I got thinking today about why so many people – including friends, family and public figures who normally have my respect – have bought into the narrative that refugees need to be relabelled as ‘migrants’, scrutinised, suspected, categorised according to age and gender, dismissed as frauds for owning smartphones … anything, really, apart from helped.
Obviously the right-wing press have not been neutral in their portrayal of the crisis, from claiming all kinds of ‘magnet’ effects (none of which even come close to matching the push effect of fleeing a war-torn country, destroyed home or threat of state-sanctioned murder) to multiplying out numbers until they convince themselves the natural conclusion to the UK signing up to the refugee quota would be having to accommodate all 7 billion of the world’s inhabitants. But there is coverage of the other side, too, such as the Refugees Welcome campaign run by The Independent and a fair few columns from humanitarians who have visited the camps. So we cannot say media coverage unequivocally causes this set of opinions to become entrenched.
I think what’s really at the heart of this is an uncomfortable truth. One that people would prefer not to be the case, to the point where they put as much distance between themselves and the refugees as possible. It’s that it could be them.
Nobody even gets to choose to be born, never mind choosing which decade, country, social class, religion, gender and family to be born into. Who we are is part-nature, part-nurture, with luck of the draw playing its substantial part. Whether or not we are born into a country which ends up famine-struck or despot-led or engulfed by civil war has absolutely nothing to do with superior morality.
The thing is that no matter how many differences are listed between ‘them’ and ‘us’, the similarities are far more striking. First priority: keeping your family safe. Second priority: food and water. Third priority: shelter. If the UK found itself in an emergency and its people were scattered, we’d have exactly the same priorities. Religion, language and nationality don’t come into it.
But there is a mental block. We don’t really want to see the world as random and events as uncontrollable and ourselves as mere mortals. We pretend that drawing diplomatic lines in the sand or putting up a fence here or there will somehow ‘keep us safe’. Guess what? This is real life. There are no guarantees. Nobody can live forever or predict the future or stop all bad things from happening.
What we can do is remember that when numbers of people are cited – whether it’s a UK election turnout figure, Syrian refugee estimate, attendance at a football match, anything at all – each one represents a complex human being with their own unique mixture of virtues, flaws, talents and bad habits.
T.S. Eliot was right when he wrote ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’. But it is better by far to take on a small chunk of reality than get lost in the entirety of the myth.