29.95.

If communists took over the Sahara, the joke goes, there would soon be a shortage of sand. There would probably not, however, be a shortage of refugees. “In every country taken over by the Communists,” Aaron Levenstein writes in this moving history of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), “an exodus got under way.”

Levenstein’s book is a chronicle of IRC’s efforts over the last fifty years to aid refugees not only from countries taken over by Communists, but from all regimes where oppression has flourished. Founded in the 1930′s, the agency took, as its first main assignment, the task of helping people escape from the Nazis by way of Vichy France. Since then IRC has come to the aid of countless others, providing them with medical care and food in refugee camps, resettling them, and even finding them jobs in the countries of their adoption. In 1978 alone, IRC came to the assistance of people fleeing from thirty-six countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

IRC is not the only agency doing this work; several other important bodies exist in the United States alone. Yet IRC has been a major force in refugee relief since 1956, when it came to the aid of Hungarians fleeing their country in the aftermath of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising. In the course of its life, IRC’s annual budget has risen from under $10,000 to $26.9 million (in 1980).

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Levenstein’s book is austere in its details. He names only a handful of the many individuals who have raised funds and organized relief efforts for IRC, and he gives only a few glimpses into the lives of the refugees themselves. One of the most heartbreaking documents he cites is a letter from a Bengali woman fleeing the civil war in what was then East Pakistan. It reads:

Father, where are you today we do not know. My elder brother, the elder sisters, maternal uncle, all of them have been killed by the Pak army. Whatever little savings we had, it is all finished. Mother has become insane; the whole day she laughs or cries. Where you have left us, those people have turned us out. We are now sitting on the road and spending our time in starvation. Father, you come back. Probably we will not live any more.

This letter never did reach the person to whom it was addressed; it finally came to rest in IRC’s files, which undoubtedly contain many more such tales of extraordinary suffering. Reflecting that somber reality, Levenstein’s book, although it is primarily intended as a celebration of the dedicated volunteers of IRC and of those refugees who braved incredible dangers to escape oppression, is inevitably also a chronicle of dark times. As he moves from continent to continent describing IRC’s relief efforts, the headlines of the past thirty years return to life: the Hungarian revolt, the war in Biafra, the slaughter in East Pakistan, the savagery of Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda. The darkest tale of all is that of the millions killed in Cambodia under Pol Pot, the fanatical Communist who once told journalists he was developing a new kind of socialism which would abolish every vestige of the past.

Almost as disturbing as the stories of flight from such savagery are the incidents of forcible repatriation. According to the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, “No contracting state shall expel or return a refugee to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.” But, as Levenstein documents, the Convention has often been flouted. Thai officials, for example, forcibly repatriated 42,000 Cambodians to an area in Cambodia that was heavily mined by the occupying Vietnamese army, with the result that thousands were killed. The government of Hong Kong has forcibly repatriated several thousand escapees from Communist China.

Even the United States, though it has certainly been more hospitable to refugees than most countries, has sometimes acted shabbily, particularly with regard to Haitians. Levenstein writes that the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted boats filled with Haitian refugees and forced them to turn back. (U.S. authorities have also deported one of the leaders of the Haitian democratic movement.) Although IRC has been active in pleading the cause of the Haitians, so far, according to Levenstein, it has met with little success in its efforts.

In general, U.S. immigration authorities favor refugees from Communist countries over those from right-wing dictatorships; the latter, it is contended, should properly be called economic rather than political refugees. IRC has consistently argued against this practice, which it terms unfair. Yet we do need to recognize, as Levenstein certainly does, that the major reason there are approximately 17 million refugees in the world today is Soviet expansionism. In the postwar era the Soviet Union and its surrogates in Cuba and Vietnam have produced millions of refugees in Asia, Africa, and Europe; and Central America has already begun to add its share.

In his concluding paragraph, Levenstein writes that “the desire for freedom is alive in the human spirit.” The story he tells in his book bears out this human craving, but it also reveals that in the last forty years, more often than not, it is the enemies of freedom who have had their way. IRC and other refugee relief organizations have done much to alleviate the suffering thereby caused, but in the end these agencies can only help the victims of tyranny; they cannot deal with tyranny itself.

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