In 2015, the news media were saturated with coverage of a refugee crisis that was supposedly overwhelming Europe. Right-wing politicians such as the UK’s Nigel Farage criticized the European Union as “mad” for allowing uncontrolled migration, while the Slovenian prime minister warned that the refugee crisis could usher in the collapse of the E.U. Tabloid news capitalized on the hysteria, running sensationalized stories about a Muslim “invasion” of Europe that threatened to upend the peaceful coexistence upon which the union was founded. The “swarms” of migrants and refugees were depicted as bringing with them a dangerous disrespect for women, for European laws and values and for the continent’s cultural heritage. At its worst, nationalists portrayed the influx of refugees as a Trojan horse for migrants wanting to “leech off” Europe’s social benefits system as well as for ISIS terrorists eager to slip in and wreak havoc.
Patrick Kingsley, the Guardian’s inaugural migration correspondent, has been at the front-lines of the crisis, reporting from more than 17 countries. In The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First-Century Refugee Crisis, Kingsley aims to humanize a population that has too often been reduced to “swarms” and “hordes,” represented by images of bodies bunched up on dinghies or streaming across borders. Kingsley emphasizes the complexity of the crisis, introducing migrants who have risked their lives crossing unforgiving deserts, war-zones, and seas to reach Europe from different parts of the globe. Their determination serves as evidence for Kingsley that their passage into the continent cannot logistically be blocked, and that it instead needs to be better managed. The wide-scale migration is not an inevitable crisis, he postulates but is rather “caused largely by our response to the refugees, rather than by the refugees themselves” (6). Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Kingsley’s account is his ability to blend oftentimes emotional stories of individuals with the complex context of wider migration trends, while also pointing fingers where finger-pointing is due. For example, he notes that the crisis may have been alleviated had the United States and other countries resettled a meaningful number of refugees. In all, his call is not completely novel, but is no less important: The global community urgently needs to rethink its policies toward and perceptions of migration.
Kingsley is careful that the larger narrative is never lost in the specificities of an individual character’s story or, vice versa, that the stories of real human beings are not lost in the scale of the crisis.
Kingsley writes with welcomed compassion, diligence, and clarity. His style is personable and sincere, resonating as something of a journalist’s notebook. It is, in both style and analysis, the work of a tireless and fast-paced reporter rather than that of an academic scholar. He introduces us to a cross-section of actors, including the coastguards and volunteers who rescue migrants at sea, the oft-maligned smugglers who help transport migrants into Europe and the border agents who aim to block them from entering. The most compelling parts, however, include the stories of refugees themselves: an Eritrean teenager tortured in Libya, a four-month pregnant woman walking toward Macedonia who worries that she may have suffered a miscarriage during her journey and a Syrian whose story we closely follow as he embarks on a third attempt to reach Sweden, among others. The first third of the book covers the arduous routes to the Mediterranean, particularly through Africa’s Sahara desert, and the smuggling industry that has flourished in recent years. The book then shares the stories of harrowing voyages—some successful, some deadly, but all traumatic—across the sea, where, each year, thousands of people drown. Finally, Kingsley travels with migrants as they make their way through Europe, using the internet as their guide.
Kingsley is careful that the larger narrative is never lost in the specificities of an individual character’s story or, vice versa, that the stories of real human beings are not lost in the scale of the crisis. One such way this balance is struck is through closely following the story of Hashem al-Souki, a former civil servant from Syria, whose journey is interwoven throughout the book. His wife and three children eagerly await him in Egypt as he embarks on a journey to Sweden, where he hopes to gain asylum so that he can relocate his family and provide for his children the future that was lost in Syria. His story is not exceptional, but rather, “the story of an everyman, in whose footsteps any of us could one day tread” (12). Al-Souki’s narrative forms a skeleton for the book, while alternating chapters present the crisis from its wider perspective. Through al-Souki’s story, we learn not only about the odyssey to Europe, but also about the conflict in Syria that prompted him to flee with his family in the first place. Al-Souki’s story provides a helpful linear plot line to an otherwise disjointed story, as well as an individual refugee with whom to sympathize. Nonetheless, countless other memorable individuals appear. One 35-year-old Syrian powerfully explains why people are so willing to trust the sea and so determined to reach Europe, despite all its risks: “Right now Syrians consider themselves dead. Maybe not physically, but psychologically and socially [a Syrian] is a destroyed human being, he’s reached the point of death. So I don’t think that even if they decided to bomb migrant boats it would change people’s decision to go” (127).
Were the war in Syria magically to end tomorrow, the influx of migrants into Europe would continue, though perhaps in diminished numbers. He makes sure to emphasize just how dire the situation is for individuals fleeing from elsewhere, including those fleeing totalitarianism in Eritrea or war and terror in Northern Nigeria.
