Crossing the Water

The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First-Century Refugee Crisis BY Patrick Kingsley. Liveright. . $27.

The cover of The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First-Century Refugee Crisis

In 2011, Muammar Gaddafi addressed world leaders with a prescient threat. If they intervened to end his shaky rule in Libya, he told a French journalist, they would be inviting “chaos, Bin Laden, armed factions . . . You will have immigration, thousands of people will invade Europe from Libya. And there will no longer be anyone to stop them.”

This tactic had worked well for Gaddafi in the past. Fearing a mass arrival both of Libyans and of the millions of sub-Saharan Africans who’d left home to live and work in the oil-rich country since the 1990s, members of the European Commission had done their best to keep him happy, and in 2010 even sent Libya sixty million euros in “development” aid in exchange for his help in curbing migration across the Mediterranean Sea. The dictator’s old pal Silvio Berlusconi had gone further, offering billions in the hope that Libya would take back the migrants the Italian navy kept intercepting on their way to Lampedusa. As Europe’s economic woes grew, so did Gaddafi’s leverage over it: If welcoming refugees in ordinary times is a hard political sell, it’s even harder in the midst of a financial crisis. Gaddafi may not have been popular in the corridors of the United Nations, but thanks to the largely undocumented—and in the Europeans’ view, unruly—migrant labor force within his territorial borders, he had a bargaining chip more potent than any army. Never mind that he was known to torture people to death in secret jails, or that those boats that did set off across the Mediterranean during this time left on the watch of his cronies, with his tacit approval. The suffering of people so desperate to leave that they would board unseaworthy boats with their elderly parents and small children was out of Europe’s sight and, as far as the EU was concerned, out of mind, too. European leaders are perfectly content to prop up badly run or repressive governments that shield them from foreign (and especially Muslim) “others”; the irony is that this defensive position only hastens the cycle of repression, upheaval, and, ultimately, migration to Europe.

Unrest in Libya, of course, is just one of many factors contributing to the refugee crisis that has roiled European politics for years now. They include (but are in no way limited to) a military dictatorship in Eritrea, economic hardship across the Maghreb, religious clashes in Nigeria, and the drawn-out civil war in Syria. Syrians who have fled the conflict are finding dwindling support and sympathy in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon—places where they could in the past seek refuge. In 2015, just over a million refugees and migrants entered the EU by sea, and almost four thousand died trying. Rising tides, heat waves, and drought have also played their parts: The wonks at the United Nations Development Programme have even made elaborate calculations suggesting that if global temperatures rise by three or four degrees, an additional 330 million people will be displaced, many of them permanently.

For journalists, the crisis offers both an opportunity and an enormous challenge: how to cover so much ground with clarity and purpose? Patrick Kingsley, the Guardian‘s first-ever “migration correspondent,” was among the earliest reporters to tackle the refugee beat. With a book on Danish culture and a couple of years in Egypt under his belt, Kingsley emerged as a one-man wire service, broadcasting the latest news to his many Twitter followers and providing insight into the stories of people arriving in Europe by land, sea, and air. His latest book, The New Odyssey, is a compendium of his work on the scene, but he structures the wide-ranging narrative around the experiences of one man, Hashem al-Souki. The conditions of their first encounter are as dramatic as the journey that follows: Kingsley meets the al-Soukis in Egypt after they fail to board a boat that will wind up shipwrecked, leaving its five hundred passengers to die in the middle of the sea.

Hashem is presented as a sort of Syrian everyman: apolitical, middle-class, married with three kids. He has a quiet life in the town of Haran al-Awamid, near Damascus, working for the local water board’s IT department. Still, as a Sunni Muslim, he is a natural target for Syria’s Alawite elite once the civil war begins, and one day in 2012, armed men show up at his door. They take him to one of Bashar al-Assad’s infamous detention centers, lock him up, and torture him for six months, for no apparent reason besides the intensifying sectarianism of the battles outside. When Hashem finally leaves prison, he’s taken home via a circuitous route to avoid the snipers who, his driver tells him, have recently shot two of his brothers-in-law. Through the window, Hashemsees a different place from the one he had known. “All around them, their country is collapsing,” Kingsley writes. “And so, too, is their home. Literally so.” With their house reduced to rubble, Hashem’s family moves into temporary accommodation until the situation becomes untenable. Then they give up and apply for passports—which are miraculously granted thanks to a sympathetic police officer—and make their way to Jordan by bus, then to Egypt by ferry, passing through checkpoints manned by border guards who steal luggage and demand a bribe to spare a passenger’s life.

They have no intention of leaving the continent—”Egypt was supposed to be safe for Syrians,” Kingsley writes—but then a military coup ousts the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi, who had granted Syrians access to state schools and hospitals. His successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, changes the country’s policies almost overnight; within days of the family’s arrival, Syrians are no longer welcome. Refugees are almost by definition creatures of circumstance: The family starts to make plans for Europe. After their initial, aborted attempt, Hashem decides to go alone and bring over his wife and kids later. With the help of some smugglers, he boards a rickety boat bound for Italy. It’s a bumpy and terrifying ride, packed with exhausted, seasick men, women, and children. But there are moments of grace, too: Hashem watches dolphins jumping; he shares some of his food with kids he meets onboard. He arrives in Catania in one piece, and from there, accompanied by Kingsley, makes his way through France, Germany, and Denmark and on to Sweden, traversing Europe armed only with “backpacks and apprehension.”

