In just over a year well over a million refugees and migrants have defied border controls to enter Europe. More than 5,000 died trying. There are thousands in detention camps, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children. Every one of them has a story.
Journalist Charlotte McDonald-Gibson tries to tell these stories in her new book, Cast Away. It follows the long journeys of five refugees in vivid detail.
Charlotte hopes this can be an antidote to the politicians’ poison. She told Socialist Worker, “When you read in the media or listen to the politicians there’s a real dehumanisation.
“I wanted to give it back to them by telling their story in some detail in such a way that everyone can see what they are going through.
“I wanted as many people as possible to read it and engage with it, especially in Britain where migration can be a very controversial issue. Their motivation is to protect their families—that’s something that wherever you are in the world you can understand.”
The book also takes aim at the policies of the European Union (EU) and its member states. Charlotte said, “Travelling around Europe, I became more aware that human rights violations were taking place around the EU’s borders.
"And when the number of deaths at sea started to creep up, I wanted to write more about that and sound the alarm.”
It was an intense commitment for the refugees who took part, reliving painful memories in depth.
“We spent days and days going through all the fine details, going through photographs and videos, getting them to recall what they felt at each moment,” Charlotte said.
“They gave up so much of their time because they wanted to tell these stories. They all had the same motivation—to help others in similar situations, and to foster understanding of refugees in Europe.”
“I stayed in contact with all of them,” said Charlotte, “and after each of the attacks they say their lives are getting harder. People think they are linked to the attackers doing this. They want people to understand that they are fleeing exactly this kind of violence.”
The main trigger for the mass exodus has been Syria’s civil war, and three of the book’s protagonists are Syrian. These are electrician Mohammed, lawyer and activist Nart, and Hanan who has to shepherd her whole family across hostile borders.
Heavily pregnant Sina escapes Eritrea, one of the world’s most oppressive regimes and foremeost sources of refugees. Majid flees Nigeria—a Western ally often considered “safe”—after a sectarian mob killed his father.
“I selected these five people because they show different aspects of the crisis—different countries and different routes,” said Charlotte. “Together their stories add up to a very damning picture of the European response to the refugee crisis.”
They make clear that politicians’ rhetoric on migration often turns reality on its head. Charlotte said, “There’s a lot of arrogance in the EU, people think we’ve got this superior quality of life and everyone wants to come and take our jobs.
“It’s simply not the case—people have got homes they’ve spent their whole lives building up and the last thing they want to do is leave. Not one of the five had wanted to come to Europe.
“Hanan, for example, had wanted to go to Lebanon—it’s a similar culture, it’s close to home and that keeps alive the hope of return. They didn’t want to risk their lives and come so far from home.”
The new EU-Turkey deal, backed by David Cameron, has seen refugees in Greece rounded up into camps or sent on boats to Turkey. It relies on the idea that Turkey is safe.
But Charlotte argued, “The deal probably breaks international law. There are convincing reports of Turkey sending refugees back into Syria, and shooting people at the border. This is not a safe country and the EU shouldn’t be putting anyone on a boat against their will and sending them there.”
In the book, Hanan and her family face repression on the Greek islands within a few pages of Mohammed almost drowning in the Mediterranean (see extracts below).
For Charlotte these two sides of the refugee crisis are linked.
“We’ve had Fortress Europe putting up walls and fences for years and it hasn’t brought numbers down,” she said. “People just go to more dangerous routes.
“In the last few weeks numbers arriving in Greek islands have dropped but that’s just sent more people on to the more dangerous routes to Italy. The only solution is to provide legal routes into Europe. No-one wants to put their children’s lives at risk while there’s any alternative.
“It’s right to provide help to those in neighbouring countries. But the only way to bring the deaths down, the only way to stop people getting in the boats, the only way to save lives is to offer another avenue of hope.”
