An electrifying work that bounces across international boundaries and shifts between modes of transportation with the same haphazard-yet-intentional style as its subjects.
The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis is an electrifying work that bounces across international boundaries and shifts between modes of transportation with the same haphazard-yet-intentional style as its subjects. Patrick Kingsley’s book details the current migration crisis assailing Europe. The author covers this subject mostly through his own energetic first-hand observations; a journalist-cum-ethnographer tracking refugees endeavoring to enter the European Union. But Kingsley also makes space for both personal stories and policy-oriented argumentation.
The New Odyssey combines two parallel narrative strands. The first of these is broad in scope, an effort to describe various aspects of the migrant’s journey from country of origin to the precipice of the EU. The second concentrates on a single individual, Syrian refugee Hashem al-Souki, as he diligently works to escape the hell-scape of his homeland and successfully claim asylum in Sweden. This parallel structure makes the more impersonal and abstract descriptions of the migration crisis more human and concrete, as al-Souki is a charismatic avatar for the reader to viscerally explore the more emotional aspects of the refugee experience.
While al-Souki’s bravery and determination give The New Odyssey a pathos-heavy edge, the real substance of the book comes in Kingsley’s often breathless writing on the migrant crisis more broadly. There are high-speed truck rides across the Sahara that find a group of West Africans fleeing violence in Nigeria and hoping to reach war-ravaged Libya. At the Libyan coast, these same desperate adventurers pay exorbitant sums to be crammed into rickety dinghies or wooden fishing trawlers for a life-and-death boat ride that ideally ends in rescue by the Italian coast guard. The West Africans are joined in Libya by Eritreans, Somalis, Syrians and Afghans, so Kingsley then re-crosses the Sahara, excavating along the way the precarious and inhuman way that these more easterly populations migrate to the Mediterranean coast.
Throughout, Kingsley does not settle for merely describing the danger-wrought migrant journey, instead carefully explaining precisely why these people are willing to risk torture, kidnapping, extortion, banditry, arrest, murder or death by exposure to leave places such as Eritrea and Syria. He makes a persuasive case that most of the migrants are in fact refugees, people not seeking economic opportunity but genuinely fleeing for their very lives.
In both tone and content, The New Odyssey is cutting-edge ultra-contemporarily relevant in nature. When Kingsley began writing in 2014, the Libyan crossing was the most prominent route to the safety of Europe. But, in the process of his investigations, Libya’s increasing violence and the challenge of even reaching its seashore made the migrants find a new, better route. Just as the migrants themselves began crossing the sea using the extremely short boat trip from Izmir, Turkey to the Greek Isles, so too did Kingsley.
Here the narrative leaves behind the smugglers of Libya for their Turkish counterparts, detailing the way a bankrupt Greek government tried to respond to the incredible numbers of mostly Syrian and Afghan refugees pouring into its islands. Kingsley then follows the overland walking route of the migrants as they leave Greece for Macedonia. Once in the non-EU states of the Balkans, Kingsley and his subjects carefully hike through Macedonia and Serbia to cross into Hungary, an EU member. Kingsley tracks the changing policies of each of these countries along the route, including the pointless effort by Hungary to fence off its border—migrants then simply veered west and crossed into Croatia.
Every other chapter leaves the mass exodus of the migrants in general to emphasize the travails of al-Souki in particular. He barely survived the arduous Libya-to-Italy boat trip. But being in Europe was not his primary goal. He had a wife and three sons suffering in poverty as illegal immigrants in Egypt and knew that Sweden offered the most likely and hastiest opportunity for family re-unification. So he then journeyed from Italy northwards through Europe. While train travel is fairly straightforward, there was a crucial catch: if al-Souki was discovered as an illegal migrant by the security forces of any of the EU states through which he traveled, he would be forced to claim asylum there instead of Sweden. In effect, al-Souki’s story adds a further layer of complexity to the migrant story: It is not just a matter of reaching the EU, but of getting to a specific country or even town where the incoming migrants know someone from back home.
The overwhelming conclusion of The New Odyssey is political. The refugees are coming and nothing that Europe does or does not do will alter the fervor with which the migrants will come. There are no pull factors from within Europe—nothing that Europe is doing to attract or dispel them—that are more powerful than the push factors of the impossibility of life and physical safety in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and similar locales. Because of the inevitability of the continuing waves of migrants, Europe’s only rational policy response is to create viable mechanisms to streamline the process of receiving and settling the refugees. Otherwise, they will continue to float, sneak, hike, hide in the trunks of cars and pay off smugglers to come to Europe however they can. For Europe’s own self-interest, it would be better to implement structures for official resettlement instead.
While Kingsley’s primary rhetorical line is a pragmatic one—they are coming, so we must deal with it—he does not abandon moral argumentation. He regularly highlights the historical precedent of rich western European countries taking refugees in the years after World War II or denying entry to refugees on the precipice of the Holocaust to assert that Europe has a humanitarian, moral duty to receive the refugees of the 21st century.
The New Odyssey’s one weak point is the velocity with which it was written. Kingsley often repeats facts and ideas from page to page or explains identical historical events multiple times. There are even paragraphs where he re-uses the same adjective-noun pairing, such as when he attaches “rare” to “inflatable boats” several times in a single passage in chapter three. For readability and style, the book would have benefitted greatly from more heavy-handed editing. But given the value of its message and the depth of its investigations, The New Odyssey is well worth the occasional sloppy sentence. The migrant crisis is, after all, the grand moral crisis of our time, and it will only continue to grow in scale.