People Move

Published 9 September 2015 / By Ben Doherty

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The history of humanity is a history of migration.

Since the earliest movement of Homo erectus out of Africa across Eurasia, humankind has had reason and way to move from one place to another. Sometimes that movement is orderly, planned, and peaceful, but, as often, it is harried and desperate, a violent expulsion of large numbers of people fleeing persecution, war, famine or other natural disaster. Throughout history, communities, polities, and civilisations have been destroyed, supplanted, or enriched by inflows of people from foreign cultures and alien ethnic groups.

People have always moved, but now – today - more people are unwillingly displaced from their homes than at any time since the end of World War II. That displacement is sustained: more than three million Syrians remain forced from their homeland by four years of conflict in that country; 130,000 Burmese ethnic minorities perennially huddled in camps on the Thai border, and; more than a million Afghans living, with varying levels of official sanction, in Pakistan, some for more than 30 years.

But two near-concurrent crises in the Mediterranean and the Andaman seas in April and May, followed by the mass migration of tens of thousands across Europe in the past weeks, have brought the issue of asylum seekers from the abstract – a discussion of numbers, of people-smuggling ‘rackets’, and of push-and-pull factors – into the personal.

The sight of stricken boats jammed with desperate Rohingyan asylum seekers pleading to be allowed to land anywhere, vision of a Greek army sergeant rescuing an Eritrean woman from the waves on the rocks off Rhodes, or the plaintive image of the tiny body of Aylan Kurdi washed upon the Turkish shore, has transformed refugees from an anonymous – dismissible - undifferentiated mass, into people.

And these crises’ near-concurrence has emphasised the fact that the issue of irregular migration is not a European problem, nor a Middle Eastern, nor African, nor southeast Asian one. It doesn’t belong to poor countries, or to rich. It is a global issue.

For the ‘media’ – as much as that body can ever be considered a single, monolithic institution  –  the issue of irregular migration is an inherently difficult one on which to report.

The people making these journeys are often coming from warzones, or situations of persecution. Some might be seeking to hide their true motives for moving, for good reason or other. Other times, people are stranded on boats in the ocean, almost inaccessible, or they are incarcerated, or living clandestine existences in the places they have arrived. As a result, often those least heard in the debate around irregular migration are the migrants themselves.

In a global order predicated upon nationality and bounded territoriality, people forcibly displaced from their home are too-regularly disenfranchised in public discourse. Their voices aren’t heard. They are defined, instead, by the language used by others to describe them, and their image – the broader understanding of who they are  – is created not by themselves, but by others. Language is important. Words make worlds, and the language used to describe asylum seekers and refugees has, too often, been characterised by hostility and rejection.

The ‘media’ has a responsibility in how it reports on some of the most vulnerable people in the world, a responsibility not always upheld. There are outliers in the discourse, asylum seekers are baldly condemned by some as “vermin” and “like cockroaches”, sneered at by others as “filthy”, “grubby” or “penniless”. But the rhetorical manipulation exists more subtly too. Over the debate around asylum seekers, governments hold disproportionate influence because often, they hold all the information – how many people have arrived and how, what action has been taken on the high seas. But politicians globally use this control of information to build broader narratives around “illegals”, “queue jumpers”, or “suspected terrorists”, constructions that are often uncritically accepted, reproduced, and disseminated by reporters.

The false dichotomy of the ‘good’ refugee who waits patiently in a camp for the resettlement that might never come, and the ‘bad’ who takes his chances on a boat, amplifies fear of the unknowable interloper. But we have seen, in Europe especially this last week, a popular reaction against the pejorative language used to diminish and dehumanise those seeking protection. How different the sight of thousands of Europeans waiting at train stations singing “refugees are welcome here” to the rhetoric of their governments in the months previous dismissing those same people as “economic migrants who’ve paid criminal gangs”, of leaked EU documents proposing “military operations” to “seek and destroy” refugee boats and “disrupt the migrants smuggling business model”.

At its heart, the inherent tension in the asylum seeker debate is a conflict of competing rights, and of concern over control. Nations have a sovereign right, and governments a responsibility to their citizens, to control their borders. But people facing persecution have a legal right to seek asylum, and the nature of their arrival is mandated in law not to be prejudicial to their claim or treatment. Migration when it is controlled and orderly is far less challenging to politicians and their publics. When it is disordered and chaotic - when it is perceived to be ‘out of control’ – it carries with it the fear of the unknown.

It should not take a tragedy like the deaths of hundreds drowned in the Mediterranean, or a standoff involving boatloads of starving asylum seekers looking for any port that will let them land, to inspire the world to find a long-term solution that might reduce the chances of these things happening again. It should not need tens of thousands literally walking across a continent, or another child’s body found washed up on a beach, to find safer, more ordered ways of enabling people to move.

But if nothing changes, nothing will change, and these calamities will be upon us once more.

Author: Ben Doherty is a Thomson Reuters Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and a reporter for Guardian Australia / @BenDohertyCorro