‘All around people were dying’
Electrician Mohammed Kazkji and his friends took a smugglers’ boat from Libya to reach Italy
The cry of a newborn baby delivered in the hull of the smuggling vessel was the last thing Mohammed Kazkji heard before the boat finally gave in to the growing swell. He had just peeled off his shirt and slipped a life jacket over one shoulder when the trawler toppled with such speed it was like being sucked into a whirlpool.
A large wave had tossed the boat onto its port side, sending everyone who could move surging starboard to level it, only for the shifting weight to give the crippled vessel the final nudge it needed to turn over completely.
And Mohammed was on the wrong side of the boat.
While passengers on the roof or on the port side were able to use the brief moment of imbalance to jump off the teetering ship, it was the starboard side which disappeared beneath the waves first, dragging the men, women and children down with it.
The cold sea which was meant to carry Mohammed to safety was instead pulling him into its dark depths, the light of the surface quickly receding. One of his feet was tangled in a fishing net, and no amount of struggling seemed to free his body.
The effort to stay alive suddenly seemed futile. All around him people were dying: what was one more life lost when there was so much suffering?
Then Mohammed’s mother appeared to him in the water. Peace enveloped him as he looked into her eyes. Almost a year had passed since he had seen his mother’s face, and here she was to comfort her son in his most urgent moment.
The vision in the black sea lasted until the young Syrian felt a force pushing against his leg, and finally he was swimming upwards. He hadn’t been aware of the other bodies around him engaged in the same struggle against death, but someone must have shoved his foot out of the netting. With his lungs stinging, Mohammed kicked up towards the light.
As he surfaced, he was only able to take one breath before another force dragged him back towards the darkness.
Arms wrapped around him, as a survivor who could not swim grabbed on to Mohammed’s body to try and stay alive.
The survival instinct of the drowning man threatened to take both lives, and Mohammed now found himself kicking and struggling to free himself from the tangle of desperate limbs. His youthful strength prevailed, and the other man disappeared.
The cop said, ‘I will make you go back’
Hanan al-Hasan and her family ran into Europe’s border police after their dangerous night journey to a Greek island
It was 5am when Hanan al-Hasan and her family washed up on the rocky shores of Samos island. A voice was yelling at her to get up and run.
Members of the Greek coastguard were on the beach, and they were afraid of being returned to Turkey. People quickly scrambled over the crags and up the cliff, and boulders tumbled around Hanan in the hazy dawn light.
Soaked through with crusting salt water and with sand and fragments of rock rubbing at their skin, all Hanan wanted to do was to get her four children clean and dry before they presented themselves to the police.
Hanan was distraught—her beautiful, healthy family were now reduced to this, begging to be allowed to change into fresh clothes.
“We are Syrian, we will go to the police, but please let us buy clothes,” Hanan pleaded in the first shop they found. “Look at us—we are in a bad condition, we are wet and sandy.”
Her appeals were ignored. Two police officers had arrived.
A young female officer was shouting at Hanan and her husband Talal, ordering them to leave the shop and get in the police car.
The blood rushed to Ismail’s head and he leapt in to protect his parents.
“You can treat us better, you can speak to us better, be cool with my mother and my father,” he told the unsmiling female police officer.
But she had little interest in trying to understand what the seventeen-year-old had just been through. “Be cool?” she asked. “OK, I will show you cool.”
She beckoned the burly male officer over, and Hanan thought he would strike her eldest son. She didn’t think before placing her body in front of her boy, even though he towered over her now.
“Don’t touch him,” she warned. “You can make us go back to Syria, but don’t you touch him.”
The policeman backed down, but mumbled a quiet threat—“You will see, I will make you go back to Syria.”
When they arrived at the police station—still in their damp, sandblasted clothes—the family gave their names and had a number scribbled on their wrists with a marker pen.
Hanan was now known as “3”, Talal as “1”. The family put their wrists together in a circle as another refugee snapped a photo—this was what Europe thought of them.
by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson
Portobello books, £14.99