Patrick Kingsley is the Guardian’s migration correspondent, who as well as telling the story of recent migration to Europe in the newspaper has now produced an enthralling book, The New Odyssey, which is also bang up to date. Anyone who wants to know why people leave Syria, or Eritrea, or risk the crossing of the Sahara desert, should read it. For most migrants their journeys last months or even years, for others they are shorter; for very few will they be easy and for the majority there will be almost unbearable hardships and – too often – death.
Kingsley manages to bring several different migrant stories to life, not least that of Hashem al-Souki, who escaped a Syrian jail three years ago, left Syria a year after that and has not long ago been given permanent residency in Sweden. His family, still stuck part-way to safety in Egypt, now hope to join him. We share a few of Hashem’s experiences on his two-year journey: the frightening and abortive attempt to cross the Mediterranean by boat and then the second, successful, crossing; his despair at the numerous setbacks, and his relief when he finally gets an asylum decision from the Swedish government. Hashem himself sends a message to the reader at the end of the book, a big thank you to those who have helped him and a broader appeal to all those ‘who seek to make the world into a better place’. Among these would be some people who get shorter versions of their stories in the book, like a couple called the Kempsons who live on the Greek island of Lesvos and regularly patrol the cliffs looking for migrant boats that need help.
It’s the individual stories which enliven Kingsley’s book, but woven into them is a broader discussion about why this is happening, what makes the present scale of migration so enormous, why it is likely to remain so, and what European governments are doing or should do about it. Kingsley addresses the ‘migrants or refugees?’ debate, arguing (and I would agree) that the distinction might be necessary in international law but is increasingly futile in relation to what is happening right now across Europe. Yes, a huge proportion of people on the move are fleeing repression, but then, too, they are all seeking countries where they can re-establish their lives, which is bound to draw them towards Germany, Sweden, and other parts of Western Europe whose economies are relatively prosperous and where there is more chance of them being welcomed and given residence. He argues that we should re-embrace the word ‘migrant’, since when you are describing a large and mixed group of people whose individual motives you cannot know, it makes sense to describe them instead by what they are doing – migrating.
The UK is on Kingsley’s list too, but is the country to which he gives the least attention as he doesn’t cover the part of the crisis involving the Calais camps or people’s attempts to cross the English Channel. However, he does show how preposterous is David Cameron’s attitude that Britain should mainly help those Syrians in camps in countries like Lebanon and Turkey. As he says, the pressures there are huge, only a massive assistance programme will help and this will have to include resettling far larger numbers than Cameron is talking about. Furthermore, people in those camps are already on the move, as they see no end to the war in Syria and no prospect of improved lives where they are.
Kingsley does spend a lot of time on or near the borders in Eastern Europe, tracking the journeys of people trying to get away from Greece and into Austria, Germany and places to the north and west. He finds very mixed attitudes on the part of officials and local people, including the inspiring story of the Austrian shepherd who used to cross regularly into Hungary to bring back refugees via obscure cross-border tracks. But now the barriers are going up – like Hungary’s border fence. Kingsley points to the irony that it the fence is argued to be necessary protection against ‘terrorists’, while the people that it excludes are themselves much more obvious victims of terrorism than any Hungarian is likely to be.
It’s not surprising that Kingsley’s immersion in the refugee story leads him to a very sympathetic assessment of what a better, Europe-wide policy towards migrants might be. He rightly points to the flows as being unstoppable, and urges governments to be far more realistic in recognising this. He wants all EU governments to do more and to take more people, and says that the alternative is not that people will stop coming but that there will be continued chaos and many more deaths. The recently changed practices towards boats crossing from Libya are already a small example of that chaos and those continued deaths. The problem is that, while Kingsley would find broad agreement from many people working with migrants in Britain or (like myself) on policies towards and advice for migrants, no one seems to know how these massive policy steps could actually be taken. The cruel pragmatism, bordering on indifference or even active hostility, of the Tory government towards the recent migrant story does, unfortunately, seem to reflect at least part of public opinion, in the UK and across Europe. This presumably is one of the main reasons why Patrick Kingsley has written his timely, sensitive and ultimately optimistic book.
Original post: Migration Pulse