PLEASE, WE ARE HUMAN TOO
Reducing refugees to metaphors won’t stop the heartbreak, writes Karen Brooks
THE heart-wrenching image of the tiny body of three-yearold Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi washed ashore at Bodrum, Turkey, went viral, appearing to tweak the world’s conscience and cause a shift, even temporarily, in the way refugees and their horrendous plight is both reported and understood.
Juxtaposed against this distressing story were those of the thousands of displaced people, most from Syria, crowded outside Keleti station in Budapest, Hungary, where many had been waiting for days without shelter, ablutions, water or food.
Tensions rose, anger erupted, and footage of anxious crowds yelling and trying to force their way into the station and board trains headed for Western Europe was broadcast.
Without context and even, for many viewers, with, these images are incredibly disturbing.
They feed into perceptions – often media-led – that to admit these refugees, despite what they’re escaping and the hope for a better life they carry, is to the detriment of the country they’re seeking to settle in.
Fear becomes the rationale for inaction and action.
The language deployed is interesting.
Often likened to a “flood”, or “tide”, metaphors evoking unpredictable and uncontrollable Mother Nature abound.
Policies towards refugees are also framed in terms of “doors” or “gates” either shut or opened.
Yet, this is not a natural disaster nor is nature at fault. This is unnatural and caused by human nature – both the evil behind the exodus, and the subsequent responses.
Using the word “door” or “gate” also evokes the notion of a house or building under threat and justifies closing it, keeping the threat “outside”.
It’s this kind of rhetoric, highlighting differences and menace, that dominates.
Reduced to collective nouns, such as “refugees”, “migrants” or “boat people”, we turn them into faceless folk, denied kinship or familial bonds and any commonality. We fail to make connections, recognise them as mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and their children – forced, against their will, or left with no option but to flee their countries.
Under the threat of violence, death, faced with loss of home, culture, friends and the familiar, never mind their livelihoods, they run. They run to keep their children safe, to escape the monsters invading their lands, towns and villages; they run to live.
Xenophobia comes to the fore as we question their motives, their “real” intentions (as if ISIS and Assad are not enough), debate why they don’t have papers (even when their houses are bombed, reduced to rubble) and regard their absence with suspicion, treating it as yet another reason to justify pushing them into so-called “migrant camps” or “offshore processing centres” – gulags by any other name.
It’s become easy to rationalise cold-heartedness as pragmatism, self- or cultural preservation or political commonsense when refugees are described as a “tsunami” instead of desperate individuals and families seeking sanctuary; who more often share our hopes and dreams, our values and ethics.
It took one tired and afraid man outside the station in
AS MOTHER TERESA SAID: IF I LOOK AT THE MASS I WILL NEVER ACT. IF I LOOK AT THE ONE, I WILL
Budapest to shout to cameras and thus remind us: “We are human.”
Somehow, somewhere, amidst all the chaos and terror, this has been forgotten.
Until the shocking photo of little Aylan emerged.
As Mother Teresa said: “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
Icelandic author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir has acted.
In a Facebook campaign to accept more asylum seekers to her country, she refers to them as “human resources”.
Asking her countrymen to welcome them, writing they are “people of whom we’ll never be able to say in the future: ‘Your life is worth less than my life’ ”.
As a consequence of her campaign, the Icelandic government is looking at ways of increasing the country’s refugee quota, of giving opportunity to people displaced by war. While not every country has the capacity or popular support to do that, what’s happening in Turkey and Europe is so awful, so distressing and, like Iceland, it should make us examine our own attitudes and processes – not use the image of Aylan to justify turnback policies such as Australia’s that, as a scathing New York Times editorial last week stated, are as inhumane as they are probably illegal.
There have to be certain measures and limitations – most recognise and accept that. But why can’t these be humane, kind and work within human rights and dignity rather than against them?