Any journey involving children presents its own unique challenges to parents. A fact I was reminded of during our summer holiday to the UK, which included two long haul economy class flights, a road trip through the Scottish Highlands and a week on a narrow boat traversing the Leeds to Liverpool canal.
Air travel is perhaps the most popularly derided and satirized mode of transport, to the point where my experience of flying is actually beginning to improve. So low are my expectations that no trifling in flight disappointment could ever possibly extend my gloom, except perhaps for the loss of a wing. Children restrained in car seats on a long drive will always perform to type, tormenting you and each other in equal measure and ignoring even the most spectacular of scenery. Driving through the precipitous unsurpassed beauty of Glen Coe my kids couldn’t have been less impressed if I’d been playing them Glenn Miller, such was their fatigue with their confinement. On our Lancashire narrow boat, inclines were climbed by a whole series of complex Victorian engineered set pieces called locks, designed to confuse, exhaust and distract you while the children dare each other to leap into the jaws of these menacing contraptions.
Yet all these activities were planned, paid for and pursued in the name of leisure. Many (very many) less fortunate families, however, were forced to travel with their children this summer, in order to flee one of the continuing wars in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. The first leg of their journey would have entailed walking to the Mediterranean coast while carrying the remainder of their possessions. A mere 150km if your home was barrel bombed in Aleppo and closer to a 1000km if you are escaping from murdering medieval fundamentalists in Mosul. All while avoiding the attentions of the likes of, the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, the Al Nusra Front, Kurdistani separatists (Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian), Islamic State, The Free Syrian Army and airstrikes from the US, Saudi and Jordanian Air Forces, to name but a few.
Upon reaching the beach they would then have to use the remainder of their funds to obtain a place in the hold of an overcrowded, decommissioned fishing boat. All in the hope of making it to a bankrupt Greek island or being picked up by the overwhelmed and indifferent Italian Navy, before the inevitable horror of a capsize or sinking. People smugglers, abhorrent as they are, only represent the small independent trader end of the human misery market, although it is expedient for Governments to blame the current refugee crisis upon their greed. The real experts in Walmart volume suffering and the true source of the problem, are the professional politicians, oil executives, institutions and ideologies that vie for power, wealth and control of the world’s hearts and minds. Who do you think has more blood on their hands this century, “Hamid and Sons, People Smugglers since 2012” or Bashar al-Assad, Dick Cheney or Tony Blair?
Families, like mine, who enter countries by passenger jet, presenting valid passports and bland reasons for travelling, are classified as tourists and directed to the taxi rank. Those who arrive by boat in desperate conditions and in need of help are deemed migrants, for political reasons, and are lucky to receive incarceration. In Hong Kong asylum claims are processed painfully slowly, and almost always refused, through the Unified Screening Mechanism. An Orwellian piece of legislation that drives a Kafkaesque process more complex, drawn out and doomed than trying to get PCCW to terminate your cable TV contract.
So what lessons can be drawn from this turbulent summer? Certainly that problems are relative. While politicians and newspapers discuss the semantics of the words “migrant” and “refugee”, dead children are being washed up on the tourist beaches of Europe. The inevitable result when a man-made humanitarian crisis is met with human intransience and ironic given the EU project was initiated to ensure the horrors of the Second World War would never be repeated. So next time your kids, ten minutes into a journey, ask “Are we there yet?” Be grateful for the fact you know where you’re going.