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Edward Jonkler documents “The Lost Men of Syria”: The untold issues underlying the global refugee crisis

A photojournalist's account

Meet Edward Jonkler, the up-and-coming photojournalist who is on a mission to reveal the issues underlying the global refugee crisis. His most recent project and first solo exhibition, The Lost Men of Syria, opens at the Saatchi Gallery on July 19th, an outreach exhibition hosted by the education department, in association with The Worldwide Tribe.

I realised how different it was in the flesh from what we’re shown by the media. I felt a strong moral obligation to show what was really going on, and commit to understanding it for myself.

What inspired you to start a career as a photojournalist?

I used to shoot a lot for pleasure, but after going to Calais for the first time and seeing the effects of the refugee crisis, I decided that I needed to show the world the truth of what is happening out there. Photography allowed me a way to do that.

The jungle camp in Calais made me realise that what was shown in the papers isn’t necessarily what’s going on on the ground. I realised how different it was in the flesh from what we’re shown by the media. I felt a strong moral obligation to show what was really going on, and commit to understanding it for myself. Every time I answered one question I was left with three more: I needed answers. Meeting people like Jaz from The Worldwide Tribe was great, as I quickly became immersed in the inner workings of the crisis. From there I was inspired to delve deeper into what was happening around me.

There is no centrist, measured position in the whole crisis. There are extreme anarchists on one side and extreme right-wing guys on the other, and I wanted to provide a balanced approach, one you can’t get from a newspaper or magazine in the UK nowadays. When things are polarised like this it’s going to be impossible to reach a workable solution.

How did you go about finding the answers to your questions?

Although there are six or seven thousand refugees in Calais, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the crisis in Europe. Thousands of people have been arriving on Greek and Italian shores every day, so to really understand the issues I wanted to immerse myself in the route they take. I wanted to see what they were going through from their perspective, from avoiding dangerous back streets to cramming onto small boats with over sixty desperate people, negotiating with smugglers to increase the number of people on board. That’s when I went to the Syrian border and travelled with fake papers through Turkey, eventually travelling on a rubber dingy to Greece where I was intercepted by the coastguard. I wanted to understand what refugees experienced, to help me understand their state when they arrived in Europe; and this was very insightful.

People are so angry they’re not interested in facts, and I feel like this is predominantly the responsibility of the media.

I’ve heard a war photographer say it’s great to work with a journalist because the two people have different approaches to their crafts, but papers don’t have money to do this anymore…

Having to write and take photos is a compromise: when I do both things one usually suffers. Sometimes this is necessary, like when I went to Rukban, a camp inside Syria on the Jordanian border. It was so dangerous that some writers whom I asked to come along were unwilling as they felt it would be too unsafe from a security perspective. I prefer projects like the one I’ve just completed, which I want to focus on going forward.

You’re right about the budget challenges. It’s very hard to make a living doing this, and that’s had negative repercussions, including sensationalising what’s happening out there. War photography can be voyeuristic, and you have to be careful about giving a faithful representation of events. This is a growing problem and is part of why we are in the state that we are politically. People are so angry they’re not interested in facts, and I feel like this is predominantly the responsibility of the media.

Photography has been an influential medium to sway public opinion and inform about the refugee crisis. Is sensationalization necessary to help catalyse action?

It depends on how hardened the viewer is and how strong their pre-conceived notions are. There is this romantic ideal in photojournalism of taking a photo that changes the world and alters perspectives. I certainly sought that out: I spent a lot of time in Calais with a telephoto lens, trying to catch the police beating people, because I knew it was happening and I wanted that to be published. I knew a powerful photo would cause huge disruption to the aggressive policing policy being pursued in Calais.

What I’ve now decided is that I should develop a strong concept that I believe in, and then document it in the best way I can. Each project needs to be underwritten by an innate understanding of the issues at hand. The Lost Men of Syria project is something I deeply believe in, and this passion drives the structure of the project.

…when people are held in asylum centres they can’t work, and enforced idleness is very destructive. In this period you often see a psychological collapse.

Why did you feel it was important to focus on the men?

