By Sarah Soyei
-Sun Executive commenting on a refugee from Calais
Human beings have a natural fear of change and of the ‘other’ or unknown. Alongside this, there is a pervading belief that until recently Britishness has remained a constant; that other cultures may have changed throughout history, but British culture has somehow stayed the same. However, immigration is by no means a new phenomenon for our island nation, which has experienced wave after wave of immigration and emigration over the past 10,000 years. One hundred years ago, Ford Madox Ford wrote that the British were “…a people descended from Romans, from Britons, from Danes, from Normans, from Poitevins, from Scotch, from Huguenots, from Irish, from Gaels, from modern Germans and from Jews.” The advent of genetics has allowed us to look back in time and see that all of us have immigrant ancestry.
Things that are seen to be quintessentially British have been imported from overseas. Way beyond the more recent celebrations of chicken tikka masala… shampoo was introduced to Britain by a Muslim, Sake Dean Mahomed, who opened Mahomed’s Indian Vapour Baths on Brighton seafront in 1759. Fish and Chips were brought to the UK by Portuguese refugees. Marks & Spencer’s co-founder, Michael Marks, was a Jewish refugee from Poland…
In the same way that immigration has been a constant throughout British history, so has resentment and fear of immigration. In 1573, an Elizabethan official, surveying the French who crossed the Channel, made a firm distinction between those come ‘for conscience’s sake’ and those ‘come onlie to seeke worke’, most of whom were sent firmly packing. In the 1850s the sudden arrival of Italians with street accordions in London caused an uproar, with local people calling them an ‘instrument of torture’. In 1936 The Daily Mail printed the following about Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany:
“Many refugees are arriving in this country, and in the majority of cases are being turned back…once it was known that Britain offered sanctuary to all who cared to come, the floodgates would be opened and we should be inundated by thousands seeking a home…our own professions are already overcrowded and have been further strained by arrivals in the last few years from Central Europe.”
A paragraph which could easily have been written in one of our newspapers in the last week. At EqualiTeach, we deliver workshops on issues of equality with thousands of young people every year. Workshops are not designed to lecture pupils, but to create safe spaces to allow them to explore complex issues, develop critical thinking skills and come to their own evidence-based conclusions. The media’s persistent use of the words ‘swarm’, ‘flood’ and ‘invasion’ has caused many to believe that the UK is currently experiencing extremely high numbers of refugees entering the country. Young people ask why they are all coming to this country. Why can’t they go to other countries? Even why they can’t be contained away from the native population?
In reality, Britain is home to less than 1% of the world’s refugee population. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, it is estimated that over 5 million Syrians have fled the country in fear of their lives. Just over 2.5 million of these are currently seeking refuge in Turkey; approximately 1 million in neighbouring Lebanon, a country the size of Cornwall, and 635,000 in Jordan. From the column inches devoted to the issue in October, one would be forgiven for thinking that the UK was shouldering the same burden. However, as of the 1st November, Britain has taken a total of 274 young refugees from Calais.
European law says that people need to apply for asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive. However, the Dublin Regulation allows for those who have family in another country to apply to join them and Lord Dubs’ amendment to the Immigration Act 2016, places an additional requirement on the government to relocate vulnerable unaccompanied refugee children from Europe.
The Dubs amendment was passed with large public support, however by September, four months later, not a single child had been brought to England under the amendment. It was only as the camp in Calais was earmarked for closure that the wheels started to turn. In October as the ‘jungle’ began to be dismantled, vulnerable unaccompanied children and those who have families in the UK were finally allowed out of the hell that they have been living in for months and years and offered sanctuary.
However, British hospitality turned out to be short-lived. As the first young people came into Britain, doubts were immediately cast over their age and right to be here. Tabloid newspapers posted pictures of young, male, refugees on their front covers, stating that they were grown men, others used Microsoft’s software, how-old.net, which had only ever been designed to be a fun app, to suggest that refugees were adults. There were calls from David Davies MP for refugees to undergo medical checks to establish their ages:
“People in Britain want to help children but we don’t want to be taken for a free ride either by people who have somehow got to the front of the queue even though in some cases they clearly look a lot older.”
The British Dental Association immediately condemned David Davies suggestion, saying that it was unethical and that dental radiographs cannot accurately predict someone’s age. Many bemused and angry newspaper commenters cited the fact that they had not seen any refugees who looked like children. However, according to IPSO’s code of practice, newspapers shouldn’t print pictures of children under 16 unless adult consent has been given, so when pictures of far younger-looking children were provided, tabloid editors said that press regulation made their use too difficult.
There are also many reasons why young people in Calais may look older than their British counterparts. Most have experienced war and horror, have been travelling for months or years, sleeping rough and surviving the perils of living in an illegal camp without parental support. To make it through the Home Office selection procedure, the young people will have had to have gone through stringent checks, yet people who have seen a picture in the newspaper feel that they are more qualified to comment on a refugee’s age than those who have been working with them for months.
Regardless of the inaccuracies and unfair assumptions about being able to judge someone’s age from a photograph, at what age does someone not become worthy of assistance? When does someone’s life not become worth saving? Are young girls lives more valuable than young boys?
Fifty girls were amongst the first refugees to be brought over under the Dubs amendment. But, the media coverage has largely focussed on the young men and boys, with an underlying premise that men are not vulnerable, are unworthy of help and pose a potential threat to society. Stories portray male refugees as inherently dangerous, potential terrorists, or sexual predators.
The press is happy to feed fears about young refugee men. After reports of sexual assaults in Cologne, attributed to refugees (though only 4 out of the 59 people arrested were actually refugees), The Telegraph wrote:
“The EU referendum is about nothing less than the safety and security of British women – and that means we must get out of Europe.”
This is despite the half a million adults who are sexually assaulted in Britain every year. And that young, unaccompanied refugees are far more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse and trafficking, than the perpetrators.
After the recent uproar over the young people arriving from Calais, The Sun ran a very dubious story saying that a foster mum thought she was taking in a 12 year-old and he turned out to be a 21 year-old jihadi with child abuse images on his phone, which has been thoroughly debunked here.
Over in America, Donald Trump linked young male refugees to ISIS: “You look at the migration, it’s young, strong men. We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated.”
Portraying young refugee men and boys in this way dehumanises them, making it easier for us to turn our backs and allow the suffering on our doorstep to continue. Despite its official closure, at the start of November there were still an estimated 1500 refugee children amongst the debris in Calais, housed in shipping containers with inadequate food and water. The refugee resettlement programme to the UK has halted, despite many who are still there having a right to come. Buses are taking the remaining children to reception centres around France, where, it is said their asylum claims will be processed. However, many of the young people remain confused and scared, with the tenuous support structures they had, now decimated, their faith in authorities low and communication as to what will happen next, patchy. If progress is slow, they risk disappearing again from the system, and falling into the hands of those who wish to cause harm. Of the 72 child refugees who were already taken to centres in other parts of France, 40 have already disappeared.
It is up to all of us to reject the prejudicial messages, which lead people to view some of society’s most vulnerable as a threat and menace, and put pressure on the government to follow through with its promise to protect those most at risk, sooner, rather than later. We need to ensure that the voices of those who wish to spread hate are not the loudest and that the world can hear loud and clear #RefugeesWelcome.