The ‘Migrant Crisis’ and Losing My Faith In Humanity

“It is not possible to stop human mobility, if you try to stop it with violence, we are responsible for genocide

Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo

As a student of global politics, I learned huge amounts about colonialism, imperialism, trade, aid, debt and all the other issues that tend to cause the world’s problems. Above all though, I learned how complicit I was; how complicit we all are in perpetuating the political and economic conditions that allow such huge inequalities to persist, from the way we shop, to the way we eat and the way we travel.

Back then I believed that if we all knew; if we all really understood the damage that the way we lived had on those we couldn’t see, we would immediately radically readjust our way of life in the name of humanity. The Calais ‘migrant crisis’, however, proved me wrong.

Trying, as I do, to understand this world and the people in it, I pictured a scene where a family of desperate people seeking refuge arrive in a village. Do the people of this village a) think for a minute about where’s best for them to stay as there must be somewhere in the entire village that this one family can camp out in, explain the story to the local supermarket and maybe get them sorted out with some food until tomorrow when a longer term plan can be considered. Or b) um and ah about how terrible their plight is but also kind of shrug because you and your neighbours need your spare rooms for storage and their situation is sad but also you don’t really know these people. You might give them some food though, and if you come up with any ideas on how to help them, you will let them know. Or c) do you meet their arrival with rage and indignation, disgusted that they thought it was appropriate to turn up to your village in their hour of need (perhaps because it’s the most affluent village they knew of) and commit to showing as much hostility as possible so ‘their kind’ won’t get the impression they can survive here.

Knowing Britain, I thought option b) was the obvious choice. But no, no this time we’ve decided to do nothing in halves, and I’d say that c) best fits the recent reaction to the migrant crisis we now claim to be facing. Some may say that the difference between my analogy and the current situation is the scale of the arrival of the migrants to temporary camps in Calais. Really? 2000-5000 people between two countries of a combined population 130 million? Yawn, for want of a better word. Around 2000 babies are born every day in England and Wales alone, yet on February 29th headlines do not read “PANIC! POPULATION CRISIS RIFE AS UK TRIES TO COPE WITH 2000 EXTRA HUMANS”.

When my naïve, student self wanted nothing more than for the average citizen to see and understand the connections between our choices and the living conditions of the Chinese labourer or Palestinian child of war, it never occurred to me, not once, the fear that a threat to one’s ‘way of life’ could drum up. Neither did I consider that this fear could grow to such a magnitude and become so palpable that it would override the most basic human emotion of empathy.

Empathy, is all it would take to restore my faith in humanity. A sense of responsibility would simultaneously blow my mind and restore my faith in the education system (almost). When people migrate, they don’t simply pick a spot on a spinning globe (unless they are rich, white and adventurous). The movement of people follows the movement of capital. If we don’t want the migrants, we’ll have to give up the cash too. And if you think all this cash is ours because we earned it fair and square, think again.

migrant threat to wway of life

Regarding this language of a looming threat that these swarms of migrants are supposedly posing, the politics of fear need toning down. As this title suggests, I’m as big a fan of hyperbole as anyone, but when I use such disproportionately dramatic language, I’m usually ridiculed and laughed at. The only fear these speeches incur for me, is the fear that these politicians are actually being taken seriously. Otherwise, I genuinely struggle to understand what it is I am supposed to be terrified of, what daily delights will be torn from me should more people come through the tunnel?

This government’s welfare cuts have made it crystal clear that they are not interested in the well-being of poor, brown people and seem committed to the idea that poor, brown people should have as few links to the state as possible. So if you are already more or less committed to the idea of ignoring the existence of poor, brown people, what difference does it make to you if there are a few more thousands of them? Besides, my recently gentrified area could frankly do with a few more poor, brown people to curb the enthusiasm of culture vultures and property developers who I consider far more of a looming threat to my way of life.

