Who remembers Aylan Kurdi now?

This post was contributed by Dr Nadine El-Enany lecturer in Birkbeck’s School of Law. This first appeared on Media Diversified on 4 January 2016

Moments of Mourn held in memory of Aylan Kurdi and other refugees

Moments of Mourn held in memory of Aylan Kurdi and other refugees

Who remembers Aylan Kurdi now? The photograph of the Syrian toddler that so galvanised Europe’s public over the question of refugees seems a distant memory now. Is it that a genuine concern for the wellbeing of refugees has merely been displaced by other political priorities in the minds of Europeans? Or is it that the basis for the mass outpouring of grief and the acts of generosity and solidarity that followed the publication of the photo was always fickle, contingent upon white Europeans’ limited capacity to humanise the other?

What was it about the photo of Aylan Kurdi that so stirred Europe’s public over the question of refugees? Aylan Kurdi was by no means the first child to drown en route to Europe and since his death, more than 70 children have lost their lives off the Greek coast. Since 1993, more than 22, 394 people are known to have died attempting to enter Europe. The actual figure is likely to be much higher. The blood on the hands of Europe’s fortress-makers had long dried before Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach in September. How did it come about that white Europeans were able, all of a sudden, to humanise the body of a refugee, least of all, the body of a Muslim?

What did white Europeans see when they looked at the photo of Aylan Kurdi? They saw their own sons and nephews in the photo, aptly illustrated by the #CouldBeMyChild hashtag which was trending on Twitter following the discovery of Kurdi’s body. The image was of course particularly potent in depicting the tragic end of a life so young. But was there something else about this particular child that enabled his humanisation by white people, when so many others had died before?

Perhaps it was the innocence evoked by the body of a light-skinned child that enabled the temporary, fleeting awakening among white Europeans to a refugee movement that long-preceded the media spotlight on that photo. The news has moved on, but the situation persists and grows more desperate daily. According to the International Organisation for Migration, an estimated 700,000 people arrived at Europe’s borders between January and October 2015, compared with 280,000 for the entirety of 2014. Refugees fleeing persecution and war in Syria have been trying to reach Europe since 2012. The majority remain in neighbouring countries in the region, with only 10% of those fleeing Syria seeking protection in Europe. Many have perished along the way together with refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Those white Europeans with a new penchant for carrying #RefugeesWelcome tote bags are unlikely to be amenable to the argument that this is the result of an awakening of their conscience made possible by the coincidentally fair hue of Aylan Kurdi’s skin. Yet, research has shown that the extent to which white people feel empathy and humanise others correlates with implicit racial biases, with negative stereotyping of those with darker skin coresponding to a lower level of empathy shown for them. Feelings of empathy are known to encourage cooperation and assistance between human-beings, while an absence of identification with the suffering of others can lead to violence and abuse, both characteristics of Europe’s militarised border regime.

What of the refugees who do not evoke in the mind of the white European an image of their own offspring? The images of black African bodies washed up on the shores of Europe’s mediterranean beaches last Spring did not prompt an equivalent outpouring of compassion and charitable action. What of the bearded male refugee? What of the woman in the hijab or burka? What of their dark-skinned children? These coded images of Muslims inhibit their humanisation. The Islamophobia that thrives in European societies today means that rather than compassion, they elicit feelings of apprehension and fear.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the British newspaper, the Daily Mail, published a cartoon depicting racialised images of Muslims crossing Europe’s borders along with rats. Poland reneged on its refugee quota agreement following the attacks and more than half of all US state governors have refused to accept Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, Australia declared its policy was to focus its protection efforts on Christian Syrians.Each of these decisions is reproductive of Islamophobia in buying into the idea that Muslims are associated with terror by virtue of being Muslim.

