It’s time to bring back human beings to the refugee debate
The humanitarian issue that currently defines much of the European political landscape is the refugee crisis. It has raised huge questions of national sovereignty with border controls and the Schenghen Agreement facing the harsh glare of the media spotlight. However, it seems the humans so unfortunate to be caught up in all this have been forgotton. The lesson learned by Aylan Kurdi’s body being washed up on a Turkish beach was one of love and compassion. There was an outcry of support for refugees from the public and the usually hostile British media — recently found to be the most right-wing in Europe. We can’t forget this lesson; the conversation about refugees has got to be defined by stories of individual suffering. The quicker far-right populists are allowed to set the terms of debate by focussing on isolated incidents and fear-mongering, the quicker the millions of people involved become dehumanized.
When refugees attempted to access Britain via the Channel Tunnel, the brutal and hostile UK media were quick to brand them as “undeserving leeches” and a “security menace”. These sharp, powerful phrases easily make an impression on the minds of the public, just as the photo of Aylan Kurdi’s body did. Unfortunately, the mass sex attacks in Cologne — whilst being totally inexcusable — have shaped much of the recent conversation. What must be remembered is that there are millions of refugees, they can’t all be scapegoated for the wrongdoings of a handful. People also talk of refugees bringing to Europe a culture of rape and misogyny as if Britain doesn’t have these problems itself; in 2013 the government estimated around 430,000 sexual offences from the previous three years with only 5,600 cases resulting in convictions. Let us not forget the hypocrisy of far-right Swedish hooligans who went out and attacked refugee children in central Stockholm; almost a mirror of the Cologne attacks.
A cover article in the New Statesman written by Owen Jones features conversations with refugees in the Calais ‘Jungle’ — a term that is so well established in the political lexicon that it’s dehumanisation goes unnoticed — and reveals many are sick and tired of being branded as animals, some simply want to come to our shores because they speak good English and would struggle with language elsewhere, have family already in England or wish to continue their education here. All of them are fleeing war or dictatorship. The article vitally includes stories of individual humans, resonating with people and changing the dynamics of the refugee debate.
If we allow refugees to be dehumanised, morals and principles could be put aside and people will view all kinds of awful measures against them as tolerable. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be remembered in these torrid times: ‘Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’
And, finally, this quote from Tony Benn would seem particularly poignant: ‘The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it’. We mustn’t take the anti-refugee rhetoric at face value and assume it is all true, much of it is distorted and many criminal allegations are false or exaggerated as the new platform Hoaxmap tells us — the human being must return to this conversation and the causes of this crisis have to be at the forefront.