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Trevor Phillips: A Sacrificial Lamb

As reactions to Trevor Phillips “Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True” flooded onto the internet, the message seemed clear, he’d missed the mark by miles and played into the hands of the bigots saying exactly what the far right wants to hear and giving them permission to say it. Starting with a brief glance at the Rothschilds and Jewish wealth accumulation Trevor Phillips takes a stroll through our most common stereotypes explaining to us the data that created them before inviting us not to run from them but to embrace our inner racial profiler and quit being afraid of being called racist.

Phillips has been accused of creating a “logically and morally flawed” film reflecting his own “coonery”, only telling half of a more complex story and has generally had his name dragged (further) through the mud by black commentators. Yet, watching it myself, I wasn’t filled with that same sense of anger and disgust. As disappointing as it is to see anyone on television who has an hour to talk about race relations in the UK on prime time television spend a huge chunk churning out old stereotypes without discussing any of the context behind them nor exploring how dangerous they can be and why progressive medias avoid talking about them, there was something incredibly satisfying about watching him do it.

Chimanda Adichie is always the best person to call upon whenever discussing the danger of a single story and her explanation of why stereotypes should always be considered damaging and not helpful, is flawless. Joseph Harker’s article and others that highlighted the press’ basic inability to “report nuance” did well to illustrate that Phillips’ facts may be true but so are a thousand others that he failed to mention which provide a fairer picture.

Nonetheless, I thank Trevor Phillips. This man has made spot the racist a much easier game to play, and that’s exactly what he intended to do. As the ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’ brigade continue to march up and down the country with their chests puffed proud and Nigel Farage soars in popularity under the banner of the voice of the voiceless, we would we be foolish to dismiss or neglect the issue that people do not feel comfortable in expressing their opinions on race in a public space.

I’m sure I was not the only black person to roll their eyes so hard as to induce a headache at the suggestion that the victims in the fight against racism are the gagged borderline racists who have been robbed of their basic freedoms while blacks and Asians can do what they want from beating their children to death to grooming teenage girls. But the fact remains if we silence those borderline racists and refuse to talk about race and racism, we cannot know what we are fighting, and so this silence becomes dangerous as unexpressed racist thoughts fester and those harbouring them become more desperate for a platform where they will be accepted in saying them. Enter Farage and co.

Jesus himself told us we must “know thine enemy”, so as anti-racists we must be committed to knowing and understanding the racist in order to contradict the logic of his or her values. In the UK people are so reluctant to talk about race, that trying to disprove the theories you feel they may be thinking but would never say is a tricky task for anyone pushing for racial equality.

In historian David Starkey’s Newsnight interview of August 2011, he revered one of the most famously racist political speeches in history (Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood) and blamed the riots on black culture and those who have adopted the Jamaican patois that intruded the English language. He was shot down by everyone in the room for interchanging black and white with good and bad and reinforcing a divisive us and them framework while dismissing the possibility of real social economic problems being at the heart of the riot. Yet he was never called out for being a racist. His views were labelled offensive and many articles spoke of him being accused of having racist views, but there was no inquiry, no further analysis and no official action taken. David Starkey is racist. He’s so blatantly racist it floors me how this isn’t a bigger deal. This bizarre hesitation to outright refer to him as such is part of the culture Phillips is talking about in which we are so afraid to talk about race and racism, including calling people racists, that David Starkey has somehow become accepted as the BBC’s rent-a-racist.

Outside of the pockets of diversity in the UK, and even within them at times, it seems there is a definite lack of understanding of what it means to be racist and a failure to have a real and useful conversation about race (see IamOther’s Ryan Hall attempt to do so below). It’s difficult to know for sure because it’s not very well documented as non-ethnic minorities with no experience of diversity are less inclined to write or talk about race. But when I ask you “what did s/he look like” and you feel the need to precede “s/he’s black” with “I’m not being racist but…” we have a problem.

