Meet the activist walking from France to Palestine to raise awareness about refugees

Mick Bowman has crossed through the snow-capped mountains of the Alps and historical cities in a heatwave to shed light on the plight of the displaced

Mick Bowman is grateful for the generous hospitality he has received so far on his 2,200-mile trek, most particularly in the Balkans, above. Photo: Mick Bowman
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A British resident has embarked on a months-long walking tour from Europe to the Middle East, echoing the "perilous journey" undertaken by refugees, to raise awareness of their plight.

Mick Bowman, 65, an Irish former civil servant who worked as a mental health support worker for more than 40 years, set off from Calais in April destined for Palestine – where he hopes to bring attention to human rights issues.

“It’s about highlighting their situation," Mr Bowman says. "Fortress Europe and the UK's hostile policies are inhumane and contrary to any notion of how we should behave decently to fellow human beings.

“At my age, you can’t take good health for granted. I thought now is the time to retire and to do this walk. I’ve been working in the public sector for 44 years. So I’ve done my bit."

Mr Bowman spoke to The National from his hotel in Florina, northern Greece, into which he had just crossed from North Macedonia. It is one of the few rest days that he will take in between months of continuous walking.

He set off from his home city of Newcastle, North-East England, to begin the 2,200-mile journey from the coastal French town with nothing but a backpack, camping equipment and a Palestinian flag. Since then, he has hiked through the snowcapped Alps, historic European cities, and braved the heatwaves that have been sweeping through Southern Europe.

“It was really challenging because every day the temperature was getting up to upper 30s and 40s. Night-time wasn’t cooling down."

The heat compelled him to stop camping and sleep in hotels, which has put a strain on the travel budget drawn from Mr Bowman's work pension.

He will walk to Istanbul and fly to Amman, Jordan, from where he plans to continue on to the West Bank, completing the trip in October.

Mr Bowman had previously been a volunteer supporting asylum seekers with the British charity Care4Calais.

“For a number of years myself and some comrades have gone over to volunteer and provide humanitarian aid to the [people] who are stranded in Calais due to the UK government’s hostile policy,” he says.

A large refugee camp there was removed in 2016, forcing thousands of asylum seekers to scatter into informal settlements across the city and neighbouring region.

“People are just living in little encampments wherever they can, in terrible conditions with no infrastructure, sanitation or easy access to clean water," he says.

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“The police come and move them on and destroy their equipment. Often they lose the few possessions they have. If it wasn’t for the agencies and the good work done by the locals and the churches, people would be in absolute destitution."

The UK’s policies towards migration were partly to blame for the humanitarian crisis," Mr Bowman says.

"They are becoming more and more hardline and inhumane.

"There is a horrible populism that lies behind it and a cynical sense that if they are hardline on asylum issues and refugee issues they will attract more voters."

He criticised the Conservative government's Illegal Migration Act, which passed in July months after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed profound concern that the legislation would amount to an asylum ban in the UK.

In addition, it requires the detention and deportation of anyone who arrives irregularly, having passed through a country – however briefly – where they did not face persecution.

“It is at odds with the government’s responsibilities under the International Refugee Convention,” Mr Bowman says.

He was also disappointed by the opposition's response to these policies. “I’ve been a long-time Labour party member, and they are part of that whole process. They haven’t challenged the government’s narrative on the grounds of morality and humanity at all. It’s disgraceful."

Mr Bowman was inspired to make the journey after reading Walking to Jerusalem, the 2017 account of a pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem by British author Justin Butcher with 10 companions for the full route.

“They were a progressive Christian, pro-Palestinian group and the date of their walk was significant because it was the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration,” he says.

The refugees issue was, as Mr Bowman explains, linked to the Palestinian cause due to their shared history of displacement. “The majority of Palestinians are living as refugees, due to forced displacement from the Nakba which has been continuing for 75 years. They’re the largest single refugee group."

Mr Bowman became aware of the Israeli-Palestine conflict in his late teenagers, and eventually joined Palestine Solidarity Campaign, a UK-based campaigning organisation in 2002, after being impressed by the determination of its speakers.

His earlier activism included organising talks to raise awareness about Palestine at local trade unions. "I've always been an active trade unionist. I used that as a vehicle to raise awareness of the Palestinian issue, and using union funds to support pro-Palestine groups," he says.

His first trip to Palestine in 2015 was to meet trade unions there. Now retired, Mr Bowman was drawn to the British tradition of walking as a form of activism that goes back to the Romantic poets of the 18th century, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the progressive politics of their time.

There was a real kindness in the rural areas

But one challenge in changing perspectives on refugees in the UK has been the cost of living crisis, he says.

"You must't preach to people. It's the worst thing you can do. People who espouse these things are often at the end of the end of austerity.

"We say to them: 'Look, the reasons why you are having difficulty getting an NHS appointment or your kid's school isn't up to scratch and you're not getting the well-paid jobs have got nothing to do with asylum seekers or refugees. It's because of the fact that we've got a very unequal system."

During his walk, he was struck by Europe’s poverty, particularly in its richest countries. “People talk about the desertification of France, and how it's been hollowed out for economic reasons. There were villages where you’d walk through and never see anybody."

But Mr Bowman also noted the generous hospitality he has been experiencing along the way, most particularly in the Balkans. “There was a real kindness in the rural areas," he says. "During the hot weather, people would see me passing by and say: 'Come have some cold water.'"

Updated: August 24, 2023, 2:37 PM