Throughout the year people have been drowning in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it gets in the news sometimes it’s ignored. Katie Hopkins was able to get away with saying she “Didn’t care if migrants drowned”, then the photo of three year old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach splashed across every front page and everyone said we must help these people.
Many people seem to have come up with a handy categorisation to match this split opinion. We should help genuine refugees, but not economic migrants. Well that’s pretty straightforward, who could argue with that formulation?
Of course it all depends on your definitions. Most people would say anyone from Syria should be treated as a genuine refugee. There is a terrible civil war raging, a quarter of a million civilians have lost their lives, half the population aren’t living in their home, if it still exists. But I’ve seen comments on social media that single young men don’t count, only families with women and children.
What about if you’ve come from Afghanistan or Pakistan. British troops have left Afghanistan so it must be safe right? Wrong, this week the Taliban captured the city of Kunduz. Pakistan? There are regular bombings and killings of people from religious minorities. There are plenty of other countries that don’t make the news, where your lifestyle or opinions marks you as an enemy of the state and puts your life in danger.
A definition of Economic migrants must be easier, surely? We’re talking about people leaving impoverished countries for a better life in economically advanced Europe. Understandable, but sorry there’s not enough room, especially if we’re taking in ‘genuine’ refugees.
The trouble is that once again the lines are blurred. Many of the Africans leaving Libya had been working there for years with no intention of coming to Europe until they became targeted in the Libyan civil war. They were not just passing through, they were living there and now they are fleeing for their lives.
And then there’s the question of why people don’t feel they have a future in the country they leave. A look at the issue of the Somali pirates might be instructive.
The people who started hijacking ships in the Arabian Sea were fishermen. The usual narrative we get is that Somali is a lawless country, a ‘failed state’. The implication being that when the state breaks down we all become savages, and some of us become pirates.
This leaves out the actions of the European Union trawler fleet in the Arabian Sea. The fishermen used to make a decent living until the trawlers turned up and hoovered up all the fish. The fishermen lost their livelihood and turned their seafaring skills to piracy. I’m not saying they should have started taking over ships by force and holding the crew and cargo to ransom. I am just saying that the EU played a part in the story and therefore hold some share of the responsibility.
You can find similar stories across the third world, from oil companies in the Niger delta to mining companies … well, all over the globe.
So where does that leave us? It seems to me that refugee and economic migrant is a false distinction. The journeys people make are not easy or undertaken lightly. If you talk to people who have made them they all have a story to tell and staying put is not an option.
The truth is that the spread of capitalism has always led to migration of ordinary people as their old way of life is undermined and they have to find a new way to make a living. Are you Leeds born and bred? A pound to a penny you are the descendants of migrants then. In 1750 Leeds was a small market town with some wool trainers, by 1850 it was a city of 100,000.
Impoverished agricultural labourers moved from other parts of England to work in the new factories and live in the slums of Holbeck and Hunslet. Since then the city has grown and prospered on wave after wave of migrants, from Ireland, Jews from Eastern Europe, from the West Indies, from India and Pakistan (sometimes via East Africa) and from Vietnam and Kosovo.
We are all the children the migrants. We should all show compassion to today’s migrants.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.