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Protests in Calais: valuing human complexity in crisis

Thoughts on the UK media's representation of the refugee crisis, from a day of action and protest in Calais on Saturday 19th September. In the midst of political maelstrom, migrants are fighting for their humanity along with their rights. 

Sophie Hemery Bob Trafford
28 September 2015
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'Make it personal' art project. Sophie Hemery.

“Jungles are for animals! We are humans!” We would hear and see this phrase time and again, evidence of a population aware of the fragility of their humanity, at the centre of a geopolitical storm which every day threatens to wrest it away, distort it or replace it with fears and statistics. What we saw, in the place they call the ‘Jungle’, was not humanity trapped in abject despair, nor lasciviously eyeing our benefit system across the Channel. We saw instead community and solidarity - with foundations in the kind of simple acts that unite rather than divide. We drank tea warmed on firewood with a group of Pakistanis, shared snacks under tarpaulin, talked cricket, and joked. A Kuwaiti showed us the winter jacket he bought in Dunkirk. There were shops and bars, mosques and churches; people played football and charged their phones.

Why should such prosaic events seem striking? In the UK’s mainstream media, we have seen the crisis from above, in aerial photographs of amorphous, shifting sprawls, shanty towns in the heart of Europe. And zoomed in, painfully close, in the tragedy of a small boy's death on a Turkish beach. Such images attempt to hammer the crisis home, but they do not constitute real empathy rooted in a genuine sense of shared humanity and contextualised understanding. They paint a one-dimensional picture, reducing people to blotches on the landscape or to an individual tragedy; taking humans and turning them into ‘migrants’. This imagery of displaced people also displaces people from their histories, personal and political.

Those we met had the vigour of the voiceless desperate to be heard, and told us that their goal was now as much to retain their humanity in the midst of polemic from all sides, as to escape the unique circumstances that had led each of them to Calais. In speeches, on banners and in art they proclaimed their identities. All around us, they held placards high above their heads, each of which declared: ‘I AM...’. Throughout personal struggles and stateless isolation, people are fighting - together - to remain “humans first”, as one Pakistani migrant put it.  

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Migrants proclaiming 'I am...' Sophie Hemery.

Mainstream media portrayals of events in Calais seem limited to one of two modes. On one hand, heavy-handed sensationalism of the sort which followed the death of Alan Kurdi, plastered across the same newspaper which had asked only days before: “how many more can we take?” On the other, go-to metaphors of invasion, whether military or civilian in character or, in the preferred parlance of our Prime Minister, drawn from the animal kingdom. Both approaches dehumanise their subject. The latter weaves individual human narratives together into an affirmation of an existing fear or prejudice, while the former simplifies and homogenises intertwined but distinct tragedies - even as it spurs an ambivalent populous into sympathetic, uncritical action.

It was a privilege to spend time with people from all over the world and share in their impassioned protest. Cameron’s ‘swarms’ were political activists. Their message: we are refugees, we are migrants, but above all, we are humans. The common desire was not to live with ‘dignity’, but with normality. Speaking to the assembled crowd, an Afghan refugee, fleeing a village besieged first by the Taliban and now by ISIS, longed “to live in a normal way, with basic facilities.” He went on, “I want to wake up in a home, have breakfast, have a shower, go to work, come home and watch television. That is all I want.” Events throughout the afternoon; a declaration of solidarity from the EU citizens present, music and dance, an art project on a mock barbed-wire fence and a solemn commemoration of those lost at the border, both the named and the unknown, all pointed to an urgent reassertion of identity.

The women's march. Sophie Hemery.

The women's march. Credit: Sophie Hemery.

For many, those identities now include a recent history steeped in hardship and horror. Most told us that they attempted to cross the Channel by truck or by train every day. Burhan, a young Iraqi Kurd, told us that his uncle had sent him away once his father, a Peshmerga soldier, had been killed by IS. Aftun, who fled Eritrea, told us: “I have come from the worst place. I am happy here, because I am lucky to get here.” The “worst place” from which he fled is a life of indefinite military service, paid no more than a nominal wage to serve at the erratic whim of their brutally repressive president Isaias Afwerki. Samil from Darfur surprised us by asserting that he had no desire to attempt to cross the Channel. The look in his eyes suggested that even the ‘Jungle’ was peace enough for now.

Shoulder to shoulder with Buhran, Aftun and Samil however, stood men who had fled, not from war or the immediate threat of violence, but from political repression and a desperate lack of economic prospects, exercising a fundamental right to seek opportunity abroad. During her speech to the assembly, Maya Conforti of L’Auberge des Migrants took the opportunity to decry the denial of this right as “contrary to the founding principles of Europe”, echoing the words of Angela Merkel earlier this month.

Some of those to whom we spoke had spent time in the UK previously, and a majority had family or friends across the Channel. Khalifa, an Iraqi Kuwaiti formerly employed by American military contractor KBR, had been driven out of his homeland in search of work, as repression there continues against citizens of Iraqi descent, and plans to join his brother in Birmingham. Adnan, confident and ambitious, had already spent three years studying at Leeds University before the expiry of his student visa saw him return to Pakistan. Now he planned to earn money in the UK - “I don’t want benefits, I want to work sixteen hour days” - before returning to Pakistan “to help people”. He supported the Movement for Justice party and dreamed of opening a university, like its founder Imran Khan.

