Sunday, 2 August 2015

Three things to bear in mind when discussing the 'Migrant Crisis'.

(Refugees in the Mediterranean. No image credit available)

What would you do?

Almost all of the refugees seeking asylum in Europe are fleeing desperate and horrific situations in their home countries. People are not travelling thousands of miles, spending all their life savings, risking death, rape and kidnapping along the way in order to get a welfare payment.

The main country of origin for European refugees is Eritrea. You may not have heard of it, and for good reason. It ranks above North Korea as one of the most secretive, oppressive and brutal regimes in the world. Citizens have few options apart from brutally enforced military service which can extend almost indefinitely. The government perpetuates the Orwellian myth that war is imminent in order to maintain their power and to justify widespread human rights abuses. Citizens have no right to free speech and much of the population live in extreme poverty.

Another primary source of refugees is Syria. Citizens of Syria are currently besieged on all sides by terrorist groups including ISIS, attacks from their own oppressive government and military interventions by western forces. In 2015 alone over 200,000 Syrians have died as a result of conflict. There are now 9 million displaced Syrians who have fled their homes.

When we look at so-called 'migrants', we aren't seeing complex, three-dimensional human beings who have been faced with horrendous choices. We see what we are told to see; a 'swarm' of money-grabbing freeloaders who were gullible enough to get lured onto a rubber dinghy. If your home was destroyed, along with your entire livelihood, what would you do? Where you you go? And what sort of welcome would you expect when you got there?

The 'crisis' is not nearly as big as it looks. 

Sure, when you see people crowded together on boats or packed into refugee camps at Calais, it looks like a lot of people. And it would be if say, you were being asked to put them up in your back garden. Net migration for last year was 318,000 and of that number, only 22,020 were refugees seeking asylum. To put things into perspective; the total number of extra people coming into the country is only slightly higher than the number of people who attend Glastonbury.

The number of people seeking asylum, even when you take illegal entrants into account is far fewer than the number of people who went to see Taylor Swift in Hyde Park last month. I'm sure they were pretty annoying on the tube home, but I'm also sure that Londoners dealt with the minor inconvenience and got on with their lives. Once they are all mixed in, you'll barely notice them. Oh, and those 9 million displaced Syrians? Only about 3000 of them want to settle in the UK. You can breathe again.

The main 'crisis' is that Calais is a bottleneck. Getting there is (extremely relatively) straightforward but moving on is not. The problem is complex as there is always the suggestion that by making the process smoother, you will encourage others to come. In my opinion, I think that the difference would be minimal. The journey is already incredibly hard; I do not believe that having to live in a refugee camp when you arrive is necessarily going to be a deterrent. If the first obstacles you faced on your arduous journey was leaving a brutal dictatorship where dissenters can be put to death and then crossing a border where the guards are instructed to shoot-to-kill, you aren't one to be put off.

The fact is that right now there are thousands of people living in horrific conditions and risking their lives daily to try to get to safety. There are things we could do, but without public will and empathy, solutions will continue to be punitive and inhumane. Politicians are playing politics with peoples lives; we can't let that continue.

We are part of the world. 

In the west, we live in a shiny bubble. We are the safest, healthiest, most educated humans that have ever lived. We live in a fantastically wealthy country (yes, really) and we mostly experience the rest of the world as either news or holidays and most of us are happy to keep it that way. Migrants are an intrusion. They remind us uncomfortably of our privilege. We use dehumanizing language like 'migrant' 'flood' and 'swarm' because it is simpler than coming face to face with the rampant inequality that exists in the world and our role in creating and maintaining it.

Most of us have relegated our colonial history to an amusing little peccadillo, a punchline; a 'Carry On' sketch. Colonialism is bluff explorers in beige hats and monocles being amusingly patronizing to skeptical locals whilst jabbing flags into anything that stands still. It's never having to learn a foreign language and being able to buy chips almost anywhere in the world.

We are very happy to gloss over the fact that our wealth and power came from the brutal exploitation of nearly a quarter of the globe and that the wealth of our neighbors came from colonial rule of much of the remaining three quarters. We like to think of it as ancient history, a ignoble but distant past.

The fact is that we still exerted colonial power in the Middle East when my parents were born. Many of the current global conflicts are rooted in our recent colonial past. We still benefit disproportionately from this history and from the ongoing exploitation of cheap labor and resources overseas. Our wealth isn't divine right or evidence of unique worth; we inherited it off our rich, racist auntie.

I've never owned a slave, but every single day I benefit from slavery. We have spent centuries siphoning wealth out of the rest of the world and now that people want us to share, we accuse them of freeloading. We need to accept this history and it's ongoing impact on the world. Time we got a round in, I think.

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