Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 20, 2021

Where the Water Ends (2021), by Zoe Holman

This week—from Sunday 20 June to Saturday 26 June, 2021— is Refugee Week, founded by the Refugee Council of Australia in an effort to raise awareness about issues affecting refugees; to celebrate contributions made by refugees to Australian society; and to promote harmony and a sense of coming together because we all share a common humanity.  Some readers will remember that last year I posted a suggested reading list for Refugee Week and this year I could add two more to the fiction list (links are to my review):

and besides Where the Water Ends, which is the subject of this review, I could also add to the NF list:

As the uncompromising title suggests Where the Water Ends, Seeking refuge in Fortress Europe is a difficult book to read. Written by Australian journalist Zoe Holman it is a devastating portrayal of ‘the refugee problem’ in Europe, informed by personal testimonies that only the most stony-hearted could ignore.

This is the blurb:

Around the world, forced migration doubled in the decade leading up to 2020. At the same time, the borders of the European Union became the world’s deadliest frontier. More than 20,000 people have died or disappeared while attempting to enter the continent since the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

In Where the Water Ends, Zoe Holman traces the story of this frontier from the perspective of migrants from the Middle East to Greece, the cradle of European and ‘western’ civilisation, now itself marginalised within the EU and precariously hosting more than 150,000 refugees.

This is human history in the best sense. Through Holman’s account we see the intricate and complex daily, monthly and yearly challenges of those seeking, within or outside of ‘the system’, a future for themselves and their loved ones.

Where the Water Ends urges us to reflect on the lessons of the past, the isolationist spirit of the present, and the promises and failures of the international institutions and conventions we continue to rely on in our hope for a better future.

It’s the personal stories that reveal the stark misery of people stranded in limbo on the front line in Lesvos, Chios and Samos in Greece, a country still feeling the impact of the Global Financial Crisis and the ensuing austerity measures which of course impacted most heavily on the poor.  Yet even so, in the beginning, a sense of solidarity emerged with people all over Greece making donations and enabling the refugees to continue their onward journey to other countries in Europe.

But as Europe closed its borders like falling dominoes, and official organisations bailed out of the chaos, volunteers took over, and were promptly criticised for being unfair:

‘Buses were coming to take people to camps all over Greece, but we didn’t know what these camps were like,’ Eleni explains.  ‘So when they came to take them to places in nowhere land, I could not tell people to go or not to go because it was their free will.  I was just there to support them.  But when good camps opened in Athens, we started making lists of vulnerable people—women with children, sick people, old people—and based on those lists, buses were loaded with people from the port.’

Some other activists criticised this initiative by Eleni and her fellow volunteers—it was not right to make lists or priorities this person over that person, they said; it was segregation. (p.13)


Then, in 2016, in response to more than a million refugees arriving in Europe, along with mass drownings in the Aegean Sea, the EU negotiated a deal with Turkey to control departures from its coastal cities.  The deal was that ‘irregular arrivals’ to the Greek islands would be deported back to Turkey, in exchange for which, Europe would accept one Syrian refugee for every one that had been deported.  Turkey, which was then struggling to host about three million refugees, most of them fleeing from Syria, would also receive billions of European funds to improve the humanitarian situation for Syrian refugees in Turkey.  The deal was predicated on the belief that Turkey was a safe country, which it has turned out not to be for people deported back to conflict zones including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.  And the camps on the Greek Islands turned into detention centres.

I need hardly say that Australia is not in any position to criticise Europe about its treatment of refugees.  What this book does for the Australian reader is to provide a sense of perspective.  When a small Greek island like Lesvos with a population of 27,000 has to deal with an influx of 10,000 asylum-seekers, the Australian preoccupation with keeping small numbers of refugees out seems bizarre.

However, there is one aspect of Australian attitudes to refugees that is largely to our credit.  With the advent of postwar migration, Australia got over an attachment to societal homogeneity a long time ago.  While there are still some rough edges and each new wave of migrants and refugees has triggered some redneck reactions, by and large Australians think of themselves as a multicultural nation and they recognise the contribution that cultural diversity has made.  While the rhetoric may vary, it’s bipartisan national policy too.  But that’s not the case in parts of Europe (or Japan).  They regard an influx of people from some other culture as an attack on their ‘Greekness’.  (Japan, well, words fail me*).  In taking issue with the way politicians use the language of crisis to justify what they do, Holman quotes Maria Doukakarou, coordinator of the Refugee Observatory, a research centre in Mytilene, who points to the issue of Greek identity.  She sees the situation as an opportunity for locals and refugees to integrate:

