This column appeared in the Jersey Evening Post on 28/09/2015
How confused some of the responses to this refugee crisis are.
We have heard the apocalyptic warnings about the ‘Islamification’ of Europe. This alien religion or culture won’t assimilate to ours. It will insist on creating its own schools, laws and even Mosques. The people fleeing religious violence have a secret agenda to infiltrate our havens of peace and cause havoc.
These voices are all too common in the continent that once violently invaded and carved up the very countries from which people are now escaping. We were civilizing the savages then, bringing religion to the primitive heathens of Africa or the desert nomads of the Middle-East. Europe’s empires exported violence and coercion for centuries. Are our fears the mirror images of this troubled past?
Further ‘doubts’ are raised about the fact that most refugees are fit young men. Are they? I have visited the camp in Calais numerous times. Hunger and disease are rife. Women and children sleep under rags that can only be called tents with some imagination. They have no shoes on their feet. One is only left to guess the emotional damage some of them are suffering.
The people who have made it all the way to Calais are some of the strongest of the enormous stream of desperate people making their way across the Mediterranean. They have been in refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon, moving on in search of something which transcends mere survival. They have come from unimaginable horrors, dictatorships, wars and religious persecution.
Others are from countries like Eritrea and Sudan. Yes, they are young men, risking their lives so that one day they might be able to support their big extended families back home. Call these people ‘economic migrants’ if you like, but does that really delegitimise their escape from poverty? Living in Eritrea or Sudan means living in destitution, with ethnic or political violence always just a breath away.
We seem to casually accept economic migration when it concerns British nationals. We call them expatriates. Many of them live or work in the Gulf States. Are we suggesting that white British migrants are allowed to live anywhere they please, even when this is in a dictatorship, while coloured refugees need to prove their credentials in our democracies? Are we scrutinizing those rich economic migrants, who come to Jersey so their wealth won’t be touched by other tax systems? Do we accept cash flows from dictatorships in the name of free-market economics?
The late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said called this Western attitude to the Middle-East ‘Orientalism.’ If we enthusiastically welcome some of the benefits of our global economy, we might just have to do some soul searching.