Shine A Light

When did inconvenience kill compassion? Thoughts on Calais

If we replace “migrant” with “desperate and terrified person” do we see something different? A nurse and psychotherapist writes.

Lucy Kralj
18 August 2015
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I am lucky. As I write, my nine month old daughter sleeps peacefully within my sight. I glance over at her and try not to disturb her by tapping too loudly on the keyboard of my Macbook Air. I sip a strong coffee, brewed just the way I like it, because, yes, looking after a baby can be a bit tiring whilst working too.

I think of my good fortune and I imagine my daughter’s future. My beautiful mixed race daughter. I love and care for her with her biological (gay) father and his husband. We are a different-shaped and loving family. I dwell on the current political climate in Britain and I hope beyond hope that freedoms and rights, human rights, that I had once believed were enshrined into the values of this country are not eroded to such an extent that one day she and I are huddled, hungry, cold and afraid, under tarpaulin sheeting in a “jungle camp”. 

I have been lucky. I was privileged to work for many years alongside the late Helen Bamber. I imagine her reaction to today’s headlines. I wish I could ask her about the headlines of c.1938. “A Swarm” (Cameron, 2015) of people escaping terror, fleeing for their lives and hoping for safety for themselves and their loved ones ‘pouring into this country’ (Daily Mail 1938).

Yes. I am lucky. And scared — scared of where we are going as a society when yet more draconian measures are announced by the Home Secretary in a bid to convince the Prime Minister’s perceived “swarm of people” that Britain is not a “soft touch”. Removing benefits from families with children whose asylum claim has been refused … evicting these same people onto the streets and criminal convictions for landlords who fail (refuse on moral or religious grounds?) to do so.

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I glance again at my sleeping daughter and take another sip of coffee. I think about the “swarms” of migrant women and babies. Glugging whatever liquid they can find, clean or otherwise. Scavenging for food. My daughter and I enjoyed lunch, carefully made for her young and still toothless palate. I think of infants who have never felt the softness of a bed, whose breast runs dry due to maternal malnutrition or psychological distress, infants who have to eat what comes their way, who arrive in the UK listless, malnourished or with severe dental decay, infants born in ‘the Jungle camp’ and other such hostile places — and infants who die en route and receive no burial. I think of the desperation of their mothers to leave their homes with their young children in tow and journey across perilous terrains.

I know these women, these men, and these children. These women and men and children. Each one a person. Each constituent of the ‘swarm of migrants’ a person with his/her own, unique, troubled story to tell, if they were only allowed, if they only had the words to speak and the lack of fear to voice those words.

I am a nurse and psychotherapist working with victims of human rights’ violation. Members of the “swarm” sit in my consulting room every week. I am privileged to be trusted — just a little — to hear thoughts, feelings and fears — if they are able to speak. Some are too fearful, in too much psychological and spiritual pain, to utter a word. Each person a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a brother, a sister. Each person far from whatever home was so bad that fleeing was the least worst option. 

I am lucky. I feel safe in my home. I do not have a husband who will attack me, rape me, beat me to within an inch of my life on his evening return. I was not forced, aged twelve, to marry a man three times my age. My daughter and I went to church this morning. We could have gone to a mosque, a temple, a synagogue or none, or all, of the above. We could alternate week by week, safe in the knowledge that nobody will kill us for doing so. 

I style my hair as I please, I wear the clothes that I want to wear. I am educated and I take it for granted that my daughter, too, will attend school until she is sixteen, or longer if she wants to. Nobody is going to circumcise her or attack me for not doing this to her. Nobody will threaten or abuse or kill me, or my family, because I have a child outside of wedlock. 

My child’s two gay fathers are safe and enjoying lunch in a restaurant with another gay friend as I write. They do not have to gather in secret and I do not have to lie about our family makeup. I do not take shelter from falling bombs and I do not fear that the police who patrol the streets will randomly draw their gun on my daughter and I as we shop for vegetables. 

These are basic freedoms. I consider them my rights.

In my consulting room each week sit victims of precisely these abuses — random and targeted acts of such atrocity that I have glimpsed into the darkest corners of human potential. The consequent pain lasts a lifetime even if reconstruction of life and living is possible. And we read about the inconveniences that these “swarms of migrants” are causing European holiday-makers this summer and the forecast by the Prime Minister that this inconvenience is likely to continue throughout August. Is it a question of semantics? If we replace “migrant” with “desperate and terrified person” do we see something different? Someone different? 

