Fleeing in fear of your life, fleeing towards a better life is NOT a criminal act
Tomorrow it will be seventy years since the end of the Second World War with the surrender of Japan. Not only is that important because it saw the end of the largest loss of life both military and civilian in a conflict, whose combatants encircled the globe; But because it was a war that witnessed the obscenity of the attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima; And a war that let powerful men play powerful games and start the cold war and the even larger loss of life in the pogroms throughout the former Eastern Bloc.
But it is important because it was a war that showed that it was actually possible to wipe out almost an entire race of people without much resistance if the fear of the other could be stoked and fanned. And partly because of that, it is also important for giving birth to the United Nations Convention on Refugees and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet 70 years on this same Europe at the epicentre of the conflagration, is facing the biggest migrant crisis in our combined and separate historie
And I use migrant crisis – not as our politicians do as an inconvenient chorus to their seemingly unstoppable capitalist neo-liberal drum beating dream. I use it in the sense that it is meant, a time of intense difficulty or danger, for the people going through it not for us standing at the sidelines.
From the Med crossings to the build up of human misery in Calais, to the unrelenting onslaught on people’s human rights during the journey and once they have arrived. The crisis of the migrants is also the crisis of our own humanity. For when we can speak of desperate people in terms of insects, when we can erode basic human rights just to get at them, then our humanity in Europe, that so many died for 70-76 years ago is in peril itself.
Yet this link between the founding of mechanisms to protect people fleeing from the aftermaths of conflict and what we are facing in the summer of 2015 is hardly being made. But it was today in a packed seminar in Glasgow arranged by Caledonian University and the Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migrant Network (GRAMNET) called Responding the Migration.
No talk of dogs and how high the fence in this room, except to condemn them both. The discussions were led by one of the most compassionate voices I have heard in a long time, Lilja Gretarsdottir from The Council Of Europe. Not unaware of the mountain to climb to change government and public opinion, her message was clear, it’s down to us as citizens of Europe and citizens of our own states, to challenge the seemingly pervasive myth that we are under attack from the barbarians at the gate.
And while that might not seem like much of way to initiate change, it is, in all honesty, I believe all we have. When I speak about refugees and migrants, which I do a lot, I always start a speech by asking who in the room does not wish for a better life, an improvement in salary or prospects, or place to live, or more money in their pockets, better holidays, happy less stressed lives, children who thrive? It’s an odd group that doesn’t universally admit to that. So why is it that so many believe the better life is fine for us but not for them, the others? While we in Europe benefit from democratic (mostly) governments, an abundance of resources we control, or can afford to acquire (legally or otherwise) and a level of unprecedented social mobility in Europe since 1945; we forget with dangerous carelessness that the world is ill divided and most of the world’s peoples do not share in that good fortune. And so for them those goals are harder to reach.
Never mind that actions by European and American government since 1945 (and before in the case of the Middle East) have combined to ensure that countries are invaded, bled of resources, left with corrupt governments propped up in the name of trade “national interests” and that once stable states – and especially those not to our taste – have become failed states, with all the human misery that entails.
We cannot deny what is happening in North Africa, Syria, Iran and still in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know deep in our hearts that if it were us on those boats and in those lorries, that we would break laws, defy dogs, smash fences and risk our lives to save ourselves and our children. Because the need to survive is what makes us human. And we forget at our peril that every outstretched arm through a roll of razor wire, that every scream of a hungry child belongs to a member of our human race. Whether refugee or economic migrant whose own personal economy has been destroyed by things over which they have no control, fleeing in fear of your life, fleeing towards a better life is NOT a criminal act. Punishing sanctioning, vilifying detaining those who do however, is criminal.
In breach of so many parts of the European Human Rights Act, our governments’ joint and several actions trample their – and ultimately your – human rights in the dust. It is time to realise and acknowledge that the dialogue of then and us is empty. That how we in Europe and other developed countries deal with this and other migrant crisis, speaks directly to our own humanity and asks questions, serious questions, about the basic principles by which we live and bring up future generations.
Calais and the deaths in the Med are holding up a mirror to us and the image reflected back is ugly.
The detention of hundreds of thousands in conditions which would breach EU law on the keeping of animals goes unquestioned. The question from government isn’t how do we make conditions behind the fences better, but how high should we build them? It doesn’t really matter where this is happening but 146 people being detained for over 4 weeks in a cage 112 square metres, men and women and children mixed in with no access to clean clothing is medieval.
That 70% of global migrant deaths are happening in the Mediterranean, some within sight of beeches where as Europeans we go to distress, goes unremarked. The suspension of the Mare Nostrum project was on the dubious logic that if you rescued them, more would come. Yet there has been no let up in the numbers coming, so knowing that and doing nothing is tantamount to murder, surely?
By depriving people of their rights when they do make land, giving them leave to remain yet not leave to work what are we driving people to?
A woman at the seminar, a migrant herself asked quite simply why Migrants were now regarded by the UK government as the third biggest problem behind the economy and the NHS. And why such a ridiculous scapegoating was being promoted by the media.
That at least is an easier question to answer. One of the greatest myths of all is that governments respond to public opinion and the media merely reflects that; as if Pubic Opinion drops from the heavens above. The truth is far simpler and all the more chilling. Governments faced with the inability or the unwillingness to solve problems, create instead a problem that doesn’t exist and then helpfully suggest a solution – maybe the final one- and the media merely manipulates public opinion into that acceptance. Those would be the listening governments we are so sick of listening to. Scapegoats! Yet Europe from Nazi Germany to Stalinist Europe at least knows what scapegoating is, and what results, doesn’t it? Yet we seem not to have learned. The very reason so many people flee is that they are the scapegoats of their own governments and now become that when they arrive looking for safety. The irony is strong enough for even the most irony averse American to get.
But you, reading this are one of the public, you have an opinion. The wide outrage to Cameron’s inhuman labelling of the migrants in Calais, from many sources, was a cause of some hope. And if you don’t know how to answer those who are unmoved by the plight of wretched people in desperate straits. Try this. Tell them, “they are people, humans just like you, with children just like you, with bodies that break and spirits that can be crushed, just like you, and one day it just might BE you that becomes the other. the outsider”.
Compassion, mercy, they cost nothing yet are the richest gifts we can give our fellow men and women and the only way of showing that we too, are human.
Maggie Lennon is the Director of the Bridges Programmes an organisation in Glasgow that promotes the social economic integration and inclusion of Refugees Asylum seekers and Migrants.