Over the past few weeks there appears, to me anyway, to have been a change of feeling towards the plight of those fleeing from Syria and the nearby areas.
For a while we have heard reports of migrants attempting to enter our country, we knew of the ‘jungle’ at Calais and occasionally it was mentioned in a passing news article. As things progressed we heard of people hi-jacking lorries or attempting to walk through the tunnel to try and get across the channel and, as a rule, it was reported as a negative thing and as something we should try and stop at all costs. ‘We don’t have room; we don’t have the jobs; we’re full; we don’t have the resources; the economy can’t cope with it’ was the general prevailing opinion. Within all that, if you listened carefully, there were small voices shouting ‘They’re refugees NOT migrants!’ You may have missed them but they were definitely there. If you clicked on the comment section of news reports you could see them, if you listened to ‘Thought for the Day’ type things you could hear them and there were many blogs posted and reposted on Facebook highlighting their offence at this use of terminology. ‘Refugees NOT migrants.’
And then came the picture of little Aylan, the Syrian child found drowned on a beach in Turkey. There’s nothing quite like a picture of a dead child to shock our nation into submission. As we stopped in our tracks to look and ponder for a moment the small voices shouted louder and louder, ‘Look they are refugees! They need our HELP!’ And suddenly… they were heard, perspective altered, public opinion began to change, help began to to be offered.
You see, the people behind these voices knew something. They knew, as a nation, we like to compartmentalise people and this includes people in need. Terminology matters as it changes how we view the need. We relish the power to judge. We love to decide who is deserving of our help and who is not. ‘Migrants’ are people trying to reach our country to better themselves…and we can’t have that can we?! ‘Refugees’ are seen to be people we can pity, they need our help…and who doesn’t like to feel they are being helpful?
There is a certain irony that this is in direct opposition to how we judge the people in need in our own country. We have been fed the ‘Those who work hard to better themselves are more worthy’ line for so long that a majority of our nation believe it. In contrast our TV schedules are full of programmes ridiculing those people that, for whatever reason, are not in employment. We relish the power to judge. We love to decide who we think are unlucky and who we think are unworthy. And as the poor of our country have struggled more and more over the past few years, the rest of the country have sat back and told themselves that they ‘don’t deserve help, they’re not worthy’ or ‘we’re struggling too – we can’t afford to help’.
But here’s the thing….we CAN help…we just don’t want to. The response to Aylan’s picture has proven this. There have been donations of tents, clothing, food, money, blankets, bedding, offers of spare rooms to house people, people have petitioned for the government to help, vigils have been held, social media has come alive with news and stories to raise awareness of the plight, even the government has (miraculously?) found some money and pledged to take in more migrants over the next 5 years.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m happy people are offering help, that can only be a good thing. I am not, in any way, suggesting that we should not offer help. But I am also sad that we haven’t seen this passion to help the poor before now. I’m sad that, even amidst this surge of goodwill, there are still people in our own nation that we perceive as unworthy of our support. I’m sad that it took the picture of a dead child and a change in terminology for us to decide that these people were deserving of our help.
For this reason, I refuse to change the terminology I use. Accurately, people are only ‘Refugees’ if they claim asylum in the first safe country they come to, therefore the people arriving in Britain are ‘Migrants’. That’s fine by me, at the end of the day people are people and if they need help then they need help. I, like a great majority (but by no means all) in this country, are in a position to do so. I WANT to do so. And I feel no need to change what I collectively call these people so as to justify this.