A dinghy overcrowded with refugees, fleeing war in Syria, is bobbing precariously on the English Channel. On board, the people are trying to stop themselves from sinking by using a plastic container to remove water from the inside of their boat. On a large, stable boat, sailing alongside them, a reporter, holding a microphone and wearing a shirt and coat, asks them questions and explains their journey to the viewer, pointing out how they are attempting to stop themselves from sinking. He does not help them or offer to take them onto his boat.
Are we so desensitised to these people’s suffering that this breed of parasitic, voyeuristic journalism seems acceptable?
Every time the media covers refugees, the trend is similar. The reaction of politicians and the general public also tends to follow a similar pattern. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has continually shown herself to be anti-immigrant. It has come to the point where even an ice cream company has taken it upon themselves to demand that she show some “humanity”, as Ben and Jerry’s took to twitter to criticise the Home Office.
Indeed, it appears that humanity is in short supply from us all. Even when a 3-year-old Syrian child’s body washed up on the shores of Turkey in 2015, the empathy was only fleeting. If we really, deeply cared for this loss of life, then this wouldn’t be happening again, but another child’s life has been tragically lost: a 16-year-old from Sudan was found dead on Wednesday 19th August on a French beach.
The language used to discuss refugees often minimises and misleads, but we must remember that this rhetoric is intentional, and that many politicians and journalists want the general public to think about refugees in a particular way. Priti Patel, along with many other Conservative MPs, often use the word ‘migrants’, instead of ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers,’ to gloss over the fact that these people are coming to our country in need of help. Some MPs, such as Nigel Farage (in his usual xenophobic fashion), have even gone so far to say that these people are “invaders”. The vilification of these refugees as ‘illegal migrants’ is damaging and immoral.
Under international law, it is perfectly legal for people to apply for asylum in any country that signed the 1951 Refugee Convention (which the UK did). We are also behind other countries in terms of taking our fair share of asylum seekers, taking in just 0.026% of the world’s refugees. As a point of comparison, as of June 2016, out of the 13,500 airstrikes launched on Syria and Iraq by the Coalition, the UK launched almost 1000 (which is 7.4%). This number will be higher by now. We have a legal and moral obligation to these people, but we are failing them.
We have forced these people into this desperate situation, pushing them to take the perilous journey across the channel. Until we change our approach, more and more people will be taken advantage of by human traffickers and will risk their lives tackling the seas in cramped boats, and some will unfortunately lose their lives. We need to find our compassion, politicians and the media need to change the language they use to refer to refugees, and we all need to accept that we have a responsibility to these people that cannot be ignored.
By April Howard
Image: by Julian Stallabrass via Flickr