At the start of 2015, journalist Patrick Kingsley was appointed the Guardian’s first migration correspondent, a role that saw him travel to 17 countries as “the biggest wave of mass migration since the Second World War” gripped Europe. In terms of hard numbers, we’re talking 1.2 million people crossing the Mediterranean in boats of all descriptions, fleeing wars, unrest and cruel dictatorships in the likes of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea. Now, as we said, Kingsley writes for the Guardian so you know from the outset that he’ll think terribly Leftie things like ‘All human life is important’ and ‘This is a crisis in need of a solution’, incurring the wrath of the kinds of people who write Amazon reviews and say this book is “dangerously naïve”. And Kingsley does say things like that, and does take issue with the likes of Cameron and his Government for granting a paltry few thousand migrants admission when much smaller countries like Lebanon creak and wheeze from the strain. But that’s not all it does.
The New Odyssey zooms in and out, zooming in on Hashem al-Souki as he travels from Syria to Sweden, Kingsley knowing that numbers become fog and that statistics require the humanising element of a face and a story to truly hit home. And whether we are with al-Souki as he travels alongside countless others in dangerous boats, is turned away from borders, is spirited from one place to another, has to bend himself out of shape in order to reach his final destination (a scene aboard a train in France could come straight out of Hitchcock) or, finally, caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare, it achieves its aim. Here is a person who had the misfortune to be born somewhere wracked by civil war, a person with a family who only wants the best for his children. What a monster.
When the book zooms out, we spend time with Kingsley as he interviews those people who make their fortune by smuggling people across boarders (and, interestingly, he offers sympathy – sharing the fact that there are not many other industries where people can actually earn money – whilst at the same time refuting their half truths – all of the smugglers he speaks with admit other smugglers have been known to be cruel, but not – of course – themselves), as well as others who have stepped up in the face of the challenge, such as Hans Breuer, an Austrian ‘people shepherd’ who takes time out from his own life to help just because it’s the right thing to do.
It’s a sturdy and substantial read and, as someone with a racist parent given to spouting the kinds of nonsense you find in the Daily Mail, there is much here to rebut the tired old standards that get trotted out about “why don’t they just stay where they are?” and “they only come here for benefits” etc. In fact one of the strongest points Kingsley lands concerns the attempts by both the Left and the Right to divvy up the migrants into good migrants (those fleeing wars) and bad migrants (those simply looking for a better life, often referred to as “economic migrants”) – the process of migration being so cruel and unusual that whatever the initial reason for the migration, by the end, having endured the often unendurable, all of the migrants are the same, people in need of help.
Any Cop?: Obviously there will be those who find the polemical side of The New Odyssey “dangerously naïve”, but the facts speak for themselves and Kingsley’s argument is both persuasive and affecting.