However, Kingsley emphasizes that this crisis is much larger than just the debacle in Syria, although Syrians did constitute a majority of the individuals entering Europe in 2015. Were the war in Syria magically to end tomorrow, the influx of migrants into Europe would continue, though perhaps in diminished numbers. He makes sure to emphasize just how dire the situation is for individuals fleeing from elsewhere, including those fleeing totalitarianism in Eritrea or war and terror in Northern Nigeria. His focus on African migration provides a much-needed counter-argument to a problematic trend of distinguishing between refugees and so-called economic migrants, wherein the former are often privileged, and certain people, like Africans, are often assumed to have less convincing asylum-claims. Having myself reported on the situation of refugees in Turkey, I have witnessed how attention on Syrians frequently neglects the trials and tribulations of others, particularly Africans, who often face discrimination in their asylum claims and in humanitarian support. Left-wing politicians and activists have often exacerbated a distinction between economic migrants and refugees in order to advance the rights of the most vulnerable in the face of nationalist opposition. Kingsley notes, however, that economic migrants, too, have accepted extraordinary risks and experienced horrific conditions along their journey to Europe. Further, the distinction between a migrant and a refugee is not always so clear-cut as often assumed. And lastly, migrants will continue to pass into Europe whether or not Europeans agree to it—the only question is whether it will be an intentional and streamlined relocation or a disorganized and conflictual one. As Kingsley notes,
“The European right might wish they wouldn’t take those risks. Those on the left, who delineate between good and bad migrants, might feel these people have less rights to do so than those fleeing Syria. But, sooner or later, both camps will have to figure out how we can best absorb so-called economic migrants into our society.” (53)
Ultimately, through drawing out the scale and diversity of migration into Europe, he convincingly argues that a long-sighted policy involving migrant resettlement in Europe is urgently needed, as no singular political solution—such as a resolution to the crisis in Syria—can thwart migration.
Migrants will continue to pass into Europe whether or not Europeans agree to it—the only question is whether it will be an intentional and streamlined relocation or a disorganized and conflictual one.
Despite Kingsley’s noble attempts to provide a voice to the voiceless, there are several uncomfortable aspects of the book. First, while Kingsley introduces a broad spectrum of individuals, we hear noticeably little about women. I am well aware that female refugees are often wary to speak with male journalists, let alone to go on the record and have their stories told to a global audience. Nonetheless, Kingsley has proved himself an exceptionally capable and proactive journalist, who, given that he can track down smugglers, can undoubtedly find women to speak on the record. We do hear from several women—including Fattima (the woman concerned about a miscarriage mentioned above)—but their stories, though interesting, are ever-so-briefly told. In Kingsley’s defense, statistically, asylum seekers skew heavily toward young men. However, women face a number of challenges often unfamiliar to their male counterparts—including pregnancy and sexual assault—that seem worthy of mentions.
Second, one cannot help but feel a profound sense of discomfort at the disparity inherent to the task of reporting on migration. Kingsley undoubtedly aims to amplify the voices of and humanize refugees and migrants; he is not merely interested in depicting others, but instead, in ensuring their voices are heard. At the end of the book, we read a message directly from al-Souki, explaining that he shared his story with Kingsley because he “wanted the world to understand why people like me are risking our lives” (322). At the same time, there are few situations that so starkly reflect the gross inequality of the migration crisis—or perhaps the modern global order—than a journalist seamlessly passing through borders to trace the journeys of refugees who must risk their lives, some dying along the way, to traverse those very same borders. This is a point that does not go ignored by Kingsley, who refers to his own reporting as an “absurd privilege” and for which I do not think he can be faulted (11). Nonetheless, it is important to remain attentive to the ways by which certain reports are deemed credible accounts of others’ experiences and certain individuals are able to travel the globe, for the most part, unhindered simply because of their nationality.
Overall, Kingsley has fulfilled his job as a journalist. He has diligently recorded the worst migration crisis of our generation; he has shared the stories of those who so often go unheard; he has sought to shatter myths about some of the most vulnerable peoples; and he has called to account those wanting to ignore a crisis and those responsible for worsening it. There are several places where academic readers may wish for deeper reflection and interrogation, but overall, Kingsley has written an account of the migration crisis that should appeal to a wide audience. His arguments are not entirely unique, and indeed may seem redundant to those closely familiar with the crisis; yet his story should encourage readers to consider more than simply the crisis in Europe, but instead, to critically scrutinize the very structure and deeply ingrained inequities of our global system. On a practical level, Kingsley’s book should serve as encouragement for Americans and Europeans to warmly welcome refugees and migrants with a sympathetic understanding of their plight. This book begs of readers and those in power to rethink migration and how it might be managed. With more than a million asylum seekers already in Europe, however, perhaps Kingsley’s account comes too late.