A UN refugee agency rescues 186 people on the Mediterranean Sea, 2014. A. D’Amato/UNHCR UN Refugee Agency.
A UN refugee agency rescues 186 people on the Mediterranean Sea, 2014. A. D’Amato/UNHCR UN Refugee Agency.

Hashem’s is a classic refugee narrative. He travels by car, by sea, by train, and on foot. He’s not particularly fortunate, but he’s not without privileges, either: He has an education, some savings, and perhaps most crucially, the ability to pass himself off as French or Italian to European border guards simply by using the local paper as a prop. Kingsley has a parallel advantage as a reporter: With his dark features and backpack, he’s occasionally mistaken for a refugee himself, and this allows him to see Europe’s borders from a completely different vantage. Walking around in Izmir, Turkey, he’s approached by merchants who try to sell him a life jacket; the owner of a hotel charges him the going rate for Syrians, then grows frustrated and angry when he presents a British passport.

The juxtapositions Kingsley and Hashem observe also make for memorable scenes. In Milan’s central station, there is a “chic shopping mall, with branches of Zara, Mango and Swarovski,” and “old men in tailored suits sip on their espressos in the cafes” alongside “Syrians, Iraqis, Eritreans and Somalians—some of them still sunburned from the sea.” Hashem is in awe; days ago, he was near death on a broken boat, and now he’s sitting on a marble bench using Centrale’s free Wi-Fi. “For a few minutes,” Kingsley observes, “the station feels like a beautiful castle, built for the migrants.”

Kingsley’s exuberant curiosity gives the book some informative twists, as he interrupts Hashem’s trajectory to explore the wider context. His observations on the economics of migration are particularly revelatory, most of all those about the inner workings of the refugee-smuggling trade, whose protagonists he pursues doggedly. We learn that a lot of their communications take place via Facebook; that when their ships sink, the intermediaries must aggressively “rebrand” (but seldom go out of business); that there are hierarchies on the boats themselves, with some passengers traveling up on deck while the Africans are “mostly shoved downstairs.” Kingsley makes a pit stop at a desert outpost in Agadez, Niger, which has been a hub for the business of refugee smuggling for years, and learns—surprise!—that despite a purported crackdown, local authorities are very much complicit in the trade: It supports their economy. Kingsley notes that while traffickers can be as dishonest as the next guy trying to make a buck, they aren’t the problem per se—they’re just there to meet an existing demand. If Europe truly wanted to keep migrants safe, it would rethink the asylum process, not cut costs on sea rescues to try to dissuade people from coming.

The New Odyssey presents itself as “the story of the twenty-first-century refugee crisis,” but while Kingsley covers his bases and then some, the book falls short of a definitive account. He doesn’t quite shake the deadline-driven urgency of the daily-news reporter, occasionally succumbing to tired clichés. The lexicon of the refugee crisis is full of imprecise, watery metaphors: waves, wakes, flows, floods, influxes, floodgates, tides. This sort of language, even when employed inadvertently, has a dehumanizing effect—as though refugees aren’t individual people but the mass invasion that European leaders fear—and despite Kingsley’s broader goal of putting a human face on the “flow,” he does allow these verbal tics to weaken his otherwise powerful storytelling.

In his author’s note, Kingsley notes how hard it was—as a person, not a reporter—not to interfere and lend his protagonist money in the early hours of the morning when he couldn’t get change for a train ticket. For the most part, though, he succeeds in leaving himself out, which gives his reportage an admirable rigor. In a book about such arduous journeys, there isn’t much space for a Western journalist’s navel-gazing. He allows himself a personal yarn toward the end of the book, comparing his and Hashem’s travels to the Canterbury Tales, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—but fortunately, that’s the extent of Kingsley’s literary indulgence. He’s at his best when he sounds like what he is: a well-educated young reporter, seeing things that nothing could have prepared him for and observing the “love, resilience and devotion” that goes into every one of these crossings.

Kingsley’s biggest contribution in The New Odyssey is to drive home a very basic notion that many nonetheless find difficult to understand: Refugees take enormous risks because there simply is no other choice. Even the highest wall or the most treacherous border won’t put off a parent who sees a chance for a child’s survival. No EU policy can deter people from fleeing what appears to them to be certain death, whether it comes in the form of shells, starvation, poverty, or natural disasters.

One especially disheartening aspect of Hashem’s tale is that getting to Europe isn’t even the hard part: The cold indifference of the bureaucratic process that follows can be still more dehumanizing than being crammed into the back of a truck like a farm animal. After all, if the bureaucrats deny his asylum claim and send him home, they will do so with full knowledge of what he’s been through and what awaits him. In Hashem’s case, things actually do work out in the end, more or less—he’s granted permanent residency in Sweden—but in the meantime, the crisis on Europe’s peripheries has turned into business as usual. “Perhaps the most extraordinary part of this scene,” Kingsley writes, recalling Hashem’s trip across the Mediterranean, “is just how ordinary it has become.”

Equally familiar is the sight of the most desperate people once again being used as bargaining chips in a cynical power play. In a November speech, the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sang a familiar refrain. If negotiations over Turkey’s EU membership did not resume, and if the European countries did not make good on their pledge to provide Turkey with $6.3 billion, he would pull out of their current agreement and “open the gates” to the continent. We already know what happens next.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a journalist in New York. Her book The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen was published by Columbia Global Reports in 2015.