"So, I think it's got a lot to do with racism. I think if these people were white, European… that [they] were coming from some dictatorship in Bosnia or somewhere… I think we would feel quite differently about it.” – Emma Thompson, BBC Newsnight, 02-09-15
Choosing her words rather carefully, the actress Emma Thompson eloquently summarised what is surely a glaring truth regarding the current situation across the Mediterranean - this is as much a crisis of racism as it is a crisis of refugees. Indeed, the shocking images we have seen on the front pages of our newspapers, and on our television screens, in the last few days is a political crisis of failed Governmental responses to human mobility in the face of persecution. Further, this failed response to events in Syria - as well as countries such as Afghanistan and Eritrea - is explicitly built upon the foundations of a sedentary, ‘othering: a peculiarly European typology of racism.
It might be a deeply uncomfortable truth for some, but the history of borders in Europe is a past stained with the blood of people fleeing oppression, famine, tyranny and war. Such barbed-wire border protectionism tells a deliberate story of rejection, prejudice and inhumanity; a rabid fear of ‘dark strangers’ and those ‘foreigners’ who will come today and might stay tomorrow (as the sociologist Georg Simmel might have phrased it). Current economic systems were built on the blood, sweat and tears of such ‘dark strangers’ who were transported from one continent to another as commodities to be bought and sold. It seems such mobility in the name of ‘trade’ is acceptable whilst seeking refuge from civil war and torture is not.
More than this, the reaction to Thompson’s comments has been both predictable and telling. As well as a plethora of personal abuse, focussing on her social class, gender, ‘entitlement’ and ‘celebrity’ status, a glance at the range of comments on newspaper websites, such as The Daily Mirror and The Daily Mail, repeat a mantra of not ‘opening the floodgates’ and of ‘deporting the illegals’, as well as inaccurate and lazy declarations such as ‘Britain is full’ and ‘close the borders’. Would such dogmatic rhetoric be heard if those small children washing up on the beaches of Turkey had white faces? You would suspect not, as Thompson argued, and the responses would likely be very different.
Indeed, not only would we feel very differently about such horrific realities but Governmental responses would be much more immediate and encompassing. Instead of nervous European leaders pointing accusatory fingers at one another, seeking to place blame on everyone else but their own vapid ineptness, there would be a swift and dedicated rush to protect, to care and to offer sanctuary. The begrudging and delayed reaction from the UK Conservative Government, in stark contrast to the German Government’s pivotal response, is a case in point: David Cameron has eventually bowed to international pressure to accept more refugees into Britain, recognising that “Britain has a moral responsibility to help refugees”, whilst UKIP leader Nigel Farage continues to argue that “our compassion could be a very real threat to our security.” Clearly, three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the beach at Bodrum in Turkey, was a future footsolider for ISIS in the warped and twisted minds of some.
Opening doors and welcoming people in times of crisis is, as Thompson also suggested in her interview, a sign of a civilised, skillful and humane society. Decency and common humanity must triumph over a debased and fearful reaction to the ‘other’. It is worth reminding ourselves that the 1951 Refugee Convention, still the founding basis of international refugee protection today, was written at a time of urgent necessity. Grounded in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the 1951 Convention was a humane, legislative response to the racialized horrors witnessed during the Second World War - horrors that gave cause for many people to leave their countries in fear of their lives because of who and what they were. Such urgent grounds for forced departure, as evidenced in Syria and elsewhere in recent history, has not altered in the time that has passed since 1951 and holding onto the original principles and measures of the Convention (as well as the 1967 Protocol offering amendments to the Convention) are more important now than ever.
Amongst the chaos, anger and tears there is room for faint shards of hope and humanity. A UK Parliament petition, urging the Government to “accept more asylum seekers” and “increase support for refugees”, has, at the time of writing, amassed some 420,000 signatures. A counter-petition, of sorts, urging the Government to “stop allowing immigrants into the UK” has a mere 81,000 signatures. Whilst not reading too much into such online, petitioned responses, it is quite telling that public pressure in the UK does seem more aligned with the German response to such atrocities rather than the UK Government. In the face of state inaction, people are rallying to offer support under the common banner of ‘Refugees Welcome’, using a variety of means to assist where possible, including immediate needs of accommodation, food, clothing and donations.
In closing, despite the promises of the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol, racism is endemic and institutionalised within our global systems of mobility and asylum, as evidenced via what occurs in the political tailspin of a refugee crisis. Had these fleeing, desperate people been ‘white’ Swiss or ‘white’ Swedish rather than ‘black’ Syrian then the tragic images that are now ingrained in our heads and hearts would be imaginative rather than reality. After the emotion must come action; there is much to be learned from recent events and radically reforming European border controls and asylum policy is the appropriate, necessary place to start. It is hoped European Governments will listen to their electorates and offer progressive and compassionate leadership. We are one humanity.
(Colin Clark is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of the West of Scotland. He is also a Board Member of CRER. @profcolinclark)