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Khalifa. Sophie Hemery.

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that incalculable human complexity is reduced beyond recognition, unscrupulously stereotyped in accordance with prevailing cultural discourses and narratives of foreign crisis. Those narratives feed into a broader, often unspoken cultural trend. Every headline stoking fear of the immigrant Other contains within it both an acceptance of the brutal geographical inequalities of capitalism and a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the human consequences of such a system, even as we witness them. While a global system of wealth and war enriches some and impoverishes others, we reassure ourselves that our national borders, unlike those now routinely transgressed from Turkey to Pakistan, remain inviolable. The neoliberal model justifies its own economic imperialism with empty promises of universal prosperity - if only we give it more time.

Inter-related crises across the Middle East and Africa are thus distilled to horror and pity for a distant Other far removed from the world of our experience, and conform to expected narratives of helplessness and economic dependence. This dynamic plays itself out on social media too, in posts outraged at migrants “having to live like this on Western soil”. Distant suffering is a routine psychological and moral challenge for the West, but bringing it closer to home has sharpened its bite.

Michel, a volunteer with L’Auberge des Migrants for four years, told us as we marched that “the photo of that little boy changed everything.” There has been a dramatic influx of donations since, with ten to twenty trucks arriving every day. While this has been largely welcomed, it has also brought problems – there is not enough storage or capacity to distribute it all, and the streets in and around the camp are strewn with muddy clothes.

This sudden surge in aid for the Calais camp is a telling commentary on the responses evoked by decontextualised media messages. This ‘politics of pity’ is closely linked to the diminishing and disempowerment of the pitied. Alan was from Syria, and he died in Turkey. The well-meaning, rapid-response donations that have arrived in Calais aren't for Alan - yet the surge in contributions after the photo was released suggests that, in a way, they are. The narrative of this characteristically Western approach to humanitarianism now has its picture-perfect ending: Cristiano Ronaldo embracing a Syrian child on a football pitch in Madrid. Meanwhile, the crises broaden and their complex, global roots deepen.

By responding in binaries of shock and pity, we are not only minimising complex lives, but ducking the implications of a multi-faceted and immediate crisis - and this gives politicians space to respond in kind. When asked by the BBC for a response to the rising number of refugees at Europe’s door, David Cameron offered no more than that “the most important thing is to try to bring peace and stability to that part of the world.” There can be no clearer demonstration of the damage that simplistic media engagement with a crisis can do than when our Prime Minister offers to the camera, as a solution to a problem, just the restatement of that problem in significantly broader terms.

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"I'm so sorry about the British government." Sophie Hemery.

Two weeks later, Caroline Lucas MP asked David Cameron whether he saw the link between this “harrowing” crisis and the recent presence of the world’s largest arms fair, DSEI, at the ExCel centre. Cameron’s response brazenly rubbished the idea that “the reason why so many people are fleeing Syria is anything to do with the arms trade”, despite a Parliamentary Committee report which found over £5bn of arms to have been sold by the UK government to countries of "human rights concern" - including Syria. Instead, Cameron’s response appealed to broad-brush narratives of the atrocities of ISIS and the Assad regime, given space by the lack of nuance in the media’s portrayal of these crises to avoid difficult questions about the UK’s relationship with the arms trade. Only this week, Tim Farron MP described Cameron’s reaction to the death of Alan Kurdi as “a careful calibration of what it will take to manage that story, the minimum effort for the maximum headlines” - a calibration not made more challenging by our failure to demand real answers and progressive solutions from our Government.

Simplistic, depersonalised media narratives can also empower politicians in unexpected ways. Against the background of severe welfare cuts across the UK, it is easy to hear echoes of Gáspár Tamás’ excellent analysis of the rise of racist and anti-immigrant sentiment in Hungary, and its value to conservative politics, in his recent oD piece: “How would it be possible to convince the poor that an unprecedented inequality is in their own interest? Obviously, by presenting unemployment and social assistance as something pertaining to ethnic minorities… so, in the popular imagination, wealth redistribution appears as a favour to ‘foreign’ people.”

We do not have to look far for an example of how our press might handle matters differently. German newspapers Bild and BZ both published sections of early September editions in Arabic, featuring maps, Arabic-German translations of useful phrases and directions to healthcare and housing facilities. They came under the headline “Welcome to Berlin”. There is plenty to say about the reasons behind the particular nature of Germany’s response to this crisis, but the facts remain: two in every five refugees taken in across the continent now call Germany home, and they arrive to a media which address them directly.

What is evident is the failure of our government and society to acknowledge the roots of our own prosperity, toward which displaced and stateless individuals now flee, and failure to meaningfully acknowledge or address the consequences of our international policy when it contributes to the kind of human crises from which they flee. The people we met, living in a shanty town on the outskirts of Calais, deserve to be seen and heard. This means recognising their humanity, as intricate as our own, and not allowing them to be reduced in the press or in politics to a geographical blur, or a story that is not their own. This means acknowledging that the causes of this crisis are as complex as the humans it impacts, and holding our governments to account.

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Kahsay. Sophie Hemery.

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