Exile or refugee? Lights in the Distance overturns the spurious distinction

Daniel Trilling’s powerful new book shows the reality of life for people trying to enter a Europe that largely doesn’t want them

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Name an exile. Einstein? The Shah of Iran? Marlene Dietrich? Now name a migrant, a refugee or an asylum seeker. That will be more difficult. Exiles get named. They are known. Migrants, refugees, asylum seekers: they get lumped together in imagery – they are almost always a mass – and in perception and policy.

Daniel Trilling’s book, the result of five years of research and travel around Europe’s borders, is an attempt to overturn that spurious distinction (an exile has chosen or had to leave home no less than a refugee or asylum seeker). It is both a shocking and gentle read: shocking in that it calmly portrays the reality of life for people trying to enter a Europe that largely doesn’t want them, a reality that can be brutal, both acutely and chronically. Gentle, because through the careful telling of these people’s stories, they become just that. People, not a mass.

There’s Jamal, a young lad from Sudan who spends years living in the Calais jungles – squatter camps hidden behind bushes – trying to fix himself to a truck. They are so intent, these limpets who want to cross the Channel, that they have dug a hole in which to lurk at a lay-by where truck drivers stop, a foxhole that echoes the millions that were dug in battlefields nearby a century before.

And there’s Zainab, a middle-class Iraqi woman who fled when her husband was kidnapped, and went from a nice life in a nice house to a tent in scrubby shrubbery outside Calais. There, gang leaders stored drugs in her tent and she almost suffocated with her children in a refrigerated lorry because the driver would not open the doors when the oxygen ran out. The lorry, says Zainab, was full of children.

Trilling has determined his European border spots himself: Calais, Catania, Siracusa, Athens, Sidiro. The borders, of course, can shift according to who is defining Europe (Schengen or the Eurovision Song Contest).

The only certainty about the refugee system is that it is generally about the elite controlling the movement of everyone else. Yet the borders seem anything but shifting to the people who have left their homelands and are trying to cross them. It’s hard to decide whether nature or humans constitute the most hostile barrier. The Evros river between Turkey and Greece is so risky that there is a migrant graveyard on a hilltop above the Greek Muslim village of Sidiro, where up to a thousand are now buried.

The Mediterranean, of course, holds many thousands more dead, killed by heartlessness or incompetence on boats that ran out of fuel, that were not really boats. Fatima, a woman who fled Nigeria and now wills herself into becoming a women’s rights activist, a cultural organiser, something better than a limbo migrant, gets to the beach in Libya and says, “Oh God, it’s a balloon!” Trilling doesn’t go to Libya, but the reader is transported there in the stories he finds. Fatima learned its ways too well, discovering that black people were most vulnerable to attack on their way to and from work. “One morning on the way to work I saw a girl being raped and her throat cut. She was thrown on the road to die. If men saw a black couple together, they would come and ask to ‘borrow’ the woman.”

The West African migrant route to Europe crosses the Sahara. In 2015, the International Organization for Migration judged that as many migrants had died crossing the desert as had drowned in the Mediterranean. The violence of life as a displaced person comes in all forms – systemic and organised – in a Europe in which many countries are now trying desperately to evade their commitments to the principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention: that you treat people as individuals and that you don’t force them back to danger. Instead, all these testimonies reveal a kind of drip-drip hostility from authorities that anyone dealing with the UK Home Office will recognise, a combination of chaos and callousness that is meant as a deterrent.

In this system, states are allowed to jail people for “administrative convenience”. They provide reception centres that are dangerous or dirty: so dangerous that to escape them – by death – their inmates drink shampoo. They lose papers. They advise migrants to move to another town, without mentioning that this means they have to start the process of claiming asylum all over again. In the same period that Europe spent €2bn on border security, writes Trilling, it spent an estimated and paltry €700m on reception conditions for refugees. But, says every reader of the Daily Mail, why should it spend more? Because, “We remember the past,” say some West African men living in a southern Italian resort. “We remember slavery; they started the world wars and we fought for them.”

The violence is meted out by the traffickers, too. Some movement is haphazard, so that families crossing from Turkey find themselves wandering in forests. But there is organisation: smugglers who charge £2,000 for a trip in a lorry, but twice as much for a “VIP” ride in a car. At a medical centre in the Sicilian port of Augusta, where the Mediterranean survivors are taken, the common ailments are: “Cuts and bruises from being beaten; skin burns from the sun or from engine oil in the boats; scabies, respiratory infections and stomach conditions caused by overcrowding and poor hygiene; complications arising from pregnancy or from sexual assault; leg and foot injuries consistent with being thrown from buildings; severe psychological trauma.”

Such violence. But there is also kindness. Trilling’s focus is on the people who move, not the people who help them. But still you can glimpse it here and there, in the mufti who organises a collection for Jamal so that he can get a train to Milan. In the fact that among the Europeans arrested or charged with people trafficking are “a group of Spanish volunteer lifeguards on Lesvos, a French farmer near the Italian border who let migrants sleep in caravans in his fields, and a Danish campaigner for children’s rights who gave a Syrian family a lift in her car”.

But it is the migrants whom you warm to in this book. Fatima, who demands lifts from Trilling, tells him about young women who are trafficked into prostitution: “The girls are so little,” she says. In 2015, 80 per cent of the 5,633 Nigerian women who arrived in Europe by sea had been trafficked. The Afghans are treated with unspeakable hate in Athens, but still tell jokes: “Americans land on the moon and they’re surprised to see people there, moving around. It’s Afghan refugees – we get everywhere.”

I liked Caesar, a young Malian with righteous fury, who speaks, you guess, for Trilling, when he says: “What they’re doing now in Europe, how can they divide us like this? It’s not as if one person has ‘refugee’ printed on his forehead and another has ‘economic migrant’.” Who is to judge who can move? Climate change, poverty: why are they not reasonable reasons to pick up your things and move somewhere better?

Trilling makes far less of a distinction between the people he meets than would the average tabloid or policymaker. He does not judge. Yet people driven from their homes by climate change or poverty are not covered under the Refugee Convention. “The definition of refugee is political and its meaning is subject to a constant struggle over who’s in and who’s out,” Trilling writes.

What is to be done? Journalists come again and again, says Hakima, an Afghan, with disdain. “They want to hear our stories but tell me, what can you do? Nothing changes.” Trilling acknowledges this: journalists, he says, are far less effective than they think. Even so, he makes a call for more resistance: “You do not have to accept this.”

If knowledge is the foundation of action, then he has done us a great service by turning masses and numbers into people whom we like, who we can see are like us. 

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe
Daniel Trilling
Picador, 304pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman