It’s 16th August and a typically beautiful English summer’s day. Clouds flit across the sky, obscuring and revealing the morning’s warm sun; wind skates across the grey estuary which I confront. I’m standing on Clevedon’s Victorian promenade, looking out over a grey, brooding though not unpleasant sea. This is where the River Severn meets the Bristol Channel. It boasts huge tidal pulls, a pair of dark, heap-like islands, and on the opposite side of the channel, Wales.
Children play on the stone beach, avoiding the sea’s muddy depths but occasionally embracing a wave or two. In the distance, a fishing boat slowly comes to shore and I steadily watch its buoyant, bobbing movements.
But it’s not a fishing boat. And it’s not alone. I spy two swimmers alongside its hull, slapping arms with a confident front-crawl into the mud-silted sea.
These swimmers have braved the channel and the waves between Wales and England - between Cardiff and Clevedon.
Now they’re close, and it doesn’t take long for them to reach the slipway where a crowd of children, family and friends cheer them on. The crossing took around 3 hours.
I can see it now: this same crowd waving them off from the Welsh coast, just after enjoying a coffee perhaps. The supporters then jumped into their car, drove across the Severn Bridge that connects these two countries and pulled up in Clevedon. Just enough time for another coffee before warmly welcoming their heroic sportsmen onto foreign shores.
It’s 5th April and a warm sort of day on Chios, Greece. I’ve woken up in a sixth floor apartment that commands stunning views across the channel from Chios town to Turkey. It’s been cold - freezing over the past months - but finally the weather is beginning to humour those with meteorological presumptions of the Aegean. The sun has just risen over the Anatolian horizon; the sea between these two countries lies calm, like glass..
Chios town is just coming to life. Motorbikes and cars career through narrow streets; a ferry or two rests in the harbour; a pleasure boat sails towards the rising sun, unlikely though it is to catch much wind at this hour.
I’m eating muesli as I come to my senses on the balcony, scrolling through the news on my phone. Not the BBC or The Guardian, but Are You Syrious?’ daily digest, a summary of refugee related matters from the past 24 hours.
One update catches my eye. 2 swimmers have just crossed from Turkey to Chios, swimming through the night. Both arrived safely and were taken to ‘Vial’ for registration. They’re lucky, I’ve heard of swimmers before who have died trying to make this same crossing. They do so without life-jackets, without support, and often entirely secretly. It’s no little distance, and takes a good 3 hours to cross.
I can see it now: waiting on the Turkish coast, hiding from the police that would send them back if they were found. They wait for nightfall, then wait for midnight, then wait for 1am… 2am… 3am… Then they go.
It’s unlikely that the Turkish or Greek border police will spot them at this hour.
It’s unlikely that they’ll get any help if anything goes wrong.
I stand in Clevedon and can’t help but compare that 5th April with today. Those swimmers braved the sea that night without the support of a buoyant, bobbing boat. They had no crowd of friends and family to send them on their way, nor to meet them on arrival. Instead, they were met by the Hellenic police and the prospect of a refugee camp, metallic containers, and ultimate risk of deportation.
These channels separate countries: England, Wales, Turkey and Greece. These channels carry swimmers: asylum-seekers and athletes alike.
Yet there’s a bridge between England and Wales, and if you choose to take the sea, you have crowds, support and risk nothing.
There’s no bridge between Turkey and Greece, and if you’re forced to take to the sea, you have no one except yourself and the risk of death.