What if Cecil the lion had been a human? What if he had drowned in the Mediterranean instead of being shot just outside the bounds of a national park? Would his face still have been projected onto the Empire State building? Would thousands have mobilised on social media and on the streets calling for justice in his name? Would his beauty, dignity and life have been celebrated and his death mourned across the world or would he have become just another nameless, faceless statistic?
It took Cecil 40 hours to die. In that same amount of time hundreds of people will have been crammed onto unseaworthy vessels, abandoned to their fate. Thousands of people will have set off from Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and other conflict-afflicted countries in the hope of a better life. They will have left with little or nothing, hoping that what lies ahead for them must surely be better than what they have left behind.
Many people over the coming weeks will join the more than 2,000 people who have already lost their lives in the Mediterranean this year. Just a few weeks, an estimated 300 people drowned when a vessel, suitable for only 50 people capsized carrying 700 people on board. Last week 71 people, including four children, suffocated to death in the back of a lorry. A few days ago, 200 people drowned off the coast of Libya. The fear, panic and horror of their last few hours on earth became just another statistic.
The numbers are thrown around as if a beautiful, unique, and all too short human life didn’t lie behind each one of those numbers.
Imagine the outrage if 71 Irish, English or German people were squeezed so tightly into the back of a lorry that they suffocated? If 200 Irish people drowned because the vessel they were in was not seaworthy? Yet these lives lost – an estimated 500 in the last few weeks alone become just another group trying to break their way into the EU, as inconvenient dead as they were alive as the EU uncomfortably tries to squirm away from decomposing bodies and photos of children’s bodies washed up on a beach. Their lives and deaths become part of the ‘crisis’, but we never hear their names nor their stories. Apparently lives that belong to people born outside of the EU do not matter as much as that of a lion. Their stories were not told, while Cecil’s was.
Cecil the lion was described and grieved for in very human terms; he was described as ‘beautiful’, ‘iconic’ while his death was a ‘tragedy’. At the same time the world’s media took the stories of the people in Calais and in the Mediterranean and wrapped them up neatly in negative-neutral terms like‘migrant’ and ‘illegal’.
Firstly, they are not ‘migrants’ or ‘illegals’, they are refugees i.e they are seeking refuge. And more importantly, they are human beings.
The uniqueness of each of those people, their traumas and heartaches and hopes were obliterated as they were described by David Cameron as a ‘swarm’ and by Katie Hopkins of the Sun, Britain’s most read newspapers, as ‘cockroaches’.
The use of such dehumanising language in the refugee crisis is significant. It reinforces the idea that these people are inherently different to us. They are portrayed as a threat and a danger. This language encourages us to ignore their stories, their humanity and to view their deaths in terms of inconvenience for holidaymakers and truck drivers.
The majority of people in ‘the new jungle’ in Calais and as well as those rescued in the Mediterranean, are from countries such as Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria and therefore, under international law, most likely have a sound asylum claim. Yet they are continually referred to as ‘migrants’, a term that generally refers to someone who travels to another country to work for a short period of time.
Avoiding the more specific terms, refugees and asylum seekers, and referring to people as illegal, enables us to turn our backs on them, to ignore our international obligations, to infer a criminality and a threat on people who are no different to you or me other than where they happened to be born.
In refusing to use these legitimate terms, the ‘push factors’ are also swept away and given little attention. The worsening situation in Syria, conscription in Eritrea, and ongoing conflict in South Sudan become irrelevant because the people themselves are, somehow, ‘illegal’. Politicians talk about building fences and increasing police presence rather than looking at the root causes of the circumstances which push people to risk their lives.
When I overhear people complaining about ‘immigrants’ I often wonder who exactly they are talking about. Is it everyone who was born outside Ireland or only people whom they perceive to be some type of threat or burden? Are they talking about Indian doctors, Nigerian consultants, Bangladeshi software engineers and Filipino nurses? Are they talking about someone waiting patiently in a direct provision centre to get the papers that will finally enable them to earn a living? Are they talking about the delivery driver who brings them their favourite chicken szechaun every weekend?
The term immigrant has become laced with so much negativity, yet this negativity seems to be reserved for certain groups; for example, does the media tend to label the sizable British and American communities in Ireland as immigrants? Not in my experience.
When it comes to our own role in this globalised world, our language changes again. When an Irish person goes to live and work in, say, South Africa or China, they become an ‘ex-pat’. But when a South African or Chinese person comes to live and work in Ireland, they become an ‘immigrant’. An Irish person who overstays their visa in America is ‘undocumented’ but an Indian student who overstays their visa in Ireland is ‘illegal’.
While the lazy media would have us believe that the EU is being ‘invaded’, the fact remains that 80% of the world’s refugees live in developing countries. There are approximately 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country the size of Munster. There are 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. These numbers indicate the scale of the challenges in Syria where an estimated 12 million people have been displaced by conflict. Four years into the conflict and with no end in sight, people who have done their best to stay are now making the decision to leave. People who have already endured violence, trauma and hardship must now face the cold shoulder and inhumanity of a European Union that treats them as a mass of inconvenience.
While the numbers fleeing Syria are indeed high, the mass movement of people fleeing conflict is, sadly, nothing new. On a single day in April 1994, 250,000 people crossed from Rwanda into Tanzania. Over the course of 4 days in July that year, 800,000 Rwandans crossed into DRC. The only difference was that Rwanda was suitably far away from the EU so member states could largely leave it to neighboring countries, most of whom were facing significant economic and social challenges themselves, and aid agencies to deal with the humanitarian challenges. They could pretend it was nothing really to do with them.
The refugees attempting to enter the EU in the last 12 months are only doing what the Rwandans did in 1994, the Kosovars did in 1999, and large numbers of Europeans did in 1945; seeking safety, peace and a chance to rebuild their lives. They are doing what you or I would do if faced with their reality. Whether from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan or Somalia, they are not leaving because they have heard about the joys of living on benefits, nor are they gleefully rubbing their hands at all the European jobs they can steal (although some confused media reports would have you believe that they will somehow take both your job and your benefits!). They are leaving because they want something better for themselves and their children. They don’t want to raise their children in a country where IS takes young girls as sex slaves, where young men are under increasing pressure to join military forces, or where an estimated 8 children per day lose their lives? Yet somehow Europe has lost its compassion to the extent that we blame people for wanting to be safe. Our European Union seems content to place less value on lives born outside of its borders, so much so that fences, dogs and police actively seek to keep them out. No matter the loss of human life and dignity.
Anti-immigration movements are on the rise across Europe, however, there are counter movements where ordinary citizens come together in the spirit of our shared humanity to do what they can for newly arrived asylum seekers and migrants. There is a movement calling for justice and dignity; it’s just a bit quieter than the movement against Walter Palmer.
The language we use matters. Language reinforces barriers, emphasises differences, dehumanises and hurts. In an increasingly globalised world with an increasing level of complex conflict, people will continue to leave their countries of origin in search of something better. Underneath the labels we are all human beings. No one life is worth any more or less than another and especially not less than that of a lion.
Read about Al Jazeera’s decision not to use the term ‘Meditteranean migrants’ here http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/editors-blog/2015/08/al-jazeera-mediterranean-migrants-150820082226309.html