2017 (US release). W. W. Norton. 368 pages.
In March 2015, UK’s Guardian presciently decided to ask one of its young journalists, Patrick Kingsley, to become a migration correspondent. Kingsley had already been working in Egypt for the Guardian and had been writing stories on the smuggling of Syrians from Egypt to Italy. Earlier in September 2014, a ship carrying 500 refugees had sunk off the coast of Egypt, killing everyone on board. Kingsley had interviewed a Syrian family who had been set to board that boat, but had been arrested before they reached the dinghy. Kingsley kept in touch with the father of the family, Hashem al-Souki.
When Hashem decided to try again to reach Europe, this time on his own, Kingsley asked if he could chronicle Hashem’s journey. Hashem agreed, and his story forms a narrative throughline in Kingsley’s book on the refugee crisis, The New Odyssey. In alternating chapters, we follow Hashem’s journey Syria to Egypt to Europe (with Sweden being his ultimate goal). He was arrested fairly early in the Syrian conflict and imprisoned in poor conditions without news from the outside. When he is released, a friend drives him home by a circuitous route. “What are we trying to avoid, asks Hashem. The front line, the friend replies.” Hashem and his family attempt to stay on in Syria, but as the situation deteriorates, they decide to flee to Egypt, which was still open to Syrian refugees at the time. Egypt becomes less and less hospitable, and so Hashem and his family, like many others, lay their hopes on making a life in Europe.
The other half of the book provides a larger context for Hashem’s journey – the political and economic realities that drove the mass migration as well as the decisions and factors that influenced the routes chosen by the refugees. He includes the stories of other refugees – Syrians, Eritreans, Ghanians, Iraqis, and others. He interviews smugglers and aid workers. Kingsley takes the reader from a outpost town in sub-Saharan Africa to the coasts of Greek islands to fields in Serbia where a stream of people treks across borders.
Kingsley’s main argument throughout the book is that Europe and other countries failed to manage the migration in a humane and organized way that would have benefited all involved. For mainly political reasons, they persisted in denial, assuming they could somehow deter the movement of increasingly desperate people. Instead, the people came chaotically, preyed upon and beaten by bandits and extortionists, rounded up like animals, dying by the hundreds in the Mediterranean.
An encapsulation of desperation: a former Syrian officer, Abu Jana, fled to Egypt after refusing to shoot unarmed protestors in Damascus. But due to Egypt’s rules about residency, Abu Jana risks being deported by the Egyptians back to Syria where he will surely be executed. ‘Why do we keep going by sea?’ Abu Jana asks Kingsley. ‘Because we trust god’s mercy more than the mercy of people here.’
The Eritreans, meanwhile, are fleeing a country as closed-off as North Korea, which conscripts a large portion of its citizens into the military, where they are often paid very little or not at all, in unsafe conditions. Kingsley interviews one Eritrean teenage refugee who dropped out of school to support his younger siblings, but because free movement is prohibited without school enrollment, the teen was arrested by the police for being outside of his house.
At one point, Kingsley includes a quote from Jeremy Harding, who has also written extensively on refugees:
We think of agents, traffickers and facilitators as the worst abusers of refugees, but when they set out to extort from their clients, when they cheat them or dispatch them to their deaths, they are only enacting an entrepreneurial version of the disdain which refugees suffer at the hands of far more powerful enemies – those who terrorise them and those who are determined to keep them at arm’s length. Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice.
I appreciated Kingsley’s interrogation of the supposed distinction between refugees and economic migrants. Throughout the book, he shows that people can’t be easily separated into these two categories. I also liked this pointed response from a Cameroonian (an “economic migrant”) on his way to a departure point in Libya: “The white man arrived in Africa by sea without a visa,” says the Cameroonian, “And we have learned to travel from the white man.”
I followed the refugee news story fairly well, especially in 2015, when the numbers and media coverage peaked, but this book still felt like necessary reading for me. Kingsley’s reporting and writing is excellent and humane.
I’ll close this review with another quote from the book:
It’s an odd experience, stepping across a border like this. On the ground, there is nothing to denote the boundary. On the Greek side, there is a field of sweetcorn and, on the Macedonian side, a vineyard. In the middle, there’s no marker that reveals you’re moving between two countries rather than two farms . . . In moments like these, you realise the absurdity of dividing the earth into fairly arbitrary parcels of turf. It’s a facile point to make, but sometimes even the facile feels profound when you’re wandering through Europe with people whose future depends on repeatedly flouting these invisible divisions, and whose own homeland is currently in the process of being divvied up into a new set of arbitrary parcels.
**Disclosure: I requested and received a digital copy of this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review. (The digital copy expired today.)**