Compassion for refugees: Is it more about us than them?
Gemma Sou, @gemmasou
Are we more empathetic towards vulnerable and distressed people who we perceive as like us? I have been following the media reports on the refugee crisis and was equally distressed and moved by the images of Aylan Kurdi who washed ashore on a Turkish beach on September 3rd. The following day, Ian Jack wrote a piece in the Guardian , which asked whether images can change history and why particular images can have such an effect on the Western conscience.
Examples he used include the little girl who was pictured in her grave after the 1984 Bhopal disaster, an albino boy starving in an orphanage in Biafra, and Kim Phuc running away from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Recent, though admittedly less shocking examples include the image of a woman being pulled from rubble in the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal, and the young boy who became the poster child for charity campaigns and newspapers following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (see below).
All of these images catalyse shock and compassion. However, I have noticed something fundamentally different with the images in the media on the day that Aylan washed ashore. Not only in contrast to the images described above, but also with the images of refugees that the media previously used when reporting in camps in Calais. The New Statesman also observed a U-turn in the UK press coverage with the overdue change of terminology from migrant to refugee and the discarding of vile terms such as swarm, cockroaches which only serve to dehumanise people. The media is now showing images that is making the UK public think of refugees as like ourselves. And I am not only referring to newspapers such as the Daily Mail, but more left wing papers such as the Guardian have also made a striking shift in the images they are now opting to use.
We are seeing less images of old and disabled people, which is often the focus of reports on refugees as the image of the desperate and vulnerable person is a common trope. Also, we are not seeing images of people in far off and unfamiliar places. News pieces now show people in European train stations, and where we can sometimes hear train announcements being made in English. There are also images of familiar looking beach resorts and sometimes we catch a glimpse of sun loungers and umbrellas that are staples of our summer holidays.
Last night I spoke with my Syrian friend and he commented that many Syrians who are now being interviewed could be mistaken as European, and that they do not fit the look that many Brits consider Syrians to have. The reporters are no longer observing refugees from a distance, and discussing the crisis from afar, but are instead choosing to move closer and speak with many refugees who are eloquently telling their stories. I have noticed that it is often handsome young men who are interviewed and that they speak to the camera in English. The Guardian also posted a video on September 3rd which shows many refugees holding signs that are written in English. Examples include â€œTo be refugee is not a crime, Here is Guantanamo for children and My family is waiting for me. The same video shows children speaking confidently and playfully to the camera. There is also a shot of children sat watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon on a projector.
This shift in media representation makes it harder to other the refugees we see. Othering is fundamentally a process where we identify people as different from ourselves and is often based on the essentialism of whole groups. The dehumanising way that the media has represented refugees is a prime example of this process.
The shift in media imagery we are forced to notice that these same people who are feeling war torn regions are very similar to us. Many of the refugees can speak the same language, their children like the same cartoons that our children like, many of the refugees are educated and look like us. Perhaps you recognise a train station, plaza or beach because you holiday-ed in Hungary, Turkey or Austria and can imagine more vividly what it would be like to be there now.
This pattern makes me think of how the press can sometimes focus on British victims when disasters happen abroad. The Asian Tsunami is a perfect example. I remember reading the many personal stories of British holiday-makers who found themselves on the beach in Phuket on that infamous day. The recent reporting of the bombing in Bangkok is another example as reports tend to gather the stories of British people who were there. Are their stories more compelling because they are like us?
This tactic of making people who want to come to Europe seem just like us is not unique to the reporting of humanitarian crises. The last few times I have visited London and taken the tube I was taken aback by the I am an immigrant poster campaign. This campaign argues Migrants make a substantial contribution to the economy, enrich Britain’s culture and improve the standard of its public services.
The intention to stop xenophobia is of course admirable. However, there is also an underlying (and not so subtle) message that the Migrant Heroes will also bring economic productivity to the UK. In addition and in keeping with the argument of this blog, quotes from people on the posters leave me thinking that the underlying objective is to make Londoners stop and think oh, it’s OK for them to come here, they are just like me Examples include Valeria Guarneros-meza, a lecturer from Mexico who says I inspire students and the local government community with teaching, ideas and advice. Many of the Migrant Heroes (as they are called) seem to have typical middle class occupations and interests. For all its merits, this campaign makes me imagine a dystopian world where everybody looks, thinks and talks middle class. Perhaps the sales of artisanal bread will not fare too badly in this world.
The images we have been seeing of the refugee crisis (and will continue to see) are shifting the thinking on the refugee crisis. They are certainly galvanising human solidarity across borders and will continue to shock and encourage charity. However, and I hate to be so cynical of the UK press and public, but when we stop and reflect on why all of these images (not only the image of Aylan Kurdi) are having such a profound impact on us, it seems that it is as much about us as it is about them.