This summer saw one of the most extraordinary shifts in public attitudes for a long while. I do not oppose the publication of photos of Aylan Kurdi, as long as those photos serve as a compassionate memorial of the plight of that little boy and the thousands of other human beings trying to reach safety, rather than only becoming symbolic of how lacking Europe has been in goodwill and support towards those who most need our help.
Granted, the general population of the UK has shown far greater humanitarian tendencies in recent weeks than the man elected to represent us on the global stage. What is necessary at this point, however, is a drastic change in rhetoric. Something which will make complaining about travel disruptions near Calais in the context of what is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War a heartless, despicable act.
We talk about the migrants desperately struggling towards asylum in Europe as though they have hopped on a budget flight to Calais and promptly set up camp. Or as though these asylum seekers are forcing their way through borders illegally because they are intrinsically criminal foreigners who couldn’t be bothered to wait for formalities such as visas and/or were unconcerned about such problems as the UK being full enough as it is without the added burden of more bloody immigrants. Talking about them in this manner assigns their difficulties to the general political minefield of immigration policy, when they are first and foremost asylum seekers fighting for their lives.
But let’s take this apart: part of this national attitude comes from the after effects of UKIP mania. Nigel Farage may no longer be completely centre-stage, but the rightward surge that his anti-immigration rhetoric stirred up still lingers; the UK and its government has yet to regain a positive attitude towards immigration, despite cold hard statistical evidence that encouraging immigration would benefit us as a nation. Towards those who are arriving from areas that have not been torn apart by conflict, an uncomfortable attitude towards immigration prevails.
Perhaps there is a justification for harsher controls on immigration in general. Perhaps not. Yet regardless of the reasons for a person’s request to reside in this country, the overriding reaction towards such a request is focussed on the impact which an increased population will have on us. Will this person’s quality of life improve as a result of immigration to the UK? Will they escape conflict or persecution? More importantly, will they scrounge off us hard-working taxpayers?
Even where the circumstances of those wishing to come to the UK or Europe are not life-threatening, there is a complete lack of compassionate rhetoric. ‘Immigrant’ has become a dirty word, whatever the situation. The nation as a whole is generally inclined to think first of ourselves and any perceived future suffering, rather than considering the very present, very real suffering of others. Save the Children’s recent appeal video, ‘Hidden Cameras Capture Horror’, sought to evoke sympathy for those caught up in the migrant crisis by transplanting the horrors of war-torn Syria into Surrey. Are we only capable of experiencing non-selfish emotions when the situation at hand is repackaged into a recognisable context? Right now, our collective sense of entitlement to space and resources seems to be taking priority over any notion of compassion. The current concern is not migrants seeking a better quality of life, or better economic prospects, an entirely reasonable proposition, but refugees who chose to risk death in order to escape situations most of us couldn’t even begin to imagine. Even when we are made painfully aware of the circumstances faced by fellow human beings, the primary reaction of this country and many others across Europe has been concerned with their own economies and situations.
David Cameron admitted that his swift change of heart in allowing a fixed number of refugees to enter the UK this week came as a result of the emotions which the images of Aylan Kurdi stirred up. Facts and figures hadn’t worked; Cameron needed emotive visual proof of actual suffering and actual death. But he still hasn’t done enough. His concession was statistical and considered. The government has yet to announce the exact number of refugees to be granted asylum in the UK, and those lucky enough to be admitted will come from refugee camps bordering Syria itself, rather than from within Europe, but they will simply number in the thousands. Even this is a magnanimous gesture from someone who believes that the proper solution is not to allow immigrants to come to other countries in their swarms and burden them with demands on resources.
Perhaps many of the people posting statuses, sharing articles and signing petitions on social media, or those donating money and items to support those in need feel that their work is now done. This act of public compassion has served to distinguish them from those who remain staunchly anti-immigration. But there is still far more to be done. We need to move past a negative stereotype of immigrants as people who only aim to take advantage of the areas they move to. These people, whether they have made a measured decision to arrive on these shores or are fighting for survival as much as for a better future, are not cockroaches, or benefits scroungers, but fellow human beings. A restrictive choice of language often prevents us from remembering that. Remember Cher’s pro-immigration speech in ‘Clueless’: ‘If the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haitians.’
She knew we’re dealing with real people.