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Not Challenging Immigration Rhetoric Now Will Lead Society Down A Dark Path

03/11/2016 17:37
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Our world can seem confusing, complicated and incoherent. Moral certitude can be hard to come by, we are left malnourished by the simple narratives offered by the political elite and bewildered by the technical jargon of economic and world affairs. Yet here, amongst the maze of moral conundrums in our modern world is a moral certainty, a compulsion to act in a simple and easy manner: we must do better for refugees. Take a moment out of what is sure to be a busy day to read, to understand, to be compelled to act.

Read this from Charlotte England in The Independent a few days ago: "The Calais Jungle has become like Lord of the Flies, with 1,500 children left unsupervised, sleeping in bare containers... Taps supplying drinking water to the compound have been turned off, and food for the young refugees, who are mostly boys aged between 10 and 17, is not being supplied by the authorities..."

Read this from Brownwen Carther of the Guardian: "Children housed in the containers report choking on the smoke that blows in from their burning former homes. They say there is no drinking water, that the toilets are never cleaned and the showers are not working. Food is served only from 3pm to 5pm, and there is only one meal a day."

And this from Kim Wilsher, also from the Guardian: "The rough sleepers, many of them from Afghanistan, claimed they had no time to collect their belongings, including tents and sleeping bags, as riot police were drafted in to clear the area. "We are human, not animals. We need help and you're treating us like dogs...""

These small stories are part of a growing, global problem. Nearly 5 million refugees have fled Syria since civil war broke out in 2012, with millions more internally displaced and many more migrating from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. It is estimated that close to 200,000 have been killed in Syria by the fighting, that nearly 4,000 refugees died attempting to get into Europe in 2015 alone and that over 1,000 children have been left unaccompanied just in Calais.

The response of our press and our government, as well as neighbouring states, will not be treated kindly by history. We spend our time debating which is the best way to catch out any potential hungry and desperate 20-somethings from pretending to be hungry and desperate teenagers (facial recognition, bone x-rays or dental records?), whether someone with a smart phone is destitute enough for our sympathy, and how long the wall should be that we build to keep them out.

We stand by as commentators describe human beings as cockroaches and advocate a gunship-cure and a major tabloid runs a vicious campaign of hate against a national figure who suggested we react with compassion rather than suspicion. And we stand by as an already-inadequate camp is demolished, with even more inadequate provision put in place, arguing that whilst fellow human beings are being left open to mental health problems, hunger and sexual assault, it's more important that a pensioner in Thurrock feels like they control their own borders than it is to stop this human tragedy.

Make no mistake, such rhetoric has formed the basis for some of the darkest chapters in human history. Theorists highlight that a key antecedent to ethnic cleansing and genocide is the exclusion of certain groups from the 'in-group', followed by rhetoric that casts the 'other' as in some way a threat to the physical existence or moral integrity of the in-group. This is why when we repeat myths about being 'too full' or that migrants sponge off our state without contributing, we're not just spreading untruths, we're also laying the ground-work for potentially much worse actions further down the line. We are seeing hints of this already in the explosion in hate crime following the Brexit vote: it is more important than ever to challenge the rhetoric of those that would demonise the 'other', whether they be economic migrants or refugees fleeing war, Seven years-old or 50.

Many commentators have rightly identified the deep problems Brexit highlights for the vision of left-wing internationalists and liberal cosmopolitans, but many have claimed this means a retreat from the defence of free movement, and even from the defence of taking in refugees. Labour failed to win in 2015 because of such a tactic: under Miliband they ceded ground very early on to the Tories on austerity, failing to consistently and comprehensively debunk their arguments about the causes of the financial crisis. Six years on, we reap what they sowed, with dwindling public services, exacerbated social and political tensions and many of the most vulnerable in society living in absolute destitution, if living at all. This is the result of refusing to stand up for values, and instead capitulating to popular opinion, of standing by whilst these narratives spread their poison. Failing to stand up for both refugees and migrants now will lead us down an increasingly darker path: history has seen it happen time and again.

And it's a winnable fight, with potential political gains for a political party brave enough to take a stand, if the moral compulsions are not enough in our Machiavellian age. Highlighting how immigration is good for the economy, good for public services and good for business can help challenge not just negative immigration rhetoric but also put the 'party of business' credentials of the Tories under the spotlight as they rush to make more unkeepable promises and authoritarian policies on immigration.

On its own though such a war of words won't be enough: it needs to be placed within a wider narrative that speaks to people's values and emotions. Winning out over in-group preferences won't be easy: they are deeply ingrained in our psyche's. That said, one of the times I feel closest to being patriotic is when contemplating the multicultural tapestry of communities in my hometown, Coventry, when I consider what opportunities for learning and experience this gives communities, how diversity leads to better decisions and what the presence of these communities has said about Britain's openness and attractiveness in past decades. Here, a brighter version of nationalism might be able to breathe, a version we desperately need. It is not just political parties that need to act though: we all do.

You can donate to, or even organise, a local collection for refugees (clothes and food are key, but a lump sum of money is useful if you're unsure what to give)- find out more about this by getting in touch with CalAid, Help Refugees, Refugee Action or a variety of other organisations. You can contact your local MP and demand more action from them in Parliament. You can sign one of the many petitions going around asking for a more substantial response from our government. But if you don't have the time or the money or the energy to do any of these things, we can all do one very simple thing: stand up against the rhetoric that demonises these people, these human beings and instead call for a compassionate, loving response, the response you would hope your mother, your child your loved ones would receive were they in the same situation.

For every single one of us that stands up, another child receives a pair of shoes or a warm meal, another mind is changed and heart softened and, as more of us do so, another politician starts to listen and has a reason to speak about migration in a different way. In a world that screams at us not to care, not to challenge, not to go against the crowd, be brave and take a stand. Human lives are at stake.

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