When the Eurostar is next disrupted, consider what it would take for you to hide, with our children, in shipping containers, lorries, underneath trains. The prospect of £37.50 a week? If so, I suggest that you make an appointment with one of my colleagues. I am yet to meet a “migrant” lured to the UK by this princely sum. And as the Home Secretary announces plans to withdraw even this paltry amount from parents with children, whose asylum applications have been refused, I dread the conversations that I will be having. Dispossessed parents, torn between signing up to voluntarily return with their children to territories from which they have fled, or remaining destitute with their children in the UK, hungry and cold. What life is this? Where can we find hope in such choices?

Ministers are keen to convince migrants that this country is not a land of milk and honey. I encounter the reality of this land of milk and honey. Detention centres, court rooms, grinding poverty, daily fear, a hostile climate of disbelief. And the powerful horror of the past from which these people have fled but can never truly escape. I have, too many times, sat with victims of rape, torture, trafficking and such brutality that I wonder whether man’s inhumanity to man can fall still lower. 

These very women and men are the failed asylum seekers the Home Secretary today wishes to penalise further. 

I have sat with these women and men as they wonder aloud, and in earnest, whether it is better, morally speaking, to kill their own children, or risk the violence and horror that the family will encounter on their return. I have sat with parents who believe that the only hope for their children is for the parents to commit suicide in the UK as they do not believe that this country would deport a helpless child to a war zone.

Yes. These are the “failed asylum seekers”– families with young children, vulnerable and broken men and women, who the Home Secretary wishes to use as pawns in a game to prove that Britain is not a “soft touch”. These are the families who will suffer. These are the eyes that will stare at us from advertisements on the tube, begging for money as ring worm consumes their flesh and kwashiorkor swells their bellies. But they will be on the streets of the UK and not in a fly infested refugee camp in foreign climbs. We will learn to step over them, too, as mere inconveniences — as we do our indigenous homeless population, as we regard them in the Jungle camp of Calais.

These are the human beings in such pain that they were unable to speak their truth, too ashamed to reveal the full extent of their horror. Too disgusted with themselves in their victimhood to disclose to a stranger the torture of the past that lives on so potently inside. Late disclosure. Claim refused. Inconsistent account. Claim refused. Incredible account (we don’t like to believe that humankind can be so brutal). Claim refused. 

These are the very people who sit in my office and who, I hope, will continue to do so. I have already fed and clothed more people than I can count. I am supposed to be providing therapy — but to what end when the person cannot eat, has not washed for weeks and faces deportation to the hell from which they had escaped? How can one work to resolve the past when the future threatens its repetition? 

My question is this: When did inconvenience kill compassion? It is understandable that fear can destroy love. We fear refugees, the dispossessed. They represent all that we dread – and the nearer they get the more we have to confront the possibility that a similar fate could befall us. So we cannot love them because to do so would be to love the dispossessed in us. 

But recent headlines carry a different tone. We are not afraid. We are bored. Frustrated by delays to our Eurostar journeys. Resentful that the French countryside is marred by the ungainly sight of tarpaulin. We tell ourselves stories about the inhabitants. We listen to the brave few who speak to journalists and we hear their resilience and determination. We fail to see and hear the victim inside who is so desperate that it is worth risking life and limb for a final stretch of a journey that closely resembles hell. We just want to arrive at our holiday destination – if only these blasted migrants please stop trying to save their lives.

So, yes. I am lucky. So, to a certain extent, are these few people whose images we see in Calais. These few who have survived. They have survived journeys so perilous that many of their compatriots have perished along the way. They had the financial wherewithal to secure the journey in the first place, passed from one unscrupulous agent to another. They have survived rape, beatings, squalid and terrifying living conditions as they have crossed mountain, desert, borders and seas. Yes, they are the “lucky” few. Few. 

These “swarms” are the few who survive. I know this. I have worked in refugee camps in northern Uganda. People — still people — displaced by war. They had nothing. They had not even the few Ugandan shillings necessary to travel to the nearest hospital a few kilometres away to give birth, tend to wounds or receive treatment for fatal illnesses. Those people live, such as they are able, and die, in the camps. Crossing a border requires money. Crossing many borders requires a lot of money. When we consider the global refugee burden we need to look closer to the sources of conflict. There we will find the many. In Calais we find the very few. 

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