Anti-migrant rhetoric and the realities of terror

By Savi Hensman
August 10, 2015

Are you more afraid of being tortured, shot, beheaded or forced to murder your neighbours to save your own life? If threatened, how far would you run to escape?

If your children, nieces or nephews were at risk of such a fate, would you just hope for the best? Or would you try to get them to safety, even if it meant being parted from them?

If you got away, traumatised perhaps but relieved to be alive, would you be content to be cooped up in a camp? Or would you want to try to find some kind of normality, earning your living, repaying your debts and maybe helping fund others’ escape?

To some people, such questions may seem far removed from anything they have ever considered. Others, even in seemingly peaceful and prosperous countries, have faced these and similar dilemmas.

This gulf of understanding and experience is exposed in the wide range of reactions to those asylum-seekers in, or trying to reach, the UK. After chaotic scenes near a camp in Calais, politicians and certain newspapers have stirred up fear and hatred.

Intensifying conflict – largely fuelled by western powers trying to increase their global influence, secure oil or sell arms – has driven record numbers of people from their homes. But the vast majority of the world’s refugees (86 per cent) are in developing countries.

Even within the European Union, of asylum claims made in the first quarter of 2015, a mere four per cent were to the UK. There were just 25,020 applications in the year ending March 2015. Yet some leaders have tried to bolster their popularity and power by panic-mongering.

“The gap in standards of living between Europe and Africa means there will always be millions of Africans with the economic motivation to try to get to Europe,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, told the BBC.

“So long as there are large numbers of pretty desperate migrants marauding around the area, there always will be a threat to the tunnel security. We’ve got to resolve this problem ultimately by being able to return those who are not entitled to claim asylum back to their countries of origin.”

According to Hammond, “Europe can’t protect itself, preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa.” This appears to be an appeal to xenophobia, if not racism. Describing civilians trying to get away from brutal killers as “marauding” is tasteless in the extreme.

In July the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had referred to a “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live.”

Of course there are economic migrants, some of whom play a valuable part in UK society, for instance by keeping the NHS going. But pretending that people fleeing from Isis forces, or regimes such as that in Syria, have no reason to fear is absurd.

The relatively rare occasions of terror in the UK and attacks on holiday-makers abroad have caused nationwide alarm and mourning. It may be hard to imagine, for people who have enjoyed lifelong safety, what it means when such scenes are routine.

Of course, even in relatively settled and prosperous countries, many are insecure. Some media barons and politicians are skilled at exploiting this, despite the terrible human cost when men, women and children are routinely sent back to scenes of almost unspeakable horror and loss.

Those of us who first came to the UK while fleeing atrocities abroad, or whose ancestors did, perhaps have a particular responsibility to speak out. So maybe have members of faith and humanist groups which recognise that humans are profoundly interconnected, so that mercy and justice ultimately benefit everyone.

Through the arts, education, blogging and conversation, others too can foster empathy. In a world where stark oppression and violence are widespread, anyone may one day be confronted with life-or-death questions.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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