How should a refugee’s story be told? Matthieu Aikins, a Canadian journalist, seems to think the best way is gonzo reporting. In The Naked Don’t Fear the Water, he accompanies a thirtysomething Afghan interpreter, Omar, through Central Asia and Europe, passing himself off to others as an asylum seeker. Aikins takes up a new name, pretends not to understand English and at one point sets fire to one of his passports rather than have it discovered by police at the Turkish border.
Aikins is attuned to a truth seldom acknowledged by travel writers and foreign correspondents: when confronted by the plight of stateless subjects, or of those forced to escape their home countries, the reporter is always aware of their own luck, their own unearned prerogative of belonging to one nation and not another. What wouldn’t Omar have done to qualify for a western passport? His chances of landing an American visa are negligible, despite having spent much of his adult life translating for foreign troops and driving story-hungry journalists around in the middle of a war. When fighting between US troops and the Taliban intensified six years ago, he joined the exodus out of the country through Iran and Turkey, leaving behind his girlfriend, Laila, in Kabul. Together with Aikins, he made the dreaded journey across the Mediterranean in an inflatable boat, and ended up in a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, effectively imprisoned.
The camp at Lesbos has been described by doctors as a “living hell”, with more than 12,000 people forced to compete with each other for food, housing, medical care and clean toilets. The asylum process is frustratingly opaque, and Afghans are lower in the pecking order than Syrians and Iraqis. Aikins describes how those inside the camp end up imbibing that logic, referring to certain fellow inmates as “not real refugees”. “The migrants were learning to see themselves through western eyes.”
Aikins is an effective storyteller: the momentum of the narrative is never overwhelmed by all the post-trip reading and research he brings in. And yet the reader can’t help but feel that Omar’s ordeal is his alone. Aikins can at any point have his second passport mailed to him, or reveal his true identity to camp officials and leave the island. Omar, on the other hand, procures a fake passport and risks being caught at the airport in Lesbos. He ends up in Athens, where he shares a room with Aikins in a makeshift refugee squat.
This is a story in which hapless migrants find themselves at the mercy of greedy people-smugglers at every checkpoint, with no recourse but to pay them off with their life’s savings. But it is the state that is the greater predator, pitting refugees against one another, deporting them at will and ultimately trapping vulnerable people in a Kafkaesque loop of survival and incarceration.