It has been just over a week since the image of Alyan Kurdi was shared on various newspaper websites. Along with his brother and mother, Alyan died attempting to find safety outside of Syria. I was ambivalent about this image, about Alyan’s dignity in death. However, it did seem to lead to a flurry of activity, political and grassroots. Yesterday, the inevitable charity single was launched ‘Help is coming’. I’m sure this will raise money for Save the Children, although it has a whiff of celebrity self-indulgence and conscience-salving about it. Anyway, it’s out there and the hierarchy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants can be maintained. I’ve been trying to find a way to articulate my thoughts on migration in general and this latest crisis more specifically. I’m writing down a few points here, in no real order, but just trying to think through some of themes which have struck me most.
- Mobile phones. Apparently some people are questioning the validity of whether migrants with mobile phones really are desperate and therefore deserving of help. This well-meaning blog was created to unpick the supposed high cost of mobiles. All well and good, but for me it misses the point. Firstly, mobile phone use is pretty wide-spread globally. Obviously western countries have the highest usage, but smartphones are now a widely available technology. Owning a phone is not necessarily a sign of wealth, and to assume it is suggests a rather Eurocentric viewpoint. More importantly though – so what? Are we to argue that if mobiles were expensive then the owner who is fleeing war is any less deserving of safety? Does the surgeon spoken to by Sky news deserve refuge less than someone our Western eyes can believe is ‘poor’? I also wonder if a broader point is being missed – who has the resources to migrate? Perhaps the refugees we see being interviewed (English speaking professionals) are those who can access remaining resources to fund their travel out of Syria? (of course, they could just be the people English speaking news interviews – hard to tell). Update: this is very good on mobile phones and refugees
- It’s the British thing to do. In the short flurry of activity (which is already starting to die down) I saw a number of posts arguing that to help migrants and refugees is the British thing to do. I’m sure that similar arguments were had in other countries. Britain has a long history of welcoming refugees, we are told. Blog posts with smiling refugees being welcomed, with open arms, into Britain. We need to take a rather more critical lens to our own history. Refugees were not universally welcomed into the UK. There are a range of sources for this, including the anti-semitism faced by Jewish refugees. Positioning supporting refugees as the British thing to do, strikes me as another way of reinforcing national borders while using a somewhat rose-tinted perspective of British history.
- Refugees are acceptable migrants, although only up to 20000 people, after which bad migrants? The focus in our media seems to be on the relatively small numbers of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe. Despite the rhetoric, the EU is seeing a small proportion of the refugees leaving Syria. Neighbouring countries are struggling to cope with the millions arriving. There is no doubt that refugees’ needs are desperate and immediate. However, I’m concerned that this creates a hierarchy of migrants. Those who deserve to be included with legal frameworks and those who do not. Economic migrants are targetted in political rhetoric as unwelcome and undeserving – see this delight from Theresa May (UK Home Sec). Under this polite term of ‘economic migrant’ is a life of poverty and a desire to seek economic security of some form. Oh but those people on the telly are refugees, we have to help them. These well-meaning statements simply reinforce the hierarchy of good versus bad migrant. Deserving versus undeserving. The role of UK policy towards Syria is deservingly being analysed, to understand how our country has helped to create this current situation. A similar lens must be applied to understand how Britain’s, and other European countries, colonial history has helped to create global economic inequalities. This along with climate change should be examined to understand migration, which brings me onto my next point.
- Borders. When I travel through an airport I am always struck by how much effort countries put into protecting their borders. Their human constructed borders. Borders which create people who have a right to reside and those who don’t. Those who have a right to work, and those who don’t. Those who have a right to a home, and those who don’t. Humans migrate, it’s what we do. Increasingly national borders seem to be less relevant. Not only will climate change necessitate migration, with poorer countries most affected by the need to move, but technology is blurring national boundaries. On a simple level, think of how social media shares news far more quickly than any traditional media. I think of how academics are forging international communities on social media which help to blur national boundaries of academic labour. Yet, despite this we see governments doing all they can to protect these borders. Clinging on to outdated understandings which are no longer fit for purpose.
Taking a few refugees from Syria is a pitiful response, which should shame us. Not only does it leave other, far less wealthy, countries with an unfair ‘burden’, it refuses to understand how our country has helped to create the migrant crisis. It’s not going away and focussing on a few socially acceptable migrants will have a short term benefit (possibly) while not paying attention to the broader political, historical, economic and environmental contexts. These all demand a far more radical approach which recognises that our traditional understandings of borders and nationality are increasingly unsuited to the current (and coming) situation.