Warning: This article contains the 'I' [immigrant] word.
On Thursday 27 August, whilst a summit focusing on the European migrant crisis took place in Vienna, twenty to fifty corpses were found in an abandoned lorry near the Austrian-Hungarian border. The bodies were apparently already decomposing when discovered, suggesting that the migrants had long given up their struggle for survival.
It goes without saying that these deaths did not occur in a vacuum, but are part of a mounting human toll who pay the ultimate 'cost of living'. It's not that these migrants died silently or invisibly, it's that a choice was made to neither see nor hear their plight. It is simply easier to continue laying barbed wire and fortifying European borders while allowing the Mediterranean Sea to become a graveyard - a literal manifestation of the saying 'out of sight, out of mind'. The same can be said for the UK, the island nation that imagines itself fighting an oncoming armada except the reality is much closer to an ark seeking refuge. The fear of 'the other' then allows the immigrant story to be re-written and re-presented as a nightmare; the immigrant seeking safety becomes the belligerent of a society under siege.
From the safety of suburban England, one can easily make a choice to avoid imagining what an immigrant story really is. Instead, the 'I' word becomes one that is feared, the 'I' word steals jobs and welfare benefits that are destined for British citizens, and the 'I' word can categorically never be one of 'us'. Despite the UK lagging far behind Germany, France and even Sweden in terms of asylum applications, the 'other-ing' narrative remains the leading cause of fear-mongering and witch-hunting in the media.
The representations of immigrants being 'the "swarm" on our streets' (the Daily Mail, of course) is not only cold and grotesque, but it's all too reminiscent of the explicit anti-Semitic hostility shown towards Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution as recently as the 1930s. These European Jews were demonised for attempting to escape rampant persecution, just as today's Syrian refugees are tried for fleeing brutal regimes. Here I offer a brief example of a 'typical' immigrant story, and how the experience of persecution and suffering inspired a steadfast struggle for success fulfilled either by the immigrant herself or by her descendants.
Dora Kasstan was a Russian refugee entangled in the Nazi occupation of France and the French complicity in the Shoah. Like thousands of other 'foreign Jews' in Paris, she was rounded up in the dawn raids exercised by the French police in the summer of 1942. She was confined en masse in the Vel d'Hiv where she faced unimaginable sanitation facilities and was allowed meagre crusts of food, and drops of water. From there she was 'deported' to Auschwitz-Birkenau where her life was reduced to dust - for no other reason than being a 'refugee,' an 'immigrant,' a 'foreign Jew'. But her story did not end there. It continues with this article: as her great-grandson, a British citizen, a PhD candidate at Durham University and a writer, my 'success' is part of the struggle that defines an immigrant story. And there are an infinite number of narratives like it, if one chooses to listen.
It seems that the boundaries between oneself and 'the other' are not merely constructed between nations, but rather the frontier lines can be drawn within the social body. As I walked home from my office this evening, I passed two neighbours; one was washing his car and the other was pruning her front garden, but neither stopped to raise their heads and greet me or even look at me. I was neither moving silently nor was I invisible; rather they made a choice to turn their heads away and avoid acknowledging my existence. For me, the moment epitomised how 'an Englishman's castle is his home' - and, just as is happening in Europe, the implication that 'home' ought to be defended at all costs - even if it means stripping away an individual's humanity.
The fear-mongering surrounding the 'immigration' issue or 'refugee crisis' does just that - it strips people of their humanity. But it is important to remember that immigration is not only an investment for the future of the UK, it is also an integral part of its history. What we fear in an immigrant story is therefore what we fear within ourselves. Or perhaps it is not so much that we fear 'the other', but that we are afraid of seeing our own histories of persecution reflected in our actions. With this in mind, let us move away from our defensive attitudes and consider lowering the drawbridges and stepping out of the castle. We might be surprised that there is less to fear than we are led to believe.