With thousands of Mediterranean migrants perishing at sea each year, one Canadian in a kayak embarks on an epic three-year journey to turn back the rightwing tide engulfing Europe.
Georges Alexandre, known as just Alex, lowers his kayak from the sailing boat into the Mediterranean just offshore at Mahdia, Tunisia, on the morning of September 10, 2011. He has slept the previous night in the boat, and now is joined by three other kayakers from the club at Sousse, just up the coast. The Tunisians have come to escort him on the first part of his voyage. Opposite them is a ruined archway dating back to the Punic Wars between Carthage and the Roman Empire. Usually a tourist spot, visitor numbers have taken a dive since the revolution in January toppled the dictator, Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.
After paddling into harbor the four kayakers are stopped by a National Guard boat. Following months of chaos, a security state is now back in business. Alexandre, a past master at dealing with zealous officialdom, politely gives them his name. Finally the four can set out into the open sea. The men from Sousse go as far as a buoy bobbing several miles out. Then they say their goodbyes, wish him well, inshallah, and turn back. Now it is only Alexandre and the escort boat. They are headed for Lampedusa, a cigar-shaped sliver of white rock seventy miles to the northeast. Part of Italy, but much nearer Africa, the island is now fixed in the European mind with TV news images of rickety fishing boats, their decks sardine-packed with desperate humanity, escorted into harbor by Italian coastguards. Africans landing for the first time in Europe: men, women and children coming from Tunisia or Libya, Mali or Ghana, Sudan or Eritrea, Ethiopia or Somalia – or just about anywhere.
But not all of them make it, even after paying the traffickers around $1,000 to cross. Since 2011, figures from the UN High Commission on Refugees show this stretch of the Med has become the most lethal body of water in the world. New records were set in 2014, both of attempted crossings (207,000) and deaths (3,419 known). The African exodus has been accompanied by an explosion from the Middle East, notably Syrians fleeing the chaos of civil war. Only last week, as if to mark their intentions at the start of 2015, traffickers in Turkey loaded 1,156 refugees onto two freighters which they then abandoned in open sea after setting the autopilot to steer towards Italy. A successful rescue mission averted a major tragedy, this time at least.
More than a year earlier, as dawn began to break on October 3, 2013, a boat carrying over 500 men, women and children, mostly Eritreans, was a mile south of Lampedusa. A day earlier it had set off from the Libyan coast, crossing 120 miles of sea. Its overworked engines chose that moment to sputter and die. The so-called captain, a Tunisian with little real seafaring experience, lit a rag to attract the attention of nearby fishing boats. Inadvertently, he started a fire on deck. Everyone rushed to one side, causing the boat to list up and capsize. Those on deck were thrown into the sea. Some of them would survive long enough to be rescued. The ones in the hold never had a chance. Afterwards, Italian salvage divers who descended a plumb line 130 feet into the wreck spoke of bodies glued together, having to be pried off the hull. Eventually, images would emerge of three hundred and sixty coffins lined up in neat rows in a vast warehouse, among them, dozens that were child-sized.
The Med is supposed to be Europe’s jewel. In the aftermath of the tragedy, national leaders queued up to offer condolences and vows to stop turning into a vast marine cemetery. But hardly anyone in the media asked what that would mean. When Ukraine started going into meltdown, the issue was forgotten. While the latest narrowly averted disaster refocused attention briefly, in a matter of days the mainstream media had moved on again. Who wants to talk about concrete action to prevent the next tragedy? Certainly not the main political players. In a Europe where xenophobic, anti-immigration movements increasingly take votes away from mainstream parties, what national leader would risk sticking their head above the parapet?
* * *
June 30, 2014: Gray, a small town on the river Saone in eastern France. Early evening. The French team has just beaten Nigeria in the World Cup. Cars buzz about, honking horns, young and old unite, waving tricolores in celebration of victory. From the grass bank, I watch as an improbable figure paddles into view, stroke after methodical stroke, round the river bend. The kayak is yellow. Under the sunhat, I recognize the weather-beaten face.
We have met once before, on Lampedusa in May 2011. Alexandre had been there since the previous November, originally arriving to kayak round the island as ‘an act of solidarity’ with migrants. Then, in January, the revolutions kicked off: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria. Pacts Italy had signed with the dictators Gaddafi and Ben Ali – paying them to seal the coasts against clandestine migration – were suddenly useless. Lampedusa was swamped. By late March, 7,000 Tunisians outnumbered the 5,000 islanders. Predictably, chaos reigned. Italy claimed it didn’t have enough mainland facilities to move them: Europe had to help. Images of Lampedusa, the refugee camp in the Med, went round the world.
