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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The British jihadis in Syria might be driven by more than just religion

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This article was written by Professor Joanna Bourke from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’.

Reyaad Khan and Nasser Muthana sound like typical British young men. They are educated, mad about sport, and were raised in a loving family in Cardiff. When, a few days ago, they were seen in an Isis film urging British Muslims to join insurgents in Syria and Iraq, the shock was palpable. How could this have happened? Are their actions symptomatic of religious fundamentalism? Or are they simply an extreme form of youthful angst? After all, one had told his mother before disappearing that he was going to a friend’s house to revise for a maths examination.

For some commentators, these young men represent a crisis unique to British Muslims and are a justification for a further extension of surveillance of Muslim communities. Religious radicalism in the UK and throughout the world is a serious problem, but blaming religion alone takes us only so far. The problem is much wider. It includes the glamorising of violence: a fascination with armed conflict permeates male sub-cultures, crossing religious, ethnic, and class boundaries, while remaining very rooted in masculinity.

At the most general level, there is a quaint assumption in Britain that we are a peaceable people, engaging in armed conflicts half-heartedly and only when threatened by aggressors. Our role as perpetrators of violence is often overlooked. There is still considerable reluctance to acknowledge the atrocities committed during the age of empire. There is a similar reluctance to admit the role British policies have played in creating the political and economic environment that has helped foster terrorism in the Middle East.

But the problem is more complex. The glamorising of violence and military culture has effects beyond any particular group. It is not unique to young Muslim men – or, indeed, young men in Cardiff – to be excited by the prospect of combat. War is often seen as a rite of passage for young men – finally able to prove themselves as adults, not only to their parents but also to their peers. In all armed conflicts, men are heard boasting about the exhilaration of fighting, often neglecting to acknowledge their fears of dying.

This attitude is bolstered by war films, one of the most popular genres. Indeed, for many, war isn’t hell; it’s entertainment. Some of the most popular computer games are based on conflicts in the Middle East. They depict the thrills of battle taking place in “exotic” environments replete with scimitars, camels, caliphs, djinns, deserts, belly dancers, minarets, bazaars, and harems. Games such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor typically cast “insurgents” as faceless, scruffy fighters, in contrast to the clean-shaven, uniformed “good guys” who are fond of cracking jokes and have a strong sense of loyalty to their comrades. Depictions of both “us” and “them” generate a sense of shared excitement and mission. War-play is seen as such an important recruiter for armed groups that Hezbollah has developed its own games, Special Force and Special Force 2, to provide an alternative fighting perspective.

The language used in public to discuss war has become extraordinarily distorted – and not only among radicalised communities. Combat is routinely described in the media as though it were a form of sport: combatants are “silent hunters” or “duellists”; they “score a try”. Making a kill is a “good shot placement”. Enemy combatants are described as having “received” a bullet. Last year, when the British army introduced a new combat sidearm, the Glock 17, which replaced the long-standing Browning Hi-Power pistol, the weapon was described without any sense of irony, as a “lifesaver”. The people that Glock 17s would maim and kill did not truly possess “lives”.

All this is not to discount the importance of cultural alienation and religion in the decisions of Khan and Muthana to join Isis. Clearly, faith and ideology are important. It is to point out, however, that they have been influenced by wider cultural forces that valorise militarism. These effects should be discussed alongside other contributing factors.

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