Migrant “Crisis”: Changing our perceptions.

Recently I posted about the dehumanisation of the Calais migrants by the media and the government. This has continued, and in light of the news emerging today that 70 Syrian asylum-seekers have been found dead in an Austria-bound lorry, I have decided to post again.

The general public’s perception of “Europe’s Migrant Crisis” has largely been shaped by articles which take the same tone as this: How many more can we take? Number of migrants entering Britain breaks all records. In some cases, we are lucky if there is any coverage about the issue as there are clearly more important issues; like the Great British Bake Off cult or the new non-Celebrity Big Brother line-up. But the coverage that we do get is usually in the same vein as that just mentioned.

The first thing to do is to clarify the use of the word ‘crisis’.
The Daily Mail categorises its online articles covering this issue as ‘Europe’s Migrant Crisis’. Instead of focusing on the real crisis; the desperate search for somewhere free of suffering by people who have no choice, these kind of perspectives portray the crisis as belonging to the citizens of Europe. Not only is this dishonest journalism, it adds to the existing dehumanisation of refugees by politicians. Cameron’s statement regarding the ‘swarm’ of migrants is a prime example. Admittedly, semantic inaccuracy is only a minor point in comparison to the real issues, but it gives you an impression of the kind of coverage this situation gets.

Featured image

A thousand deaths is a statistic.

The real problem is the way that we think about other people’s suffering. As Owen Jones commented today in the Guardian, bar a few sociopaths, humankind is a generally empathetic species. Yet the more people who seem to be suffering, the less we seem to care. Stalin is reported have once said: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of one thousand is a statistic”. This might seem an inappropriate
comment considering the identity of the man making it, but Mother Teresa made a similar comment: “If I look at the mass I will never act.” We struggle to conceptualise the collective suffering of a group of people. In psychology, this is called the ‘collapse of compassion’ and has been covered in several studies.

As Jones writes, if we stop viewing these individuals as statistics and start telling some of their individual stories, we may see the hostility felt by many in Europe, relaxed. This is not to say that it is appropriate to breed a new close of ‘chosen ones’ who are allowed to enter our hearts and our countries. But something needs to change if we are going to fulfil our responsibilities as a country, and as humans.

One of the major sticking points for people is that migrants want to come to “our country” (what does this even mean?!) and that there isn’t any room. Yet, for every 1 Syrian refugee we allow into the UK, Germany receives 27. Some, including someone I know very well, have said things along the lines of: “Yes well Germany is a much bigger country than our little island.” True, the population exceeds ours, as does the strength of the economy. There are countries with much smaller populations, economies, and land masses, who have taken overwhelming numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers in comparison to the UK.

This graph created by King’s College London’s Filipe Gracio for The Independent, shows the number of pledges by European countries accepting Syrian refugees:

Filipe Gracio's data for the Independent

Filipe Gracio’s data for the Independent

As Gracio demonstrates, the UK has allowed one of the fewest numbers of refugees into the country. Claims that migrants are overwhelming the UK are unfounded and used by the media and cynically by the government to try to rally support from the population. Clearly, it is not possible to accept hundreds of thousands of migrants and I’m not suggesting that we allow unchecked immigration. We just need to respect each other more, and Jones is right when he says that focussing on individual stories will help. The more we try to empathise, the better the situation will be.

Obviously, simply empathising with refugees won’t solve the problem. The problem lies in the original countries; countries with issues we’ve played a part in creating. Without support, the situation is going to get worse and thousands more people will die trying to cross the Mediterranean, and the Channel.

(At risk of coming under attack for being a Guardian-indoctrinated liberal, Patrick Kingsley’s article provides some real statistics surrounding this debate: 10 truths about Europe’s migrant crisis)

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