‘I hope my footage helps people understand’

Unsafe passage: Refugees wait for buses at the Austria/Hungary border. © BBC

The BBC’s Exodus puts Europe’s refugee crisis into extreme focus. Shot on cameraphones by the refugees themselves, it shows every stage of their dangerous journey. But will it change minds?

Eleven-year-old Isra’a smiles and chatters as a camera follows her around Izmir in Turkey. She points out the best Syrian restaurant; demonstrates a waterproof case to protect your phone if, ‘god forbid’, your dinghy capsizes; introduces her grandfather, sister and cousins. She is unrelentingly cheerful.

As the family of 16 pays €12,000 to make the dangerous journey to Greece, her father says it is the ‘hardest test’ of his life. He is haunted by the image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old who drowned on the same route last year. But his children say they are not scared of waves; not after the bombs in Syria. ‘Let us die so we can rest,’ one boy jokes. ‘At least we sleep forever in the grave.’

Thankfully, the family survives — and now their story is part of an extraordinary documentary series by the BBC.

Exodus airs its final part tonight. It tells the human stories of Europe’s migration crisis, using footage taken by refugees themselves. Their smartphones capture every stage of their perilous journey: leaving ruined homes in Aleppo; making deals with people smugglers; using plastic bottles to bail water out of a sinking boat; and finally, the long walk towards safety. ‘It is fun walking in the rain,’ smiles Isra’a.

More than one million refugees claimed asylum in Europe last year. Most were fleeing civil war in Syria — but they also came from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea. At first, Germany welcomed them. But as other EU countries closed their borders, attitudes began to harden.

One refugee, Akkad, says he wants Exodus to ‘humanise the story’. He hopes that anti-immigration politicians ‘will watch and be more lenient.’

Powerful documentaries have had a huge impact on public opinion in the past. Seaworld’s audiences have plummeted since Blackfish; McDonald’s dropped its largest portions after Super Size Me; and a man on death row was freed after his story was told by The Thin Blue Line. Could Exodus do the same?

Through a lens

Few deny the trauma suffered by refugees in Europe. But the solution is not so simple, argue some. It requires a massive amount of cooperation. Many voters in Europe do not want to ‘open the doors’, and three hours of television are not enough to change their minds. If the photos of Alan Kurdi didn’t do it, why would this?

Europe must be more welcoming, say others. Refugees have been dehumanised by anti-immigration rhetoric, but we must remember that we are not talking about numbers — they are human beings. Documentaries are the perfect way to remind people of this: they show the sights and sounds of real lives, and by putting the viewer ‘inside’ the sinking boat, they make it almost impossible to turn away.

You Decide

  1. Can a documentary change the world?
  2. Watch the clip of Hassan’s boat sinking under Become An Expert. Does it change your opinion about the refugee crisis?


  1. Rewrite the final two paragraphs of this story. Instead of looking at the impact of documentaries, discuss two answers to the question: ‘what should Europe do about the refugee crisis?’
  2. Use your own smartphone to make a short documentary about your daily life, or an issue in your town that you care about.

Some People Say...

“Real lives are always more interesting than fiction.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I watch this documentary?
For one thing, it is an amazing piece of storytelling, which involved an incredible amount of risk. It is dangerous enough to deal with people smugglers, but secretly filming them was an extraordinarily brave thing for the refugees to do. It is also important for everybody in Europe to understand the lives of the people who are asking for their help. It may not change minds about policy; but it at least deserves some attention.
What is the UK’s current policy?
Last year, the government said it would take 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. However, it will take them from camps on the Syrian border, so as not to encourage more people to make the dangerous journey to Europe. It also donates large amounts of foreign aid to the Syrian region.

Word Watch

The journey would have cost €22 per person if the family was legally allowed to travel to Greece. They are not — and so they rely on illegal people traffickers.
Alan Kurdi
Photographs of the boy’s body on a Greek beach were shown all around the world when he drowned on September 2nd 2015.
Rebels have fought against the dictator Bashar al-Assad in a brutal civil war since 2011.
Syria’s largest city, which has been a battleground since 2012.
One million
The International Organization for Migration says that around 1,011,700 migrants arrived by sea alone.
Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees to Germany meant the country received far more asylum applications than any other in the EU.
Anti-immigration parties have been gaining support all across Europe. The UK’s vote to leave the EU has also been seen as a reaction against immigration.
The documentary Blackfish accused the waterparks of badly mistreating their captive orcas, which are trained to perform in front of audiences. In 2010, an orca trainer was killed by one of the animals.

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