What the current refugee crisis shows me more than anything is that there are a lot of small people in a big world. On the one hand individuals and families fleeing from war and terror, reliant on their own wits, at the mercy of people smugglers and dependant on the hospitality (or not) of others. On the other hand the residents of safe countries, some as in Germany and Iceland opening their homes in hospitality, others as in Britain either frustrated by a feeling of helplessness or scared that offering refuge to the displaced will harm their own circumstances or even endanger their country.
The UK government remained true to form maintaining its tough, “difficult decisions” stance and re-emphasising its UKIP inspired immigration policy while the tabloids orchestrated hostility with their inaccurate, self-serving headlines. As a cynical lefty I can’t help wondering whether the media barons were manipulating the refugee crisis to stoke anti-left and anti EU sentiment (because it suited their interests and, just simply, because they could!).
Their carefully chosen language denied the fate of the victims: “migrants” not “refugees”, suggesting an element of choice in their decision to leave home; economic migrants implying a motive of financial gain, if not outright greed. In true hard-right terms, these people were portrayed as entirely responsible for their own fate.
To re-enforce this line, the convention of country of first arrival was cited: these people can’t be refugees once they leave the first safe country and they must be coming to Britain for the free ride on our wonderful benefits. Cynical lefty – i.e. me – thinks that this might be the right wing press taking another opportunity to make out that the benefit system allows people to live a life of idle luxury, is more generous to migrants than to natives (not true), and so ease the way for their Establishment mates in government – those really to blame for the struggles of the poorest in our society – to find additional scapegoats and cut benefits even further while claiming to defend British values.
So in the world according to the tabloids it is rational to say: keep these swarms of opportunistic, economic migrants out. Fight them on the beaches etc. (And conversely irrational to propose otherwise). So Billy below was in good company with certain Fleet Street editors.
The many small, foreign people are a faceless, unknown and depersonalised. Our reaction and the orchestrated xenophobia relies on the fear of the unknown, the anonymous magnitude, a scale that cannot be understood but only feared. The small people, the individual lives are lost in the crowd.
And then there was the picture of the little boy on the beach. Representing refugee children, nameless and faceless no more. The previously silent majority spoke out, the tabloids presumably not wanting to appear heartless and inhuman, oblivious to their obvious hypocrisy changed their tune. The Government altered tack, sensing the mood had changed, and is starting to show a softer more welcoming and humanitarian face of Britain. A glimpse of a real person, a cute three year old, a bereaved father; a human scale and personal tragedy that ordinary people could understand cracked the emotional shield of anonymity. On the ground nothing had really changed, but our recognition of suffering on a human scale made all the difference and popular opinion turned towards those who all along had been attempting to mobilise support.
But even this human scale view is not enough to convince everyone. I did see some comments claiming that because pictures of the little boy’s family showed them as well fed and clothed they couldn’t be legitimate refugees, but to my mind it shows the opposite: even relatively well off, comfortable and successful people can be forced to flee their homes in search of safety. Wealth, social status and qualifications do not protect people from oppression, war or persecution and most refugees hope they will be able to return home one day.
But then I am a one of the “lefty bleeding hearts” commented upon by Lisa in response to a Facebook post by Billy.
And yes, I would do those things Lisa exhorts me and my sort to do, and many others have also volunteered. I would do it because of shared humanity, as part of the world community and because in this day and age we are all more interdependent and closely linked. I have been to Syria and seen that, even as the west feared the Syrian regime and saw it as a hot bed of terrorism, the typical citizen was warm, welcoming and friendly and no different from people anywhere else. It is sad and disturbing that she thinks refugee children given help in the UK will grow up to be her children’s enemies rather than ambassadors for a country that saved them.
I leave the last word to Tat Wa Lay of Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam who perfectly hits the mark of how I would like British people to be recognised across the world.