By Abby Gilchrist
Immigration is a topic which often polarises politics and the media. In recent weeks, the calm, settled weather of early August has provided smugglers with perfect conditions to maximise their business of smuggling refugees into the UK. On the 8th August alone, around 150 refugees managed to make the crossing (The Guardian). Of those who risk their lives in this last leg of their journey to seek asylum in the UK, many have often already suffered in order to reach their final destination. It is therefore heartbreaking to see the disappointing response from both the UK government and the media to the most recent reports of Channel crossings, with Home Secretary Priti Patel describing the increased number of boats crossing as ‘unacceptable’ (BBC). The media has been just as damning, describing the 4,000 ‘migrants’ who have made it to the UK this year as an ‘invasion’.
The media has huge influence over our lives and can affect the overall opinions of the UK population - is it the source of all of our information about current events. It is, however, doing significant damage to the British attitude towards those entering the UK by boat, and this predominantly stems from the inaccurate language being used to describe these people. The vast majority of the people we see on the news are not migrants - migrants are people who move from one country to the next, often looking for work. These people are refugees; people who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, conscription or death. There is a clear difference between a migrant and a refugee, and the incorrect terminology is a fundamental cause of the negative light being cast over these people. They are not, as someone like Nigel Farage or Donald Trump would have you believe, here to steal your jobs - they are here in order to survive.
As well as being mislabelled, their origins and stories of hardships and suffering are absent from the news story. To the British public, they become one giant mass of bodies sweeping in from some country in the Middle East - their stories all blur into one sixty-second charity video we see at Christmas time over our turkey and sprouts. And so, we have become completely desensitised to everything they have faced and suffered and ignore the fact that this is not just the overflow of people from one country, but the exodus of people from many. Many have come from Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, and since the Arab Spring in 2011, UNICEF has estimated that 80% of its population - over 24 million people - are in need of humanitarian aid.
In Eritrea in eastern Africa, around ⅕ of the country’s population has fled due to the compulsory military service which awaits all young boys and men (BBC). Children as young as thirteen are being recruited into the army with no promise that they will ever be able to leave. Those who try to flee the country are killed and often used for organ harvesting for the black market (The Worldwide Tribe). Many also come from Syria where, since the start of the civil war in 2011, over 400,000 civilians have been killed and 13.2 million displaced. In June 2020, the UN World Food Programme issued a statement that the country faced mass starvation if nothing was done to help the people (BBC). These people have fled starvation, persecution, separation from their families and death in order to make it to Europe and the UK, and even then, we are questioning why we should help them or even allow them entry into our country.
Something I find incredible is that many do not understand that these people would not be risking their lives on tiny inflatable boats if they felt that they had any other option. Many do not make it. In October 2013, a boat smuggling refugees from Libya to Italy capsized, resulting in the drowning of around 360 refugees. In 2015, the world was shaken by the images of the dead body of three year old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, lying dead on a Turkish beach. Just this week, a 28-year-old Sudanese man called Abdulfatah Hamdallah was found dead on a French beach after the boat he was travelling in capsized. When it was first believed that he was 16 years old, the coverage in the news went along the lines of ‘16-year-old migrant drowns in Channel crossing’ (The Evening Standard). What I found shocking about these headlines was the complete omission by some news outlets of a keyword: child. If he had actually been 16, these news outlets, who failed to focus on the fact that he would have been a child, would have been complicit in the creation of an inaccurate refugee identity; an identity that failed to factor in that in 2019, out of the 672,000 asylum seekers in Europe, nearly a third were children. And even if he was a man and not a child, does the fact that he was over the age of 18 make it ok that he drowned? Does it mean he deserved to die after trying to enter the country in an illegal manner? Absolutely not. He was still a person who was desperate enough to risk his life for the hope of a better life. Just a week before Abdulfatah’s death was reported, the BBC filmed a news segment about the increasing number of boats crossing from the safety of his boat while the refugees in the boat they were observing were bailing water out of the overcrowded boat behind him. These people are suffering and dying around us, and the media has turned it into what HelpRefugees described as ‘a spectator sport’.
The number of refugees is of course too many to tell everybody’s story, but we need to end our ignorance and the dehumanisation of the human crisis we are witnessing. The Worldwide Tribe, an inspiring organisation and podcast founded by Jaz O’Hara, has set out the aim ‘to amplify the voices that often go unheard - the humans behind the statistics and the headlines.’ Along with other refugees and volunteers, she interviewed her Eritrean foster brother Mez, who, having fled the country to avoid conscription into the army aged 13, described how he had to endure near starvation for fifteen days while crossing the Sahara. He was transported in a suffocating van crammed with 100 people to the Libyan coast and then his boat capsized once the smuggler had abandoned them in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. And that was all before he reached Calais and the Jungle: the worst camp he had encountered.
I don’t have the answer to the refugee crisis and how best we can help all these people who so desperately need it, but what has really stuck with me over the last couple of weeks is looking back on the last refugee crisis Europe faced - the fleeing of the Jews from Germany and other European countries under Nazi control in the 1930s. Many countries turned Jews away, including the UK, and since then many people have said that if they had been alive then, of course, they would have helped the Jews. My answer to that is that it is happening right now. We as UK citizens, the government and the media need a lesson in empathy - nay, a lesson in basic humanity. We can no longer ignore these people and dehumanise them by condemning their mode of transport. It doesn’t matter where these people are coming from or how they have entered the country - they are desperate humans asking for help.