By the time I arrived, refugees were still coming but the crisis was under control. The Italian government had got what it wanted: a deal with the new Tunisian authorities to police the coast again; and more money from the EU to pay for rescues at sea and reception centers on land. For the international media, Europe’s immigration crisis had gone away. Outside Italy, Lampedusa wasn’t news any more. That remained the situation for the next two years, until October 4, 2013, when tragedy on a scale large enough to make front pages struck.
In truth, I had been as guilty as the mainstream media. Overtaken by events in my own life, the migrants’ plight had drifted from my mind. Not so Alexandre’s. During his six months on Lampedusa he had concluded, as many other migration rights advocates have, that what Europe needs to guarantee a humane, just and logical treatment of migrants, is a concerted strategy. The current patchwork system, held together by the so-called ‘Dublin rule,’ whereby a migrant must apply for asylum in the first E.U. country they reach, is the root of the problem. First agreed to by the member states at a summit in the Irish capital in 1990, the rule has created a situation in which the richer Northern European countries use it to wash their hands of the crisis on the shores of the Med. Meanwhile, as first arrival point for the poorest migrants, Southern states like Italy, Spain and Greece receive extra E.U. funds but do little to give refugees a path into society. Stays in detention centers stretch from months into years of hopeless limbo. Stories abound of asylum seekers in these countries trying to burn off their fingerprints before the authorities can digitally store them, in order to avoid being ‘Dublined’ after a long and risky journey to the UK, Germany, Holland, Belgium or Scandinavia.
Working with the Italian-based human rights network Everyone, Alexandre developed a petition demanding the creation of a new E.U. body that would create a unified approach to ensuring safety at sea, dealing with asylum claims, and creating safe migration routes. Of these areas, currently only the first already involves cooperation between member states. But Alexandre, along with many other campaigners, sees it as hypocritical to separate the safety of so-called irregular migrants at sea from their subsequent reception on land. Instead of disappearing into the systems of each member state, under his proposal all new arrivals would be dealt with by a single entity. This entity would be subject to proper scrutiny with respect for the Geneva Convention on Refugees. “It won’t mean open borders,” says Alexandre. “But migrants will be treated as human beings. They won’t be left to rot in detention centers because they’re profitable commodities for multinational security firms or mafias, or sent back to countries where all the evidence suggests they cannot live safely.”
To publicize the project, he would kayak from the coast of Tunisia to the seat of the European Parliament in Brussels, 2,300 miles. Three years after setting out — following numerous logistical delays and with his life savings exhausted — he was now finally within sight of the goal. The route had taken him from North Africa back to Lampedusa, then east to Malta, round the Sicilian coast and up the Italian boot, into France and the river Rhone at Marseille. There had been long hiatuses along the way: first in Malta, where he struggled to find a boat skipper willing to escort him across to Sicily. Then in winter 2012, when he spent months in Sabaudia, a small town south of Rome, recuperating from a shoulder injury. Finally, stormy weather and vicious currents nearly destroyed his kayak on the Rhone and he had to stop over during the winter of 2013-14 in Montelimar, in the south of France. Here, in May 2014, he picked up the voyage for its final leg.
* * *
Within twenty minutes of landing at Gray, Alexandre has pitched his tent on the riverbank not far from the small town center. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says to a passing middle-aged couple giving him curious glances. “I’m not some crazy guy. I’m just kayaking from Tunisia to Brussels.”
“De la Tunisie? Vraiment?”
And so Alexandre tells them about it, using a technique he has outlined to me before. “I don’t say, ‘I’m kayaking to help immigrants,’ because most people aren’t interested in helping immigrants. I say: ‘I’m kayaking for a properly managed immigration system.’ I ask if they know how much money Europe wastes every year on a system that doesn’t work, that is completely broken. And I remind them that’s their taxes — then they start to listen.”
As it turns out this couple doesn’t need persuading. Especially not the woman, who exchanges outrage with Alexandre at the vast sums of public money paid out to private companies to run reception and detention centers for asylum seekers with the goal of profit. The man looks surprised to hear his partner go on to advocate full-scale revolution, 1789-style. Unexpectedly, the “madman in the kayak” as Alexandre tends to be viewed, becomes Mr. Cautious, arguing it is better to work with existing institutions. He even defends the xenophobic voters the woman despises.
“The problem is misinformation,” he says. “If I just read the popular press, I’d be anti-immigration too.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” she laments.
“I want to engage everyone in dialogue. Even the National Front”—the French political party known for its anti-immigrant views.
“No! No! Dialogue to a certain point but not them. There are some people you can’t dialogue with.”
On this they agree to disagree. But the couple both say they will go online to sign Alexandre’s petition. Not a bad start to the evening’s campaign, but hints of the wider problem.
