Screenshot from BBC Shorts: “DESPERATE TO GET THROUGH”, BBCshorts.tumblr.com, accessed 3rd August 2015.
David Cameron proclaimed this week: “everything that can be done will be done to make sure our borders are secure and make sure that British holidaymakers are able to go on their holidays”. He was commenting as people are injured and dying trying to reach the UK from Calais. As Calais Migrant Solidarity reports, there is no accurate count of how many people have died but they record the following appalling list for July 2015 alone:
A Sudanese man, found dead in the Tunnel, 28-29th July; a young Eritrean woman hit by a car nearby, reportedly gassed by the police prior, 24th July; a teenager found dead in the Tunnel, 23rd July; an Eritrean teenager, drowned at Eurotunnel, 19th July, a Pakistani man died of accident injuries, 16th July; a Sudanese man, 13-14th July; a Sudanese man at the entrance of the Tunnel, 7th July; Samir, an Eritrean baby died one hour after birth. Her mother, twenty years old, fell from the truck triggering a premature delivery at twenty-two weeks, 4th July.
David Cameron’s response to those seeking entry to the UK from Calais is that they are a “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean” demanding not a humanitarian response, but increased security and “business as usual”.
Fifteen years ago, I graduated with an MA Human Rights from the University of Essex, with a graduate thesis entitled: “Visions of flight. Public perception and the right to asylum in the UK.” Given Cameron’s obnoxious spin on the Calais situation and widespread comments denigrating the would-be immigrants across the political spectrum in the media, I turned to my dissertation, to reflect on how public perception and government rhetoric towards those seeking to immigrate has changed over these past fifteen years. Whilst reading and reflecting, I was asking myself whether my own views had changed and also whether there is there any hope for the future?
My thesis opened with these two quotes:
“Refugees are very sensitive to public opinion. The attitude of the surrounding population affects most aspects of their everyday life, and it can make the difference between a supportive, harmonious, friendly environment and unpleasant, hostile, prejudiced encounters.” (Joly)
“[Refugees] are at risk from how others define who they are, because such definitions entitle or prohibit their access to immigration, resettlement, citizenship (and the rights it enables) as well as to resources and relationships that facilitate their survival with dignity.” (Krulfeld and MacDonald)
I then looked at “four negative mythical figures of the refugee which prevail in the UK media”: the refugee as criminal; the refugee as beggar; the refugee as other; the refugee as bogus. I looked at over seventy newspaper articles, published in the UK’s ten best-selling newspapers between 10th and 16th February 2000 in response to claims for asylum made by passengers of a hijacked plane from Afghanistan which landed at Stansted Airport in the UK.
In my 2000 dissertation, I noted that viewing the would-be refugee as a criminal – pathologizing immigrants – enables us to see the act of claiming asylum as a criminal act requiring a security response. I wrote of the sensationalist vocabulary of threat being used and the resultant moral panic engendering a hostile reaction to the refugee.
This rhetorical trend has gained exponentially since I wrote, along with a vast increase in material practices which deal with the refugee as criminal given tacit rationalization by such rhetoric; from a growth in administrative detention, carrier sanctions, forced deportations etc. right down to the policing brutalities being witnessed in Calais. The paradigm within which the current government wants us to consider the refugees is nothing to do with humanitarianism but only law-and-order; the state is portrayed as protector of national interests, the immigrant as law-breaker and a threat to public order, even for trying to come here. In relation to Calais, instead of seeing a humanitarian response, we see a militarized, policing response: pledges for more fences, more control personnel and sniffer dogs. As noted by Joly, refugees are increasingly being seen “not as people who have a problem but as people who are a problem.” The “problem” of people seeking to come here – and not only refugees but most others, I would add – is perceived as having its source not in wars around the world, violent conflicts and drastic disparities in wealth and opportunities – but in the body and mind of individual refugees.
I looked at the sociological creation of “the refugee as beggar”, and the question, often asked then and now, and given expression in the Points-Based System, an Australian-style immigration framework whereby qualifications and funds equate to points for entry: “Should we select immigrants only on the basis of what they can contribute economically?” In 2000, I wrote: “The predominance of a discourse which places economic values as paramount has the potential to devalue the moral framework from which the international refugee regime derives its credibility…” I now see this aspect of the issue differently, or more broadly. Arguments are often made, even by liberals, that only those who have moral worth (deserving refugees) or economic worth (successful points-based system applicants) should be given entry to the UK. Over ten of the last fifteen years, I worked as a refugee and immigration lawyer and I witnessed the complexities of reasons for which people leave home and seek to come here. I would now say that old distinctions based around moral / economic worth are no longer useful, and that the only real chance to combat the inherent racism of immigration systems and their preference for the wealthy is to champion freedom of movement for all. Who are we to decide that the person fleeing torture by a repressive regime is more deserving than the woman whose village culture and local laws state she should undergo FGM, or the person fleeing life in a country riddled with poverty or environmental disaster? New causes for moving emerge almost daily: international refugee law, which I still hold in esteem as a valuable step after the failures of Europe in World War Two, cannot keep up and shouldn’t have the last say.
