The current media furore around refugees makes my current work seem startlingly prescient.
For all my study into how value was ascribed to the refugee body before and during World War Two addresses an influential but neglected theme in the literature and culture of this period, the same debates are becoming horribly pertinent in the current political climate.
The coverage of the thousands of refugees travelling across Europe now, in 2015, to escape persecution in war-torn countries such as Syria and Iran and African states such as Somalia or Eritrea, carries the hallmarks of many of these earlier debates about what constitutes a refugee and the ethically-abhorrent question of what makes someone ‘worth’ saving and how we ascribe value to human beings.
With the numbers of desperate people moving across the Continent now equalling those of World War Two, it seems implausible that politicians and the media are returning to the same rhetoric of isolationism and self-preservation which necessitated the establishment of legislation to protect refugees.
The main similarity, and most alarming aspect, is the importance of semantics. I’ve frequently found myself troubled by the propensity to term these desperate people as “migrants”, framing their decision to flee persecution and even death as somehow a personal choice, or at worst, a desire to steal something from Europe.
The tone in the right wing media (and even the left wing media, until very recently) has been that Europe, and specifically Britain cannot accept these “migrants”, framed within the smug satisfaction of the privileged few lucky enough to be born here.
What is interesting about this particular sleight of hand is that it allows the media, our politicians and ourselves to feel better about turning away people who desperately need our help. A migrant has a choice.
Refugee however is a loaded term.
Refugee implies war, hardship, famine, starvation, a long flight, a desperate family, women, children. It’s not the plight of a young man hoping to better himself. It has an affective and a legislative pull which has a tremendous power in Europe since World War Two.
In affective terms a refugee is someone always deserving of help. Someone who has conquered great obstacles to save themselves and their family, someone whose situation is desperately compelling on a human level.
‘The refugee problem has nothing to do with charity. It is not the problem of people to be pitied but far more the problem of people to be admired’ – Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart
For newspapers and politicans, staying away from this word was crucial to ensuring that the public continued to hate and fear those trying to get to Britain.
After the establishment of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1950, and the subsequent creation of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, the term ‘refugee’ was enshrined in international law.
At the time a refugee was defined as ‘someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’.
Following the Convention and the 1967 Protocol, which expanded it to include protection for refugees beyond Europe and beyond those displaced by World War Two, nation-states had an obligation to accommodate those deemed ‘refugees’.
Most crucially, the Convention dictates that refugees cannot be punished or imprisoned for seeking asylum, that they cannot be refouled, that is, returned to their country of origin, where they may face imprisonment or even death and extended this to allow for discrimination on the basis of sex, age, disability or sexuality.
Many of those at Calais, those fleeing Syria, Iran, Jordan and other African countries are not seeking material wealth or personal gain, what they are seeking is a basic human right, one enshrined in the Human Rights Act our politicians also seem to set on scrapping – freedom from persecution.
Now that we are calling them refugees, now that even the most hard-nosed sections of the media have let that term slip into their coverage, Europe is not only morally but legally obligated to offer aid.
What would those who campaigned for these organisations in the first place, from British writers to international politicians to the first holder of the Office of the UNHCR Gerrit Jan Van Hoeven Goedhart, think of Europe sixty years on, stuck in a cycle of perpetual buck-passing and responsibility-shirking?
It seems that memories are short and that the events that led to the establishment of these safeguards are being forgotten or subverted in favour of personal gain and self-preservation.
This all brought to mind a quotation from Goedhart himself:
‘The refugee problem has nothing to do with charity. It is not the problem of people to be pitied but far more the problem of people to be admired.
It is the problem of people who somewhere, somehow, sometime had the courage to give up the feeling of belonging, which they possessed, rather than abandon the human freedom which they valued more highly.’
(Goedhart, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at Oslo on 12 December 1955)
You can read the whole speech here.