It is a litmus test for Greece, as she sees it—an opening through which to break free from customary discourses of homogeneity and nationhood.  (p.59)

We islanders here have the image of border keepers, the Digenes Akritas—we are highly praised for our Greekness and bear it at the highest level.’ she says.  ‘Sometimes I think of this concept as generational.  The generation before us internalised the idea, but for the current generation, I don’t know—can we still really afford to think of ourselves in this way?’ (p.60)

There are some lighter moments.  In a conversation about how extremists in the camps are demanding that women cover their hair…

Maybe it’s easier that way, the elder sister proposes—after all, her hair is such a mess these days from the lack of running water.  The two of them went for a coiffure in Turkey before getting on the boat to Lesvos last year, she tells us, to be fresh for their arrival in Europe.  But they got all wet from the sea while crossing and then didn’t have a chance to shower properly for a week.  The salt water interacted with the chemicals in the dye and their hair turned bright orange.  ‘What a disaster!’ she says, wiping away a tear of hilarity and tucking the scarf under her chin. (p.89)

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the issues raised by this book. There are anecdotes about selective empathy and a change in culture towards the problem.  There are stories about volunteers doing the work of governments for years, and burning out from exhaustion and disillusionment.  There are vignettes about people stranded in lives becalmed by a lack of action, by betrayal and by intolerance, xenophobia and sheer human bloody-mindedness.   When I felt exhausted by reading about this, I reminded myself that for people living it, exhaustion is a permanent condition.

I’ll leave the last word to Holman:

I look back down to the sea and wonder about dignity, about the abstract discourse of the right to it, and then about the reality of putting yourself in a mass-produced rubber boat and rendering yourself vulnerable—to smugglers, to water, to military and locals, to whatever set of hands might pull you out of the water or leave you to be washed up.  And I can’t conceive of how to factor dignity into the equation of deficits. (p.99)

*According to Japan’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), refugee status was granted to only 44 out of 10,375 asylum applications in 2019. This translated to an annual recognition rate of 0.42 per cent. Since 2012, the success rate of asylum applications has remained below 1 per cent.  See Rethinking Japan’s refugee and asylum policy (

Author: Zoe Holman
Title: Where the Water Ends, Seeking Refuge in Fortress Europe
Cover design by Peter Long
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2021
ISBN: 9780522876826, pbk., 300 pages
Review copy courtesy of MUP.



  1. Great post Lisa … it is important to have perspective on where Australia is at, both the positives (achievements) and the negatives (failures), which is to say we should build on the positives and not rest on our rapidly slipping laurels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Sue. Australia certainly benefits from its humanitarian program and migration in general.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I know some people in the Government who should read this book!

    I edited a few papers for the IIED about this topic back in 2017 (I think?) – it was eye-opening but the work on the ground by volunteer groups and NGOs was impressive given the overwhelming numbers of people on the move through Europe in 2016.


    • Forgive my ignorance, what is the IIED?


      • My guess: International Institute for Environment and Development


      • The International Institute for Environment and Development… I used to edit a lot of their policy papers, blog posts and their giant two-volume 600+ page annual report.


        • Ha, I bet that was fun. I used to proof read stuff for The Spouse before he retired and I can tell you I do not miss those pages and pages of economic data!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Most of the stuff I edited was written by academics / scientists whose first language was not English, so it was very challenging. But I found it very satisfying to turn something very complicated into Plain English. Plus, it was very well paid.


            • Yes, I know that problem. Endlessly correcting .will. used instead of ‘would’…

              Liked by 1 person

  3. It does seem that there are walls springing up everywhere, whether literal or metaphorical. Whatever happened to the Global Village and us being one race – the human one???


    • Uh…#ForgiveMyCynicism I think that was to soften us up for economic globalisation…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating and disturbing post. Thank you for raising our awareness of the book and the issue.


    • Hello Lale, thank you for your encouraging words:)


  5. […] had planned another post for this week, but that can wait, as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has reminded me that it is Refugee Week, and I thought that should take priority. Lisa has posted on a book […]


  6. […] attitude to refugees are a mystery to me, but as I realised from reading Where the Water Ends by Zole Holman Fortress Europe is heading in the same direction.  Would reading Ru change any hearts and […]


  7. […] Zoe Holman’s Where the water ends: Seeking refuge in Fortress Europe (nonfiction/refugees) (Lisa’s review) […]


  8. […] Where the Water Ends, by Zoe Holman […]


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