It’s the first of the two concepts that had emerged as key in understanding the psychology of the refugee crisis. All the way through my journey with refugees, I’ve seen that the men really struggle, whereas the women and children seem to do better; I wanted to understand why this was. When I spent more time in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, I started realising what was happening. In poor, rural areas, the wife would look after the children, clean and cook, and the man would work long hours in a physical job; he would be in charge as the head of the family If displaced, the wife’s routine and role remains largely intact, but the men lose theirs completely. With this crumbles their hegemony, and as a result, they can enter a deep state of depression.

This happens in Europe as well: when people are held in asylum centres they can’t work, and enforced idleness is very destructive. In this period you often see a psychological collapse. People come off the boats in their best clothes and with their CV ready; after being held for months they stop learning the local language, and within a year they drop into the welfare bucket.

If we continue to take people in large numbers without rehabilitating them, we will continue to fail.

What can we do to break this negative cycle?

Refugees need to be rehabilitated so that their situation is less likely to lead to mental health issues. They’ve witnessed the destruction of everything they know, and I’m not even talking about the trauma they’ve been through. Depression, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse can sometimes result from this process. There are huge ramifications involved including those to do with security – a thorny issue people try to avoid. Of course, not everyone goes through this the same way, but most are affected by the state of impermanence – it ruins people. However it’s done, people need to be lifted and taught that they have value again.

What is it in our system that is causing us to fail so frequently in aiding refugees?

I don’t think there’s a lack of money, but there are so many conflicting things we need to bear in mind. There is a security element; there’s an integration-rehabilitation element; a mental health element; and there is no clear strategy on how to tackle these issues. We need a strong plan and this needs to be led by psychologists and sociologists. If we continue to take people in large numbers without rehabilitating them, we will continue to fail. We’re going to end up with millions of people on benefits who would never want benefits, and who are depressed and resent us for our role in rendering them useless. On a lighter note, most asylum seekers are incredibly skilled, they want to be rehabilitated, they want to be productive and proactive, they want to rebuild and move forward.

Combating false hope is a tough thing to talk about, but it’s a key concept underlying the crisis that everyone should understand.

Should it be the government and NGOs leading these efforts?

Organisations like the DFID, UNHCR and the IRC are doing an incredible job, but there are muddled and unclear policies affecting their work at a governmental level. The open or closed borders issue is a mess, and the asylum system itself is disastrous. People who are in Calais are not allowed into the UK, but if they make it they can seek asylum, encouraging them to take risks to do whatever it takes to reach their intended destination. We also need to be able to discern between economic migrants and refugees. Only 3% of people who land in Sicily are even eligible for an asylum interview…What’s happening to the rest?

The second issue that has emerged in my understanding of the crisis is that people are led by false hope. This is a controversial thing to say – and it sounds unkind – but we need to get information to people so they know the challenges that lie ahead; that many nations are simply unwilling to accommodate them. Combating false hope is a tough thing to talk about, but it’s a key concept underlying the crisis that everyone should understand.

Refugee and artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa says our attitude towards refugees has changed. What is your perspective on why this has come to be?

I think it’s three things. The first thing is – let’s get the uncomfortable one out of the way – many everyday people are frightened of the Islamification of Europe. Islam is a religion that is a huge part of everyday life for those who follow it, and people feel that it threatens the Western way of life.

The second thing is the volume of people coming to Europe. During the Serbian conflict a lot of Croat families were settled in French villages. In this case, the children lead the integration in schools and brought the integration into the household. We need to put refugee families all over the UK and Scotland; it’s hard to do this when there are large numbers of people People are not bigoted by definition, and integrating people would ease understanding.

The third one is the depiction of refugees in the media. The media has come under a lot of pressure given the growth of online news and social media. As a result, more and more divisive agendas are being pushed. Couple that with curated news feeds being perpetuated on social media, and we’ve ended up where we are today. Consolidation of ownership means that people are being more divisive with big private companies monopolising the media.

What is the most powerful image you have captured as part of the project?

There was a man I met near a large refugee camp in Jordan. A very kind, gentle guy. He lives in a house he built on land that could be taken away at any time, but he can’t work, so he just sits around the house all day. For an hour before his kids come back from school he stands looking out of the window, waiting for their return.

Edward Jonkler’s works will be shown as part of a series of exhibitions held by The Worldwide Tribe, whose mission is to highlight human issues and leave a legacy of positive, social change. They aim to raise awareness and shift perspectives into a more inclusive, less fear-driven, narrative.