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Author who posed as refugee shares insights into his risky journey

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Posted at 2:37 PM, May 10, 2022

Across deserts, rivers, and seas, millions of refugees take extreme risks to seek safety every year.

Images of their journeys regularly appear on our screens, yet the dangers they face are beyond comprehension for most people. But not for Canadian war journalist Matthieu Aikins. He's lived the journey himself, posing as a refugee in 2016 to help his friend and interpreter flee Afghanistan.

His new memoir "The Naked Don't Fear The Water" chronicles his underground odyssey across land and sea on the smuggler's road from Kabul to Europe.

"An Afghan friend of mine named Omar decided to escape his country," Aikins said. "He wanted to take the smugglers' route to Europe, and I wanted to report on the crisis, so the only way I could go with him, given the danger of being arrested or kidnapped, was to go undercover as an Afghan refugee myself."

Though the journey starts in Kabul, somehow, after many twists and turns, he and Omar arrive in Turkey, with plans to reach Greece from there with the help of smugglers.

"We were forced to board a little boat in the middle of the night and cross the Mediterranean, which is the world's deadliest border," Aikins said. "These boats can lose air, they can be attacked by the Turkish coast guard trying to take them back, and so it's frightening. But, you know, I grew up on the sea, and I'd also chosen to be there. For many of the refugees, this is the first time they'd been on a boat or been on the ocean, so they felt a much greater terror."

"At one point, we were on the way to the boat on the Turkish coast," he said. "We were crammed into this van. There were way too many people inside of it, and the driver got worried at one point, and kind of stopped and left the van there. And I couldn't help but think of, you know, the 170 people who had suffocated to death in a meat truck in Austria the previous year, which is an event that really shook the conscience of Europe. So it was a scary hour that we were there, but eventually, the driver came back, and we continued driving."

NEWSY'S BEN SCHAMISSO: How was it for you to put your own life in the hands of smugglers, and how do you find a smuggler in the first place?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, in a country like Afghanistan, where people have been fleeing from war for 40 years now, it's not hard to find a smuggler. The sad truth is most refugees need smugglers to escape their country because they're not allowed to travel legally, you know? They need visas, which they won't get, so while smuggling is not an industry that encourages honesty or kindness, they're not really the root cause of the problem. They're convenient scapegoats for politicians. But the fact of the matter is, is that border controls create smugglers. You see that on the border between Afghanistan and Iran. You see it on the borders of Europe. You see that in the border between the U.S. and Mexico. As border controls get stricter, so do profits for smugglers increase and get more criminalized. Then you still have the same number of people, if not more, crossing.

SCHAMISSO: How do you feel about the state of Afghanistan today, and what would you like our audience to know about it?

AIKINS: Afghanistan is facing a catastrophe for which the West and its failed mission there are directly responsible. We built up over 20 years one of the most aid-dependent countries in history, and so suddenly, cutting off that aid has had a predictable consequence. You know the government is basically not functioning. Salaries aren't getting paid. The country's financial system is really being frozen by sanctions against the Taliban, who are now in charge. Unfortunately, the Taliban have not shown us very many positive signs that they're willing to reform and govern more inclusively. But one thing we have to understand is that — not just today but after over 40 years of war — a survival strategy for Afghans has been to migrate. So I really do think that we, the world, should be supporting Afghan refugees and migrants and making it easier for them to cross borders, not harder, which unfortunately is the case right now that Afghans are being trapped in their own countries by borders and bylaws, by visas.

As for Aikins's next move, he's soon heading back to Afghanistan to work on another story — this time for the New York Times magazine about the country's current situation.

"So, we'll be going back to see the country that I still very much love despite everything that's happening," Aikins said.

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