I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of this pre-publication because my boss has been asked to provide an endorsement for the back cover. Once it hits the shops I think every politician, policy maker, and “anti-immigration” journalist should be required to read a copy. Only the most stony-hearted or stubborn could surely fail to be effected by this compilation of evidence, personal stories and common sense. Parts of Kingsley’s book literally had me sobbing my eyes out but there’s plenty for those most moved by statistics and trends too. And it adds up to an incredibly effective debunking of the idea that erecting ever high fences or refusing the right to work, will discourage those fleeing war, torture and other forms of violence or suffering.
Instead, he argues, we need an asylum policy that’s shared by all EU member states – one that’s humane and efficient. We also need to grant refugees the right to dignity and that includes allowing them the right to work, to access schools and public services, as well as fighting for that right to be upheld in countries like Egypt and Turkey too. The remarkable stories Kingsley tells in his book underline why this is so very important: “The choice is not between the current crisis and blissful isolation. The choice is between the current crisis and an orderly, managed system of mass migration. You can have one, or the other. There is no easy middle ground.”
Through travelling with various families and individuals, interviewing smugglers and sharing Hashem al-Souki’s own personal Odyssey, Kingsley manages to make an overwhelming subject hugely accessible. This is what investigative journalism should look like and it’s also why I tend to stay away from reading non fiction – it just hurts too much.
There are a number of truths that permeate THE LAST ODYSSEY. The first is self evident to me but bears repeating because it’s not widely understood – nobody undertakes the journey to Europe unless what they are leaving behind is far worse than the dangers they’ll encounter en route. And Kingsley honestly details those dangers – be they of drowning, of arrest, detention and torture, of ending up without water in the Sahara, of being separated from your teenage child because the authorities don’t believe their age or that you are related, of rape, of suffocating in the back of a truck, of being ripped off by smugglers or sold to organ harvesters, of simply being at the mercy of the elements and of unscrupulous individuals. Balance this against forced conscription in Eritrea, the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria, insurgencies in northern Pakistan, and genocide in Darfur, and there’s just one word for it – desperation.
What also comes across loud and clear is that whilst very few are purely economic migrants, you cannot divorce the current crisis from economic factors. So poverty in countries like Nigeria fuels both the movement of people and also the boom in those prepared to “work” as smugglers or benefit in other ways from the trade. Syrians who have fled to Libya or Jordan but who have no employment or housing prospects there move on.
Time and again people talk to Kingsley about historical debt. How their parents or grandparents were given refuge during the Second World War, prompting them to break the law to help refugees arriving today in their communities. How citizens of the Balkan states remember fleeing terror and war not that long ago and want to reciprocate the welcome offered them. How vast numbers of Greeks, now living on islands like Lesvos which are the goal for many of those braving the Mediterranean in overcrowded dinghies, are the descendants of those forced to leave Turkey in the 1920s and who British and American boats picked up from the beaches so they could safely escape approaching armies. We also meet some families who have literally been on the move for generations, fleeing Palestine, then Kuwait, now Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan.
A large part of the power of this book is that it humanises the crisis, by giving the people behind the headlines names, jobs, feelings and pasts. In much the same way that the photo of Aylan Kurdi’s body on the beach woke much of the UK up to the refugee crisis, Kingsley’s writing similarly provides a way to connect with something that’s otherwise almost unimaginable. It also pays tribute to the very best and worst of human nature, our ability to hope beyond reason and endure beyond hardship.
But above all it’s real, it’s angry, as well it should be, and it’s a call to action. By highlighting the remarkable ways in which people all over the world are making a terrible situation just that little bit better, Kingsley has very cleverly shown the reader ways of refusing to comply with the mainstream narrative that would have us believe our fellow human beings are somehow less deserving of safety and security.
So if you get the chance to read this, please do so. And if you don’t please just read these words from one of the men Kingsley meets: “Someone without their own country hasn’t got anything to lose”.