Zoe Holman has carefully document the varied plight of refugees in Europe in Where the Water Ends

  • Where the Water Ends, by Zoe Holman. Melbourne University Press, $29.99.

At the 1994 Avignon festival, during the Serbian siege of Bosnia's capital, an artist installed a gravestone inscribed with the word "Sarajevo" in the centre of the city's main walking path.

The intention was to determine who would look away or step aside, and who, by contrast, might pause in guilty reflection.

Zoe Holman has documented another instance of Europeans' disposition to pull up the ladder after themselves, to sequester themselves in a privileged, self-protective enclave. She might have added Europeans' handling of the covid vaccine as a coda to her appraisal of European responses to recent refugee flows. Holman - an Australian historian, journalist and poet - has chosen a calm, factual sub-title, "seeking refuge in fortress Europe". That should not, however, mislead a reader into thinking that the book is not brim-full of passion - from the author and the numerous witnesses she has assembled to testify.

Australians are altogether familiar with the concerns and complaints Europeans canvass about refugees. One side of the argument about boat people runs along similar lines. What happens if the flow of refugees becomes interminable and unstoppable? How long must they stay if conditions alter in their homelands (the issue with which Denmark is currently grappling for refugees from Syria)? What happens to our habits and values if newcomers do not want to integrate? How do we cope if terrorists or criminals arrive among those fleeing conflict? Can people smugglers be deterred?

To rebut such pull-up-the-ladder anxieties, Holman has assembled what Christos Tsiolkas calls "a record and a meditation and a plea". Her narrative begins with a Christian bishop, who suffered a heart attack while being buried alive. That tragedy occurred in Smyrna (now Izmir) in 1922, when Turks expelled the Christian Greek population. Holman then segues from a century-old horror to contemporary ordeals.

Holman is well aware that even the conventional terms she uses are loaded and contested.

"Refugee", "migrant", "exile" and "asylum seeker" hold quite divergent connotations on different sides of debate, in Australia as in Europe.

Throughout, Holman is strict and scrupulous in her language. She categorically rejects the "demand for victimhood" as a criterion for asylum. With similar rigour, Holman tries to dissect motives and de-code lies among those to whom she talks.

Holman's analysis focuses on Greece, the country where those fleeing from Syria and elsewhere often stopped first. Amongst the refugees, she takes pains not to concentrate on "the most dramatic, most heroic or most horrific" stories she has heard.

Young men are the main cohort interviewed, and they are mostly - but certainly not exclusively - from Syria. For one individual after another, in one story on top of other, the reader can plainly discern that Holman has won the trust and confidence of the asylum seekers to whom she spoke.

The respect shown to her subjects is replicated in Holman's accounts of particular times and places. She wanders through a cemetery seeking those graves marked "agnostos" ("unknown"). She brings back to life pre-war Homs in Syria as well as the Jewish heritage in Thessaloniki and the shocking eviction of Yazdis from Sinjar in Kurdish Iraq in 2014.

Moreover, although she criticises many Greek officials and practices, Holman is fair-minded in her assessment of Greece's own burdens: closed factories, indefinite unemployment, debt burdens and domineering EU partners.

Along the way, some terrible injustices and tragedies are recorded. Holman does, however, take time to pause over smaller, telling details. The humiliating arrest of an asylum seeker who had gone swimming and left his backpack on the beach is chronicled precisely, sensitively, poignantly.

One lyrical passage has been left in. Looking at the sea from a cove beyond Chios' port, Holman finds that "the surface is like mercury at this hour - a shifting play of pink and silver and indigo".

Holman's accumulation of personal stories reflects deep research but also a fierce sense of urgency. Each of the many tales contains compelling testimony. Those accounts are told as though they were happening today, rather than at intervals over the past six years or more. None of the suffering is over-stated or theatrical; the impact of the narrative is a slower, cumulative one.

Early on, Holman does permit herself wider judgments. She claims that the refugee inflow of three million people is "minute in scale" when compared with the EU's population of 508 million. She attributes the failure of EU management to policies which "give primacy to profit and politics over human life".

More often, however, the most trenchant conclusions are contained in the commentary her witnesses provide, in others' voices. Holman's own narrative voice is, in fact, under-stated, perhaps in the interests of convincing readers to focus directly on what those suffering and persisting have to say for themselves.

This story The plight of European refugees first appeared on The Canberra Times.