Today, 29-year-old Hassan Akkad is every inch the modern Londoner. Leather bomber jacket, designer jeans and on-trend partially laced boots. Yet little more than two years ago, fleeing from Syria where he’d been imprisoned by President Assad’s brutal regime, Hassan was in an overcrowded dinghy between Turkey and Greece fearing for his life as waves threatened to overwhelm the boat and tip him and 68 other desperate refugees into the sea. They were rescued by Turkish coastguards and he was able to complete the crossing the following day.
Back then, the borders across Europe were open and he made the journey from Lesbos to Calais in just 28 days using buses, taxis and a lot of hard miles on foot. As a teacher of English in Damascus, the UK was always his destination. “I spoke the language and I am liberal in my outlook. I was determined to get to the UK.”
But in the refugee camp at Calais known as “the Jungle” his dream appeared doomed. “I made over 50 attempts to get across on lorries, but they all failed. It was a dire experience.”
Instead he used the last of his savings – 4,000 euros – to buy a fake Belgian passport and flew from Brussels to London where he claimed asylum. After six months, many of them spent with an English family in Hertfordshire, he was granted leave to remain for five years. That was September 2015. If his story appears familiar it’s because it featured in the first series of BBC2’s acclaimed documentary Exodus that gave small cameras to migrants to film their journeys.
Now, in a three-part sequel, there has been a reversal of roles. Hassan is now behind the camera, working for the BBC, and has returned to some of the refugee camps in Greece and France to see how today’s migrants are faring.
With European borders now barricaded by thousands of miles of barbed wire fencing and patrolled by armed soldiers with dogs, those refugees who have made it to mainland Europe are trapped – their choice either to risk their life with a smuggler or spend months, if not years, in a holding camp on a resettlement list.
“You can sense the desperation in the air,” says Hassan. “If you put any human being in one place for a year without a job, without education, without any purpose then they will suffer. Hope is becoming scarce in these refugee camps. You might expect that to happen in the Third World but this is Europe. It seems unbelieveable.”
Hassan acknowledges the concern that the arrival of one million unchecked refugees had around the continent a year ago. “But I don’t know why people are worried,” he says. “Lebanon is smaller than Wales but they have taken on one million refugees and they don’t talk about it as much as we seem to here in this country.
“I understand that the open borders policy is a concern because of terrorists crossing, so people do need to be processed properly, but it shouldn’t take months for pregnant women and families to be processed. We just need proper regulation.”
The first series of Exodus ended with refugees arriving in mainland Europe. This second series chronicles the difficulty in crossing the continent and save the indefatigable cheerfulness of one Afghan couple – “we are treating this journey as our honeymoon” – it is heartbreakingly bleak. The scenes in the Serbian capital Belgrade, for instance, have an apocalyptic desolation to them. Says director James Bluemel: “The first series was filled with hope because of where we left people. But it didn’t last. It sounds awful to be saying that I have documented the death of hope but sometimes I think that’s what this [new] series has done. But what I didn’t document was the death of the human spirit. And I find it remarkable that I see it everywhere and I hope that comes across too.”
The final word goes to Hassan who, two years after nearly drowning in the Aegean Sea, is now settled in London and hopes to continue his new-found career in television. “I can never go back to Syria where my family are because I am blacklisted, so I am grateful that I can call London my home. Letting people in is not as vile as the Daily Mail likes to show it. Everyone I know is contributing. I am glad that I made it.”
Exodus: Our Journey Continues begins on Thursday 2nd November at 9pm on BBC2