The New Odyssey reads as a novel. It is an engaging, insightful page-turner. It is a story book with plots and sub-plots, and a menacing background of failing politics. However, the story is not fiction. It is a fascinating and heart-breaking description of the lives of migrants on the move in 2015. As such it is an important first-hand witness account of significant historical events.
As the year 2015 unfolded, the narrative of migration followed a helter-skelter route. Fear of the barbarian at the gate of Europe gave way to compassion. But the twists of fate turned the debate once more to the fear of the terrorist intruder. Patrick Kingsley, the Guardian’s Migration correspondent throughout this turbulent year, spent the time accompanying real people on their journeys from war, repression and impoverishment to Europe. It makes sobering reading.
Writing in an accessible style, Kingsley evokes compassion for his subjects. He portrays them as people who are victims of events and circumstances beyond their control and yet as people wanting to protect their families, preserve their dignity and be agents of their own lives. He describes the migrant trails from Agadez across the Sahara, the Libyan and Egyptian coasts across the Mediterranean and the shorter routes on the Aegean. Then he recounts the increasingly well-worn paths through the Balkans. He follows one Syrian refugee Hasheem al-Souki all the way to Sweden, who becomes his central character. It is a climactic moment in this book when Hasheem is finally granted asylum and is able to bring his wife and children to join him in Europe. We too easily fail to realise how stressful the bureaucratic process can be for someone traumatised and separated from their loved ones.
In contrast, the systems they encounter far from inspiring confidence are frightening. On the one hand are the smugglers who in varying degrees exploit desperate people. He talks with them and provides us with an important insight into the trade which has emerged in response to the arrival of peoples. He undermines the image of the smuggler as presented by the European politician. The development of this trade is a consequence of the harsh realities in which it has developed. The smugglers are unattractive antagonists in the drama. However, they play a subordinate role to the real villains.
It is the politicians who fail refugees and create the milieu for crime to prosper. Beginning with the regimes of Assad in Syria or Afewerki in Eritrea, he describes the hell from which migrants have no option but to flee. He recounts the experiences which caused people to leave their countries. On the other side of the coin are the well-heeled countries of Europe whose response has been totally unfit for its purpose. Always in the background of Kingsley’s storyboard is failure of bureaucracy, border police and political decision making. This difficult, challenging but manageable situation has been made infinitely worse by a lack of political leadership.
This is a book that serves as a really helpful introduction to the refugee crisis. It is not a technical book but a narrative of human lives. As such it is moving and thoughtful. However, it should also be read by experts in our field. We need to be reminded that we are working for people whose lives matter as much as anyone else’s. And it should be read by politicians. Yes, there needs to be realistic, technical, process-driven responses but they should always resist untrue counter-narratives which are not rooted in the real-life experience of the people who continue to seek a safe place to rebuild their devastated lives.
Patrick Kingsley: The New Odyssey- the story of Europe’s refugee crisis - Guardian Books & Faber and Faber 2016