Read the original article on Media Diversified

Read the original article on Media Diversified

Rather than acknowledge the racism endemic in European societies, many white Europeans prefer to see the dehumanisation of refugees as merely an expression of anti-migrant sentiment, or different values, or viewpoints in what is presented as a fair debate on migration. In what amounts to a dangerous apologia for racism, Slavoj Zizek has categorised the claims of anti-immigrant populists as being about the “protection of our way of life” and argued that the claim Europeans lack empathy for the suffering of others is “merely the obverse of…anti-immigrant brutality”. In a move demonstrative of his attachment of negative stereotypes to refugees, Zizek insists that it be “made clear” to them that they are to “respect the laws and social norms of European states” which entails “No tolerance of religious, sexist or ethnic violence”, as though sexist, racist and religious violence were not fundamental aspects of European life.

While Aylan Kurdi’s light skin colour may have allowed white Europeans to humanise him and partake in large-scale charity-giving, petition-signing and demonstrations, their children could not of course have met Aylan Kurdi’s end. It was, after all, the ancestors of the white Europeans tweeting selfies taken with their babies as they headed for their nearest #RefugeesWelcome march who colonised the lands from which these desperate people come. And it is white Europeans occupying positions of power and privilege today who continue to give orders for bombs to be dropped on their homes.

Absent from the #CouldBeMyChild hashtag was an understanding of the specificity of colonial histories and present imperial wars and the way in which these structurally determine positions of power and privilege as between white people and people of colour. Refugees are here, their bodies washing up on European beaches, because white Europeans were, and continue to be, there.

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Refugee Crisis on the Tiny Island of Leros

This post was contributed by Dr Julie Peakman, honorary fellow at Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. Dr Peakman is currently in Leros, Greece, on a research trip for her next book, but is also volunteering at the port police, offering help for refugees.

Leros is currently experiencing a huge influx of refugees – mainly Syrian and Afghan – arriving on its shores. Here, Dr Peakman writes for Birkbeck Blogs about her volunteering activity and the situation on Leros.

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Yesterday morning when we arrived at the port police, there were three-hundred refugees waiting in the hot sun in Lakki police station without food or water.

They had been given no food last night and the only thing they had eaten was the croissants and biscuits volunteers had given them the morning before. It is a tinderbox waiting to be lit.

The police say they have no money to pay the restaurants so the restaurants will no longer supply food as they have not been paid (only five euros per refugee, but it was something). There are only a handful of port police struggling to cope with the situation. The government has no money to send the police.  Even the simple basic of water is not being supplied by the authorities.

The water tank for the refugees has not been filled for days and we wonder why this has not yet happened. The police had to take the water which volunteers had bought down to Lakki port over to more refugees in Xerocampus, at the other side of the island. These poor people are lying in the streets with nowhere to sleep while a building stands empty waiting for plumbing to be connected. This would take a couple of hours.

There is one young woman from the United Nations who says she only gives verbal advice to the refugees to tell them their rights. When I asked her why the United Nations Refugee Council are not doing anything to send food, water, shelter or clothes, she said the United Nations has not declared the situation a humanitarian crisis and she said that is the policy made in Geneva.

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Refugees gather in Leros, Greece (picture courtesy of Anne Tee)

Meanwhile, my wonderful friends, Chris Angiel, Stella H Perlman and Patrick Muldowney made 200 sandwiches to give out to those who had no money and could not leave the station as they had not been ‘processed’.

Donations of juice, milk, nappies, soap, clothes and new flip flops were given out to as many people as we could. A wonderful Dutch couple have collected clothes from all their fellow yachties to give out to refugees. After four hours working with Patrick and a stalwart of the action Anne Tee in cramped and hot conditions, most of the refugees had at least been fed and watered. Anne goes down every morning and evening.

I am afraid I welled up when one of the people who spoke English came over and said on behalf of everyone there they would like to thank me and the other volunteers for our help. I felt very humble. The miracle worker behind all this organisation is Martina Katsiveli who is struggling to get a building opened for the refugees so they can have showers and toilet facilities. At the moment, they have one toilet.

