Patrick Kingsley travelled through 17 countries and three continents along the migrant trail in 2015, meeting not only refugees but smugglers, border guards, volunteers and politicians along the way. The immersive journalism in The New Odyssey (Guardian Faber, £14,99 paperback, £9.99 ebook, Audible £18.99) is compassionate on the human stories and clear-eyed on the system that produces them.
Did you anticipate how big the story would become when you became the Guardian’s first migration correspondent?
I was appointed to the job in March 2015 – all thanks to my boss, Jamie Wilson, who realised that migration was becoming one of the issues of our times. We knew something was brewing: record numbers of people had been smuggled to Italy in 2014, and the refugees I’d interviewed in the Middle East over the 2014-15 winter said they planned to make the same journey. But no, I didn’t expect quite so many people to try it, nor for Greece to become their primary gateway to the continent. Over one million people made it to Europe by sea last year – four times the previous record – and 85 per cent of them came through Greece. That was a surprise. I remember speaking to aid workers on the Greek islands in April last year, and they were speaking with surprise about a few hundred people landing on certain islands that month. By October, there were around 10,000 people landing every day.
I had to just drop my notebook, and help the rescuers haul people to safety
By getting so close to some of the refugees you become part of the story but are also conscious of the need to keep your distance. Did you have to constantly negotiate those conflicting aims or did you have a fixed policy in your head?
I travelled with various different refugees through different parts of Europe, so in a sense I was participating in their journeys. But I always tried to be an observer rather than a participant. Last April, for instance, I followed a Syrian civil servant called Hashem al-Souki as he made his way towards Scandinavia. At one point, Hashem was just one train ticket from the place he wanted to reach – but he didn’t have the right currency or a cash card to get some. It was a desperate situation. It was the middle of the night, it was freezing and there was no bureau d’exchange open. As a human, I wanted to get the money he needed from an ATM. But as a journalist, I knew I shouldn’t – so I didn’t. But obviously there are some moments when your humanity comes first. I’ve done three reporting spells on refugee rescue boats – and there were a couple of life-or-death moments during these rescues when passengers were holding their children out from their deflating boats, and I had to just drop my notebook, and help the rescuers haul people to safety.
With such a fast-moving story, how have migration flows changed since you finished the book?
The Aegean route, by which 850,000 people reached Greece last year, has almost ended. That’s due to the closure of the humanitarian corridor between Greece and Germany, and the decision to deport new arrivals from Greece to Turkey. People can’t leave Greece so easily, and those who are still trying to reach Greek shores risk being expelled. So only a few hundred people are now arriving in Greece every week, instead of a few thousand every day. Things could still change: if the EU-Turkey deal collapses, then there might be a new burst of people from Turkey. But for now the numbers are still low. Either way, though, people are still moving through other routes. Migrants are leaving Libya at the same near-record levels as last year. People are still walking through Bulgaria. They’re increasingly turning to smugglers to get them from Greece to Germany. There are boats leaving from Egypt to Italy, from Turkey to Italy, and also Greece to Italy. The EU-Turkey deal has brought numbers down – but it hasn’t ended migration. You’ll never end it.
Was Angela Merkel bold in her open door policy or foolhardy?
In September 2015, Merkel’s government signalled that they would house any asylum seeker who got to Germany – regardless of whether they had previously been registered elsewhere in the EU. In my view, this was simply a sensible decision. If she hadn’t shown this leadership, you would have had a humanitarian disaster in Hungary, where the government didn’t have the resources or the inclination to cope with a refugee bottleneck. People were already coming in huge numbers – whether or not Germany helped them. What Merkel did last September was to try to make their reception slightly less chaotic. The problem was that there was no long-term follow-up. At that point, the choice was not between large-scale migration and no migration at all. The choice was between chaotic mass migration and orderly mass migration. To achieve the latter, Merkel needed to quickly create formal resettlement programmes that would have seen large numbers of refugees flown directly to Germany from Turkey. That would have persuaded the Turks to guard their border better, and it would have also persuaded most migrants to stay put in Turkey for the time being, instead of taking the boats. But instead Merkel just continued with the status quo, and so people kept coming in this utterly dysfunctional manner, with people drowning in the Aegean and then marching haphazardly through the Balkans. In sum, her short-term response was wise but her failure in the weeks that followed to create a long-term resettlement scheme was foolhardy.
Merkel’s short-term response was wise but her failure to create a long-term resettlement scheme was foolhardy
How will the UK’s EU referendum affect refugees?
In terms of policy, not much. The UK had already opted out of the EU’s refugee schemes – refusing to relocate any refugees stuck in Italy and Greece, and opting out of Europe-wide plans to resettle people directly from the Middle East. Britain has its own private scheme – resettling 4,000 Syrians every year until 2020. But this programme continues whether or not we’re in the EU. In terms of social attitudes to refugees, however, we can already see how toxic the referendum has made the migration debate. The referendum seems to have made it socially acceptable to ostracise foreigners and migrants in public – and refugees will doubtless bear the brunt of this.
Is the EU’s deal with Turkey on halting refugees pragmatic or, as Medecins Sans Frontieres believes, “shameful”?
It’s a betrayal of European values. The deal is predicated on Greece’s ability to deport people back to Turkey, a country where they can’t work legally, despite recent legislative changes, and where hundreds of thousands of refugee children are in work, not school. So to send people back to Turkey is to rip up the 1951 UN convention that guarantees refugee rights. As MSF says, this is pretty shameful. The refugee convention was one of the seminal international treaties to emerge from the wreckage of the Holocaust, and one of the ways in which our ancestors said “never again” to the atrocities of world war two. By ripping up the convention, our generation is essentially saying: “once again”.
Can you give us an update on how Hashem al-Souki is faring now he is resident in Sweden?
Hashem is learning Swedish, and has moved into a flat with some of his relatives, who have also sought sanctuary in Sweden. But he’s still not been reunited with his only family. His wife Hayam and their three sons have been stuck in Egypt for the past 14 months, and won’t have a family reunification interview until September. When and if they finally reach Sweden, Hashem won’t have seen his kids for at least 18 months. So his struggle continues.
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