Book Review - The Road Before Me Weeps: On the refugee route through Europe

Nick Thorpe, a Budapest-based correspondent for BBC Radio and TV, followed the western Balkan route used by many migrants and refugees from 2014 to 2018. He witnessed the hostility of certain Central European governments towards these desperate people and Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán’s decision, to block their path by building a wall. The title of his book refers to a Szekler folk song in which a man tries to visit the woman who has left him. As he walks down the road that weeps, no door opens. The Szeklers of Bukovina were displaced during World War II.

Although meticulously researched, with extensive political analysis, it is Thorpe’s personal observations that resonate the most. His description of Hungarian police running after refugees, tripping them up and dragging them back to the holding point, “using considerable force”, is shocking. Then he relates how a “partly disabled” man “sobbed violently throughout.” The man wore a teeshirt with a picture of a bear and a help sign: “Live with care, save the bear.” One early morning in the fields of Croatia, Thorpe’s nose is streaming. A boy offers him a tissue from his small pack. Thorpe comments: “Twenty per cent, perhaps, of his worldly possessions. Islamic hospitality.” Time and again, Thorpe is invited to eat with his interviewees, people who have lost everything but their dignity; illustrated by their willingness to share what little they have left.

By describing their journeys Thorpe does a great service to all those seeking a better life, regardless of whether they are fleeing poverty or conflict. He restores their humanity; they are no longer a statistic, to be bandied around by politicians such as Orbán, who used their predicament for his own political ends. As Thorpe observes: “You tell people who to fear one day, and you ask them the next day who they are afraid of.”                         

Public perception is key and Thorpe documents many acts of kindness. His aim is to “raise questions of human freedom and hospitality, of rights and obligations.” Unfortunately, politicians tend to distort the rhetoric. While Angela Markel repeatedly used the word “refugees” in her speeches, Orbán preferred “illegal immigrants”. Orbán’s deployment of anti-terrorism police reinforced the message that “migrants were synonymous with terrorists” and the media were instructed to avoid showing children. One of Thorpe’s conclusions is that there might have been “more sympathy for Syrians…if Hungarians had seen the parallels with their own failed revolution of 1956.”                     

Originally published in the TLS to mark Refugee Week 2019