Front Nationale won twenty-five percent of the votes — the highest percentage of any party — in France’s recent European Parliament election. Its success is part of a pattern. In Greece there is the neo-fascist Golden Dawn; in Italy, the separatist racists of the Lega Nord. In the UK, open xenophobia hasn’t quite found a way into the political mainstream; what has is a party, UKIP, which limits its official goal to quitting the EU altogether. It’s far from alone in this. Across the continent, less EU cooperation, not more, is the popular narrative. In more ways than one, Alexandre is paddling against the current.
* * *
And yet, on this evening, it seems the world is with him. He has changed out of his wetsuit into cargo pants and a shirt, and arranged the kayak in front of the tent to his satisfaction. We walk into town in search of something to eat but nothing leaps out — Gray seems deserving of its name. Undeterred, Alexandre calls out to three figures walking ahead of us in the otherwise empty street. “Les gars! Where can we get some food round here?”
The men turn out to be French-Algerians. They invite us to follow them through an archway leading off into a courtyard. The place is buzzing: there is an improvised bar, a barbecue, and a big screen rigged up for the Algeria-Germany World Cup match. Alexandre explains his project to the barman, a long-faced Algerian with a nose as sharp as a knife and bulging, intense eyes. This man, Ben, quickly champions the cause: “Everyone listen,” he shouts. “This here is a great guy. Listen to what he’s doing.”
“After the match,” Alexandre protests. But I see that he is pleased, this sort of reaction makes what he is doing feel worthwhile. “This is lucky,” he confides as we watch Algeria go down in extra time. “It’s not usually like this.” He is talking about the reception he’s received, and the level of interest in the petition, which is still not even up to 1,000 signatures.
That is the drawback of campaigning “on the water,” rather than in front of a laptop perfecting the use of an e-petition platform. Drumming up support is made even harder by the fact that Alexandre often camps away from towns. He drags the kayak up onto the beach or bank and pitches it in a secluded spot. No company, just a simple meal and the journal he writes in every evening. He also keeps a video diary, uploading clips to his Facebook page when he can get a connection. Absorbed by electronic and other practical tasks such as buying food, he says he rarely sleeps before midnight. This night in Gray it is the same, albeit for more sociable reasons. We part ways in the silent town, me to sleep in the hostel, he to his tent.
* * *
Alexandre was born in France in 1968, the year students took to the streets. He was brought up as one of three children in the Parisian suburb of Clichy, his parents immigrants from Portugal. He spoke Portuguese at home and French at school. At the time he graduated, military service was still compulsory. Alexandre refused to do it; would not even take the option of desk duties in a military capacity. “I didn’t want to wear the uniform,” he says.
The law was changed a year later, but at that time the penalty for making such a stand was prison. So Alexandre was sent to Amiens, a hundred miles north of Paris. “I was eighteen and thrown in with robbers and rapists,” he says. “I learnt more there in nine months than I did all through school.”
When he got out he wanted to work for the town council in Clichy But they wouldn’t take anyone with a criminal record, so he had to apply to a special court to ask for the conviction to be removed from his record “I remember going into the tribunal and there were ten judges waiting. They asked me to present my case and I started telling stories about all the mad things I’d seen inside. Eventually I had them all laughing. The chief judge said I deserved a chance.”
But the job with the council didn’t last. Now twenty four, he found himself unemployed. “I didn’t want to sit around waiting for something. I’d heard about a work program in Canada. You could get a visa to go and work there for six months. I applied and the next thing I knew I was out picking apples on a farm near Montreal.”
It was the move that defined the first act of Alexandre’s adult life. A few years later, he married and became a Canadian citizen.
* * *
On September 12, 2014, ten weeks after my trip to Gray, Brussels witnesses a man dragging a bright yellow kayak through its city center streets. Exactly three years after setting out from Tunisia, Alexandre is nearing the goal. From the canal along which he crossed the Belgian lowlands, at one point narrowly missing catastrophe at the hands of a dozing lock gate attendant, he now only has to traverse several miles overland to reach the European Parliament. It must feel strange, all this concrete and steel, glass and traffic, after so long on quiet waterways. But he has a job to do, interviews to give to the few TV channels that are at last showing interest. He has to stay composed, focused. Finally, the Parliament looms before him like a giant botanist’s hothouse in dark glass and steel. So this is it. The journey is over. He crosses the landscaped plaza, past the flags of the nation states, and enters the atrium to hand in his petition.
