I am, for the most part, a fairly careful driver. I obey speed limits. I stop when I am told to do so. This sensible approach was crystallised some years ago when one of my closest friends was in a car crash. Her car flipped and she escaped with whiplash. Afterwards, she said to me ‘I never want to get somewhere so much I don’t mind dying’.
I hear you nodding, thinking yes, well, who would? But actually, I can think of someone. Not just someone. Not just tens of people, or hundreds, but the thousands of people fleeing Syria. They want to leave so desperately that they will take the risk of death by drowning, suffocation, the bloody carnage of a failed attempt to board a train. And not just for them. For their husbands and wives. Their brothers and sisters. Their children.
This is not a political blog and my politics are fairly irrelevant to my readers. Many more (and less) qualified to comment have begun to bang the drum about this issue. Policy may change. More help will be forthcoming. Maybe more lives may be saved. I certainly hope and pray that will be the case. But awareness, support, and a desire to make a change are not the only reason I have been moved to join the ranks writing about this.
Yesterday I saw a photograph. I am sure you did too. I did not want to see the photograph. I actively tried not to. But with the desperate inevitability of such things, I saw Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. I will never be able to unsee that photograph. I did not avoid it because I didn’t want to be jolted out of my comfortable life, or because I found it unpleasant. I did not want to see it because I believe it is profoundly wrong and macabre to use the imagery of dead children – dead people of any description – to provoke an emotional response. It borders on pornographic. It also makes me incredibly sad that such a move would be deemed necessary.
There has been much talk about the language used to describe these desperate people fleeing their country. We call them migrants, rather than refugees. When we admit they are refugees, we can afford to offer our sympathy. These are ‘good’ migrants, as opposed to those who come here simply in search of a better life. They are economic migrants, illegal immigrants. They don’t deserve our sympathy. We should turn them away. We don’t want to become a safe haven for such undesirables.
‘I never want to be somewhere so much I don’t mind dying’. Well, these people do. What could they be leaving to make crushing yourself into a lorry the better, safer option? Setting sail in a rusty tin can dangerously overloaded with frightened people clutching their pathetic possessions above water? Crawling under a train and clinging desperately to it for mile after mile?
That awful photograph shows something which has been happening, is happening, all the time. And it angers me, as I sit here, warm, well fed, free from persecution and free to write what the hell I like without fear of reprisals. It angers me that this life was not judged to be equal to that of my daughters’. That this could be allowed to happen to anyone, anywhere, if anything could be done to help.
These people are refugees in the truest sense of the word. But actually, I’m not sure I care. A full 15 years ago I wrote my university dissertation on the representation of immigrants and the language used in the press to describe them. William Hague, then shadow foreign secretary, envisaged a situation where levels of migration became uncontrollable. “Let me take you on a journey to a foreign land”, he said.
When my first baby was born by caesarean section, the doctor who delivered her was an immigrant. The specialist who oversaw my husband’s recovery from a serious mental health problem was not born in this country. Nor was the nurse who took gentle care of my grandmother in her final days and made her smile. Nor my cheery dentist. Nor the cleaner who always says hello to me when I am first in to the office in the morning, nor the cheery porter who happily moves the dozens of boxes we seem to accumulate at work. None of the taxi drivers who take me home after my very occasional nights out were born here, nor the mayor of my city. And on a more personal note, many of the friends who enveloped me with their support when I struggled with the pressures of having a mentally ill husband and a challenging young family were born far from these shores.
I cannot imagine a life without migration. As an island nation, go back far enough and we are all immigrants. Only two generations is necessary in my case. Because my grandmother came here from the Netherlands and married a doctor, does that make her a ‘good’ immigrant? And why is it when we choose to leave this country in search of a better life, or a more exciting one, we are not economic migrants, we are expats?
What is happening now is a genuine crisis. I hope that picture galvanises those who were previously disinterested, felt in some way inconvenienced by the crisis or had no sympathy for those who desperately need help into doing something – and there is much that can be done in terms of donating to the charities working with refugees, collecting much-needed clothes or tents. But this is just one crisis. They happen all the time. They were happening back in 2001 when William Hague echoed Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech. When things stabilise, will we harden our hearts, put our blinkers back on and firmly close the doors again? Welcome only the ‘right’ migrants? Continue to enjoy the countless contributions people born elsewhere make to our way of life without paying heed to those who make it possible? I truly hope not. Call me crazy, but I would like to live somewhere where every life is considered equal. Irrespective of the accident of birth which chooses to place you in a wealthy Western home or a poor Middle Eastern one.
I have faith in people. I hope they don’t disappoint.