by Joseph Nevin
Yaghmaian, a professor of economics at Rampapo College in New Jersey, takes the reader on a tour of Europe’s margins and underbellies. The book begins in the low-rent neighborhoods of Istanbul, Turkey where migrants from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa reside in the shadows in an effort to eventually move into Western Europe and beyond.
Each of the book’s eight sections is focuses on migrants living or passing through a particular city. Following the first three sites, Yaghmaian takes us to Patras (a port city that serves as Greece’s gateway to Italy and the rest of Western Europe), Paris, Calais (another port city in France that is the principal link to the UK), London, and New York. Together, these cities make up many of the main stops of a global underground railroad that “illegals” and refugees travel.
Most chapters are named after individual migrants Yaghmaian introduces to the reader. In Istanbul, for instance, the reader meets university-educated Nur, her husband Yussuf, and their daughter, Samah, refugees fleeing political repression in Sudan. Also in the Turkish capital, and later in Sofia, the reader encounters Roberto, a young refugee from war-torn Angola. In Paris Yaghmaian brings us into the life of Tufan, a young man from Iran trying to escape persecution in his homeland for being homosexual.
The other chapters are centered around a particular place where the migrants spend time. One example is a chapter entitled “The Fence”— a reference to the formidable barrier that encloses Patras’s harbor area, entry into which is largely controlled by various ethnicallybased smuggling networks, which hide migrants in trucks that will be loaded onto west-bound ships. Failure to pay the smugglers often results in severe beatings. They also have to evade the Greek coast guard, which polices the harbor area due to EU pressure to prevent migrant access to the rest of Europe.
Given their illegal or interim status, the migrants are forced to live amid great uncertainty and insecurity. This takes a toll. As Kia, an Iranian living illegally in Greece who eventually goes to Italy, tells Yaghmaian: “Of course we are different from other people. We live a different life. Normal is the way the majority lives. We are not part of that…. You want a place that is yours, your home, and a place where you can start a life with others, have contact with the neighbors, and be normal. But that is not possible. Place after place, we look for that chance. Many of us never find it…. We remain isolated, outsiders, strangers.”
In sharing these sentiments, Kia alludes to the migrants who perish along the way—some of whom we meet in the book before their demise. “[S]ome migrants die in the sea. Others die crossing the mountains. These are the fortunate ones. They die with no pain. The rest live to see their slow death.”
The power of Kia’s words notwithstanding, migrants who die en route do, of course, suffer. Although Yaghmaian convincingly illustrates the existential pain experienced by many migrants and discusses the physical abuse that they often have to endure—from attack dogs deployed by border guards in Bulgaria to brutal beatings by the Greek coast guard—the deaths of migrants receive little attention in his highly captivating book.