Close your eyes for a moment and try to remember the longest journey you have ever taken. How did you travel: by train, plane, ship? Were you comfortable; was it a pleasant experience? I am sure that for most of the readers here, you were looking forward to something at the end of the trip. I know that I personally have a love-hate relationship with travel – I love the destinations, but hate the incapacitating travel-sickness required to get there.
Now imagine you are travelling not to go on holiday, or to return to school, you’re not visiting a friend or taking a break from the bubble. You don’t know exactly where you’re going, and you’ve barely, if ever, left the city you grew up in. Most importantly though, this journey is not your choice – it is a necessity for your survival. You will have to travel covertly, leaving most of your worldly possessions, and maybe even your family, behind. From the moment you leave your country of origin you will be labelled, victimised and marginalised by the new society you join. You are a refugee.
Your immediate priority is to escape the immediate chaos and turmoil, the lawlessness and street-fighting, the cities bombarded with heavy weaponry or consumed by internal civil strife. Leaving could turn you into a deserter; your reputation will be tarnished but would staying lead to greater loss and hardship? There is no legal economy for travel so your only option is the black-market, where everything costs three times the price for half the quality. You sell everything you have of value for a verbal agreement and a single pick-up time at a random location.
You are there, waiting. There are dozens of others like you; old, young, male, female. You are suddenly nervous; why are there so many of you? Where are you all going to go? As night creeps in people huddle round torches and makeshift fires. There is a quiet constant hum of human noise, a combination of whispers, grumbles, babbles and breathing. You are worried; the longer you wait, the tenser you become. You are convinced that “they”, whoever or whatever they may be, will not be able to take everyone, and you don’t want to be left behind. Breathing becomes difficult; you flex your muscles, and stretch your legs, preparing to fight for your place, for your freedom. From the darkness a steady groaning, growing louder, can be heard. The sound becomes a rhythmic crunching and squeaking until finally a truck comes into view. It is a petroleum tankard. People surge towards the cabin, for a split second you are frozen in disbelief, then you sprint forward, darting through the crowd until the throng is so thick you are having push and shove, using your elbows to force people out of your way. The driver climbs on top of the tank, spins open a hatch and silently indicates for people to enter.
You are one of the first to get in the tankard, some people were not so sure about the mode of transport sent to liberate them. It is pitch dark, and smells like chemicals, that overpowering stench of oil that makes your head light and your stomach nauseous. You lean back against the cold, cylindrical interior of this human transporting can, feeling every bump, jolt, and turn as it rattles, at what feels like precariously high speeds, along a very long road. The amount of time that passes is impossible to guess, the truck stopping several times but never is the lid unplugged and no fresh air or light are allowed to venture in. You doze, crammed up against people you don’t know feeling their breath on your face, their warmth encircling you. Eventually the engine is switched off for the final time. There are footsteps atop the tankard and with a firm pull the lid is yanked back and blisteringly bright light pounds into the interior. When you emerge you feel giddy from the fresh air, your legs are shaking, you can barely stand, and an overpowering thirst pervades your parched throat and dry lips.
You are at a service station on a single-lane highway. The language on the signpost is recognisable but not the same as your own; you can’t even read the numbers. The sun is low in the east so you have to squint as you look around. The truck driver doesn’t hesitate; once everyone is out he gets back in his cabin and drives off. Where now? What next? You can’t stay here, you have only yourself, and so you have to go on, alone.
Pasted all over western European news headlines at the moment is the perpetual fear of migrants. Charities treat them with patronising condescension, while governments grumble at their “illegal” residence and find ways to limit their mobility within Europe. What is forgotten is that every migrant has their own story, and every one of these storytellers is a person, a human. They have undertaken dangerous, uncomfortable travels to make it to a place they believe is safer than the one they came from. I’m not asking you to change your daily routine to consider the plight of the world’s refugees, but I would urge you when you see the television reports or read the alarmist headlines, to take their stories with a ‘pinch of salt’ and consider the human element.