Empathy not Fear

The political discourse around immigration and immigrants has taken a negative and hostile turn over the last ten years.  This discourse has instilled unfounded fear, effectively appropriating this emotion from refugees whose perilous journeys in search for security are nothing but replete with fear.

David Cameron in 2015, the then Prime Minister, described immigrants as “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain.”  Similarly migration was projected as “an invasion of our country”, by Donald Trump in 2019.  This language by prominent and influential political personalities is divisive, as it not only creates a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, but dehumanizes immigrants.  This language is increasingly used by populist politicians.  A political stance used in popularist politics is the demarcation of in-groups from out-groups, where politicians use language that identifies Britishness for the in-group, such as British jobs, British people as opposed to the out-group of foreigners, immigrants and Muslims. 

This rhetoric is not exclusive to politicians but is rampant within mainstream media.  These outlets describe immigrants threatening British values and British culture by using terms such as ‘invaders’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘illegal’.  Such language criminalises a complete cohort, rather than describing individual situations or relaying their true legal stature.  A study in 2013 that examined language used in all twenty main national daily newspapers between 2010 and 2012 found metaphors such as “flood”, “influx” and “wave” were used.  This terminology resorts to describing humans in terms normally reserved for pests or insects.  This hostile language degrades immigrants depriving them of human attributes, and was exemplified by President Trump when he described immigrants as “thugs” and “animals”.  Whether it is media that shapes the narrative or politicians, what is clear is that both groups share a narrative that instigates fear. 

The framing of discourse that instils fear, is used to deliberately divert attention from unpopular domestic political policies.  Academic Noam Chomsky recognised the strategy to “keep the adult public attention diverted away from the real social issues, and captivated by matters of no real importance”.   This strategy was used by David Cameron in 2010 when his austerity measures lead to deteriorating public services, stagnant wages and lost job opportunities.  To mitigate against the public anger that would ensue, he deflected the blame on migrants and encouraged anti-migrant feeling by pledging he would cut net immigration.  This was reinforced through the use of bill board vans labelled “In the UK illegally? GO HOME or face arrest”.  The fervour against immigration that was created amongst the British public was key for UKIP to lead and win the campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.

It is this self-serving use of fear of “them” over “us”, that sees this emotion having been exclusively reserved for “us” over “them”.  This perceived fear is a far cry from the actual fear refugees experience at every step of their perilous journey, the fear of not knowing what to expect, the fear of the smugglers they encounter, the fear of the sea they cross in small overloaded boats.

This is the fear nine year old Anita, and six year old Armin must have experienced in the last few moments of their lives.  The two young children lost their lives with their parents, when their small fishing boat capsized off the coast of France as they attempted to cross the Channel two weeks ago.  Like the 7,400 refugee and asylum seekers that have arrived on the shores of the UK in small boats this year, this young Iranian Kurdish family were in search for security.  The Nezhad family come from the minority Kurdish population in Iran, and according to the human rights monitors of the UN special rapporteur 2017, this group faces discrimination and political repression, their situation made worse by the US sanctions on Iran.

The plight of Iranian Kurds is similar to that of other refugees who desperately flee their country.  There are 79.5 million people who have been forced to flee their homes in the world today, nearly 26 million have crossed borders (attaining refugee status) half of whom are under the age of 18, based on UN figures.  Many of these people experience persecution, conflict and natural disaster.  Furthermore earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides and floods are more prevalent globally, because of climate change.    However, 80% of these refugees are hosted in neighbouring countries, with Turkey accounting for hosting 3.7million refugees, Pakistan for 1.4 million and Uganda and Sudan taking on 1.2 and 1.1 million respectively.  Whilst Britain takes on only a small proportion of the world’s refugees, and in the year ending March 2020, 35,099 asylum applications were made in the UK, down by 58% in the peak of 2001. 

By adopting this fear of refugees and immigrants, we fail to recognize the contributions, economic and cultural that they have made to Britain. The Home Office’s own 2018 Migration Advisor Committee concluded EEA migrants contribute more to the health workforce than they consume in health care.  Unfortunately, it is only during the current pandemic that we come to realise we should not fear “foreigners” but have empathy for their experiences and losses.

Refugees escape persecution in an attempt to survive, rather than being lured towards European shores with the prospect of social benefits and jobs, as we are lead to believe.  Our knowledge and experience of immigrants is left open to prejudice and bias through leaders who attempt to redirect the political agenda.

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