Trevor Phillips’ documentary invites the viewer to a conversation. He invites the viewer to condemn the police for not prioritising stopping crime over appearing racist as well as to shed their guilt over thinking Jews are rich. He also invites us to wonder why a British Guyanese man from London was appointed to decipher the cultural significance of sexual grooming being perpetrated predominantly British Pakistani men from Yorkshire to Derby, and to see the error of our ways for assuming drug crime in Lambeth was a black thing when actually it was the Colombians that were running it. But no one did. The Daily Mail praised his bravery, The Telegraph embraced his inconvenient truths and the Guardian appreciated his mature approach to things. Racists and racist ideas need to be lulled out into the light for us all to see, to identify and to analyse, and fear of being called racist prevents that. If a black man said it first, you’re free to follow.

Perhaps I’m giving him too much credit here but to me it seemed to me that guilt for somehow creating UKIP in his efforts to stifle racist conversation (his interpretation not mine) had led him to a new approach: say all the most inflammatory things and see who fires back with the best questions and responses. Phillips welcomes us to talk about race in Britain. Tick. He paints a two-dimensional picture. Cross. He leaves the third dimension for us fill in. Another tick. It almost seemed like the whole documentary is a test and unfortunately, those that blindly supported him failed miserably, but the point is, at least we know what we’re dealing with now.

On Gentrification

I won’t lie. The first time I had to queue to get into a bar in Peckham, I was outraged. Despite being from Lewisham and having only discovered the wonders of Peckham in my late teens, as a South London native I felt I deserved an automatic queue jump. When it became evident that I was fuming in vain, I jumped on my high horse (the 436) and rode off to a pub somewhere in Camberwell.

Peckham used to be a typical South London area with a high street that consisted of a Macdonalds, a Primark, a handful of black hair shops and a budget cinema. Over the past five or ten years that very high street has seen huge changes with many locals complaining of influxes of Shoreditch rejects congregating to sample the latest vegan* brunches and vintage fashion. As more and more shops catering to the hipsters and hipsters-in-denial have popped up and rents then have continued to increase Peckham has become the poster child for the gentrification of South London.

While I appreciate the availability of prosecco and proscuitto at a 15 minute walk from my house  my issues with the gentrification of South London run far deeper than frustration at excessive waiting time at a local bar. Growing up in a ‘deprived’ area of the UK, proprietor of the formidable Great British Pound, has always made me hugely sceptical of trickle-down economics. The idea that money that flows into the top will eventually find its way down to those who need it at the bottom is difficult to swallow when your borough has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the capital. Inequality in London is nothing new. Every year millions of tourists descend on the city to wonder at historic architecture, royal palaces and stolen artefacts pouring incomputable amounts into this wonderful city’s economy. Meanwhile, not too far South, overworked GPs and locals must campaign relentlessly to keep our hospitals open, because if not where else will the local stab victims, substance abusers and the mentally unwell be treated?

The deep set resentment that many feel towards the proprietors and customers of these new businesses and inevitably their new neighbours may seem difficult to grasp at first. Some newer residents may feel that if anything they are contributing by paying substantial prices for rent, food and nights out in the area, some who are more in tune may simply feel that they too are humans who need a place to live and have an appreciation of the neighbourhood. Fair enough. But it is worth acknowledging that the failure of trickle-down economics is more difficult to swallow when all you’re asking for is the money to trickle not from the top, but  across from those living on your doorstep. So as money flows into the hands of big landlords and savvy businesspeople who swooped in at just the right time, those outside of this network remain ignored.

Neglected areas are exactly that, they are areas where poorly paid social workers play mother and father to every abandoned or mistreated child (of whom there are plenty) and those with a community spirit spend their lives fighting tooth and nail to keep the community afloat, together. Their lives are made only harder as more money gets thrown forcing them to pay more for everything from rent to coffee.