View the Guardian’s report of the migrant crisis in Leros

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Pictures courtesy of Anne Tee

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Language, identity and a political hot potato

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Blogs do not usually start with quotations from the Bible, but this one epitomizes the link between language, identity and danger that I want to discuss:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed on this occasion.

—Judges 12:5–6, NJB

Applied Linguistics, as distinct from more theoretical branches of the discipline, addresses real-life problems in which language plays an important role. As a linguist, I can attest that no day goes by without such an issue coming up in the press. I have several box files full of cuttings of articles which I use in my teaching, on topics ranging from the apparently inoffensive – e.g. the revival of ‘dead’ languages such as Manx or Cornish, to the highly political, such as the relationship between the use of minority languages, such as Catalan, and political separatism.

All of us are identified – and often judged – on the basis of our language, dialect or accent. The gruesome ‘beheading’ videos recently released by members of Isis were doubly chilling for Londoners, because the executioners in black hoods had unmistakable London accents, and sounded like the young people you hear on the bus on the way to work.

I want to talk about another recent example which has been in the news, and which shows how language interacts with some very practical issues with serious human consequences.

No-one in the UK needs to be told that the issue of immigration has been in the news on a daily basis for the last few weeks or months. Oddly, this is not because of any drastic change in the situation, but principally because the issue has become a populist rallying cry for politicians who, though they might not put it that way, wish to convince British people that they are going to ringfence the country’s wealth for those same British people – and prevent undefined side-effects like ‘overcrowding’ in the process. This ‘promise’ has proved so popular that politicians from all the main parties have jumped on the bandwagon. Despite clear evidence that immigrants in fact contribute positively to the economy, nothing wins votes like telling people they will get a bigger slice of the cake.

The detailed arguments, and the distinctions between different categories of immigrants, become obscured in this rhetorical assault. This is not the place to rehearse them, but there is one category of (potential) immigrants who deserve some special attention: asylum seekers, i.e. people who come to this country because they claim to be in direct danger, or subject to persecution, in their country of origin. Basic humanity dictates that such cases are dealt with quickly and fairly, and that such people are distinguished from, say, economic migrants, who come for a better life but who are not actually in fear of their life.

But how do we decide whether the asylum seeker is to be believed or not? An important aspect of the decision involves finding out where they actually come from. Do they come from South Somalia, for example, in which case it is beyond question that they should be granted protection, or North Somalia, in which case protection is not automatic? Since such people rarely have any documentation when they arrive, linguistic agencies  are employed by the Government to judge their region of origin on the basis of an analysis of their speech. So far, you may think, all well and good – this could be an effective method.

Unfortunately it has now emerged that these agencies employ people who are not qualified to take these specialized decisions, and who in some cases are totally bogus. Amongst other problems, they ignore Lesson 1 in Sociolinguistics, which is that national and regional frontiers rarely coincide neatly with languages; Lesson 2, that in circumstances where they are being judged, people will speak the way they think they are expected to speak, not the way they speak naturally – so in this case, they may try to use a standard or a national language instead of their own dialect; and Lesson 3, which is that each individual has more than one way of speaking, in fact a ‘repertoire’ which may include different registers, different dialects, and different forms of mixed or intermediate varieties. In such a delicate matter, with life or death consequences hanging on the decision, a very high degree of linguistic expertise is required to do this job properly, and several other factors need to be taken into account apart from the linguistic analysis. Imagine the outcry if we employed food inspectors with bogus or insufficient qualifications to vet the food which we import.

If you would like to read more about these issues, the links below may be of interest. And next time you yourself are in some way judged by the way you speak, think of those who are being sent back to war zones, or to face FGM or worse, because a bogus or under-qualified linguistic ‘expert’ decided they did not come from the region they claimed.

Other blog posts by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros:

Other blog posts about linguistics:

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