What is this building he is placing such faith in to change things? In the UK, the tabloid image of the E.U.’s Brussels home is of a talking shop, a democratic façade for the real power in Europe, wielded by faceless, Kafkaesque bureaucrats. It’s true that the power of the Parliament, the only elected chamber of the E.U.’s three functioning branches, is severely limited. The E.U.’s legislative engine is the Commission, its members selected by each state, supported by a vast army of civil servants — or as the tabloids call them, “Brussels bureaucrats.” The Parliament can scrutinize laws the Commission wants to pass, suggest changes, and even recommend new ones, but cannot enact anything by itself. Many radicals have dismissed it as toothless, but not Alexandre.
Two weeks later he announces a press conference. He has assembled a coalition of support for the view that radical change is needed. Of the four European parliamentarians present at the event on October 1, the most high-profile is Cecilia Kyenge, Italy’s ex-minister for immigration. A Congolese woman who moved to Italy in 1983, Kyenge has endured racist abuse from elected members of Italy’s parliament that would shame football hooligans. If anyone has the motivation to take Alexandre’s fight to the Commission, it ought to be her. And as a member of the second largest political grouping, the center-left, she may also have the influence to lead change. Alongside Kyenge and Alexandre are members of three other significant groups in the parliament. Collectively they vow to work towards the main points of Alexandre’s petition: ending the current security-led approach to policing the E.U.’s borders, and creating a single E.U. body to guarantee human rights and encourage safe migration routes.
The press conference is a triumph for Alexandre: a demonstration of how one man’s extraordinary act can bring disparate politicians together behind a cause. Yet even if a majority in the Parliament do call for change, there is little they can do if the Commission has no desire for it.
For a while this seemed to be the case, but perhaps no longer. On September 29, the newly designated Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, Dimitris Avramopolous, declared his intention to reform the Dublin rule and press ahead with plans for an integrated asylum system. If he stalls on these promises, Alexandre’s allies in the parliament will surely bring him to task for it.
That would still leave one more obstacle to the reforms Alexandre has kayaked 2,300 miles to campaign for. Without European Council ratification, no proposal can become law. But the Council, comprised of the heads of the E.U.’s member states, is likely to be the biggest stumbling block. Already under attack from the domestic anti-E.U. parties for surrendering sovereignty to Brussels, the political cost of voting through a collaborative approach to migration and asylum could be high. Certainly in the UK, it seems far more likely that the leadership would put vote-winning over humanitarian, or even financially sensible concerns.
But the UK may not matter. Since the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, the requirement for Council ratification is by qualified majority rather than unanimity. Although growing, the influence of Britain’s anti-European, anti-immigrant sentiment may not be able to prevent the efforts of the likes of Alexandre, Kyenge and Avramopolous from taking effect.
This could even happen another way, if the UK opts to leave the E.U. after an in-out referendum promised by the Conservative government for 2017. Either way, it looks like it may be possible to end a system that pushes people to take lethal risks at the hands of traffickers, and mocks the very human rights Europe claims to stand for.
* * *
In any case, Alexandre will not stop until something gives. Since the October press conference he’s continued to base himself in Brussels, meeting numerous politicians and giving interviews where he can. The Christmas holiday period found him in Calais, the port where the tunnel under the English Channel emerges into France — a symbol of cooperation that has become a symbol of discontent. Migrants camp out in the woods near the motorway, hoping to grab onto the underside of a truck going into Britain. UK and French politicians argue about whose responsibility this is. The British solution is to pay for a high barbed wire fence to stop them reaching the road. Alexandre helps a group of volunteers who cook for the aspiring stowaways, talking to them, treating them as humans. Just after his visit, part of the new fence is blown down by strong winds. At times in the past three months he has confided doubts to me. Surviving on social security, sleeping in a van, he has wondered if he’s banging his head against a brick wall, but the fence falling down perks him up. ‘AHAHAHA!’ he writes on Facebook. ‘Nature truly is well-made. What a good omen for 2015!’
For a long time I wondered what exactly it was that spurred Alexandre to take up the cause of migrants with such passion. The first time I met him, all he told me about his past was that he had been an office clerk working for the regional government in Montreal. He had been, as he put it, “sensitized” to the plight of migrants while traveling from the US into Central and South America. His story intrigued me. Why this cause above all others — a French-Canadian campaigning on behalf of people migrating into Europe? Perhaps, I think now, having learned about Alexandre’s life, during all those years in Canada, through his marriage and its breakdown, hardship and financial gain, he remained essentially a European. As a French speaker in an Anglophone world, he was never part of mainstream North American culture. His identification with the outsider only grew. He wanted to return to Europe, but as a humanist he couldn’t see his claim as stronger than anyone else’s. As he said to me that day in Gray: “Just because you’re born with a certain passport you get to move and live where you want. And they’re supposed to stay where they are, with war and poverty and no hope. Does that seem fair to you?”