In terms of the refugee as “other”, in 2000, I read Eastmond who commented: “Nationalist sentiments and rhetoric are becoming increasingly salient … in shaping the policies of acceptance and accommodation…”. When seen as “other”, immigrants are seen as a threat to race relations. Our potential solidarity is broken by such perception, and this can play usefully into the desires of a government looking for a scapegoat for economic difficulties, as we know all too well.
Portrayal of the refugee as potentially “bogus” was a big issue in 2000, with Tony Blair commenting on the importance of “measures [to] help us separate bogus asylum seekers from genuine asylum seekers.” This state-centric position has been drastically undermined in intervening years by various injustices in the governments’ systems of determining who can and cannot stay being revealed, under Labour, the Coalition and the Conservatives. To name a couple: higher court rulings finding against the fast-track asylum processing procedure which the government set up to sort “bogus” from “genuine” claimants and overwhelming withdrawal of legal aid from immigration cases in law so that it became clear that individual cases could, very often, not be presented properly or, therefore, decided fairly. The state can no longer lay any claim to being the fair arbiter of meritorious claims and, instead, it is the immigration system which has been shown to be wrong.
Denying a person’s basic rights because they are “other”, of course, conceives as rights for “us” only and not for “them”: it’s an argument against universal human rights and, whilst men, women and children die trying to cross clinging to lorries and hiding in the Eurotunnel, for us, it’s just another day in paradise. Back in 2000, the Coordinator of the London-based Afghan Association said to the Refugee Council: “Journalists were phoning me to ask my opinion about the situation [the Afghans’ arrival]… but when I asked them if they would be writing about the political situation in Afghanistan, they didn’t want to know.” How much have we actually heard about the Calais men and women? Very little: their human difficulties rarely make the headlines. What do we know about the recent history of Sudan, Eritrea and Pakistan that brought those poor people in the Calais Migrant Solidarity list of the dead to France? If we heard their stories, I bet they would have led a life that wouldn’t show many similarities with the life of David Cameron. Worlds apart, and he’s pretty determined to keep it that way, by giving them no recognition, though these people, with their hopes and fears, are on our very doorstep.
Re-reading my dissertation reminded me that rhetoric, like all kinds of borders, is man-made, not set in stone – both can be challenged, deconstructed, changed. The heart of the matter: a failure to see all people as fellow human beings. It’s a very old story and it’s one with a very sad ending: from camps, to ghettos and ultimately to genocide in Europe. As for hope for the future? I don’t know at this point. I see large numbers of friends on social media decrying the racist responses to the Calais situation and urging compassion, compassion that has in itself become a revolutionary act. I see others, like myself, wanting to help and asking, what can we do? What can we actually do? The racist rhetoric and the dynamics of exclusion that it propagates can be seen for the fraudulent abuse of our humanity and democratic mandate that they are, when we consider the real truth: a government anxious to exclude, to sensationalize, scaremonger and scapegoat, whatever the human cost. The lives of the poor baby and all the others at the border cannot be brought back, there is the tragedy. Yet, the government cannot quell the desire of people seeking to come here by pepper-spraying and beating back the poor people in Calais, heinous as these tactics are. The real sources of human flight are wars around the world, violent conflicts and drastic disparities in wealth and opportunities, or, if you want a more positive spin on it: the desire for peace, wealth and opportunity. Human desires with which we can all, surely, identify, calling for solidarity, common sense and unmasking of the vicious, anti-immigrant rhetoric which puts us all on the road to nowhere.
“Deaths at the Calais Border”, Calais Migrant Solidarity – https://calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/deaths-at-the-calais-border/
BBC News: “David Cameron criticized over migrant “swarm” language”, 30th July 2015
Eastmond, M., “Nationalist Discourses and the Construction of Difference: Bosnian Muslim Refugees in Sweden’, 11(2) Journal of Refugee Studies 1998, 161
InExile, Refugee Council Magazine
Joly, D. with Nettleton, C. and Poulton, H., Refugees, Asylum in Europe? (London, 1991)
Krulfeld, R.M. and MacDonald, J.L., eds., Power, Ethics and Human Rights: Anthropological Studies of Refugee Research and Action (Oxford, 1998)