Of course not every South Londoner is a hero, there are many happy-go-lucky “it’s shit but we love it” types and just as many “we might not have much but we’re a family” locals or even some “it’s not great but it’s all I know” ones. But there’s also an angrier, more bitter kind whose hardships were perhaps not so easy to overcome. Let’s call them the “I hate this place and everything it represents” South Londoner.

Growing up in an area like mine there are a million experiences available to the average teenager that shouldn’t be, from drugs and sex (and hence teen pregnancy) to the emasculating routine of stop and search and equally shameful procedure of getting mugged every other week. Many of those hit the hardest by the real issues of the borough, do not want to be there. Success would be to escape but they are trapped in a cycle of poverty that limits their options and confines them to that oh-so-trendy place. As superficial change  grows exponentially accompanied by that fearless freedom that comes with middle-class options, free to saunter down the street you scurried through as a scared teenager, reminding you once again of everything you never had, so then grows your resentment at still being stuck there.

This is no one’s fault and we are none of us perfect. I myself write this article from a fabulous three bedroom flat in Barcelona were vegan* brunches are advertised in the window of the café a few doors down from me, in an area, I am told, taxi drivers refused to go through prior to the 1992 Olympics, when it was populated predominantly by working class Catalans and immigrants from Pakistan, North Africa and the Middle East. It’s not obvious at first, the art galleries and bike shops that look like art galleries may distract you, but the ghosts of ghettos past are certainly there. Nonetheless, I take comfort in the fact that my awareness of this familiar situation encourages me to engage with the situation by educating myself in order to understand the local socioeconomic situation and contribute to long-standing local businesses that need the support, rather than just creaming off the cool of the area whilst showing no respect to those who must tolerate the high turnover of international hipsters with no interest in learning their language nor exploring their culture.

Gentrification is a reflection of the inequality and injustice that continually festers in our society. In the UK as inequality increases and the homeless are no longer ignored, but instead greeted by spikes at night as a reminder of their problematic existence, hikes in South London rents mean that those who have spent a lifetime in these previously neglected areas are simply being out-priced out of the area and the city alike.

The current issue is not that Peckham has changed. The issue is that Peckham hasn’t changed at all. A boy growing up in Peckham suffers the same hiked probability that he will become somehow become embroiled in violent crime as his counterpart did ten years ago. Despite huge efforts from local councils which have seen tremendous slashes in teen pregnancy statistics, a girl growing up in Peckham is still more likely to fall pregnant before her 20th birthday than a girl based in any other London borough, except neighbouring Lambeth.

I’m sure I was not the only child growing up in a neglected area who at some point experienced a profound epiphany which led to the understanding that actually I was not part of a national community in the way others were. The institutions and structures that govern us do not expect a 100% success rate which for me meant that many of my friends and neighbours would be unfortunately and inevitably among those who fell outside of those structures and would simply be forgotten, whether dead or in jail or just piss poor and angry their whole lives. It’s the realisation that actually not all that many people care about you and you can watch the children of Sweets Way N20 experience it here.

Pushing poverty from post code to post code seems to be a process that continually reproduces itself in society but the ignorance that often accompanies it is an individual choice. Today you can take a pleasant stroll through SE-anywhere, stop for a lovely coffee or maybe some delicious Jamaican food on the way and remain blissfully unaware of the ongoing local issues, from parents battling addiction and their children turning to crime to failing schools and crumbling hospitals.

Although no amount of cocktails and coffee can save our schools or hospitals, nor make the area any safer to grow up in, we can make the most of this transitional phase to learn about the issues faced by our neighbours that the media has consistently failed to communicate. It is easy to bury your head in your smartphone or cross the road at any sign of perceived danger but there is much to be gained by simply doing some research and befriending your neighbour. An area with such different worlds colliding is the perfect opportunity for us to discover the experiences of others and truly understand the fabric of our society, and perhaps then more young people growing up in the area might have the sentiment that someone somewhere noticed their existence.

*It’s actually a real shame that veganism is even associated with irritating hipsters, it’s supposed to be excellent for the environment.