In the world of modern politics, there may be no issue more successfully weaponized than the challenge of refugees and immigration. It played a major role in America's presidential upset. It has cracked and may yet break the European Union. And it has become one of the defining issues in the greater Mediterranean region, with tendrils reaching deeply into the Middle East and both West and East Africa.
For all its power, the question of refugees and economic migrants is rarely discussed with much nuance. As framed by nativist politicians, the refugee crisis is a tide of undesirables aided by nefarious smugglers, hoping to emigrate to richer countries to take advantage of robust safety nets without assimilating into the local culture. And as framed by their leftist opponents, it's hardworking, victimized people who deserve protection and compassion as they resettle in the industrialized West.
But as richly researched and told by Patrick Kingsley's book The New Odyssey the refugee crisis is more complicated and also starker than either vision – it's a mass movement of people who, in many if not most cases, would literally rather be dead than remain where they are.
Kingsley, the inaugural migration correspondent for the Guardian, digs deep with his research. He takes the reader to the front lines of people smuggling (and people trafficking).
He follows the movement of literally countless men, women, and children streaming toward Europe – they come in un-ventilated tanker trucks moving through the Sahara and in inflatable Zodiac boats down to their last intact inflatable chamber trying to make it over the treacherous Mediterranean. And they wait in squalid, overcrowded holding pens to make their first, or fourth, or 30th attempt to cross over to Italy, or Greece, or another such (relatively) hospitable shore.
Over the course of the book, Kingsley deploys first-hand observations, probing interviews, and copious testimony to paint a vivid picture of the human suffering that migrants face during their journey. His writing is clean and crisp, clearly honed by newspaper deadlines and wordcounts – he paints full pictures, but doesn't overload his paragraphs or his pages, making "The New Odyssey" a rapid but rich read.
Throughout the book, he closely follows one particular refugee, Hashem al-Souki of Syria, as he struggles to reach Italy from Egypt. Here's Hashem traveling by sea:
Within an hour, Hashem's wondering if it was all worth it. He's already been soaked, tossed between several boats, and caked in vomit. By the time he reaches the third boat, the one that's supposed to take him to Italy, the night seems as if it will never end. The boat is swaying, and his world is spinning. Hundreds of people are being loaded, tossed really, onto the ship. It takes hours – long, cold hours. Everyone is nauseous. Everyone is shivering. In front of him, children are turning blue.
Kingsley also examines the bigger patterns that define the migrant problem and explain why it's so difficult to resolve. From the economic malaise of West Africa to the political tyranny of Eritrea to the civil war in Syria, the sources of waves of grimly determined migrants are both diverse and powerful. The human tide, he suggests, will not stop until the root problems are tamed. And on the enforcement end of things, the author reveals a host of problems: European countries not willing or able to work as a unit to stem the human cost of the refugee crisis, smugglers who briefly rent fishing boats and essentially work part-time (making their activities extremely hard to track and restrict), and fierce infighting about the two (often falsely represented as opposing) goals of saving human lives and restricting the illegal movement of people.
Anyone who thinks that the refugee crisis is a straightforward problem – to be solved with iron fences or with welcoming committees – will benefit from "The New Odyssey." Kingsley marshals facts and numbers effectively, but the crowning virtue of his book is its clear-eyed and sober sense of compassion. He is moved by the human lives being threatened (and often extinguished) by the terrible journeys that he documents. And he is determined to disentangle the knot of problems that stand between the current situation and a new, humane order in the Mediterranean and beyond. By looking at warm-hearted rescuers as well as cold-blooded smugglers, and possible solutions as well as grave problems, Kingsley finds the good – and the hope – in a truly massive challenge to our collective humanity.