Intemperate language borders on racist excess and blurs the real issues before us, writes Joyce McMillan
Late July, and the sky grows dark, over the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow, as the Bard In The Botanics company play out the final scenes of Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice. On stage, the rich young Christians who make up the majority of the play’s characters – dressed in 1930s clothes, singing 1930s cabaret songs – are enjoying their final triumph over Shylock, the Jew. They kick him, insult him, spit on him; by the end, they are not a hair’s breadth from the gangs of Nazi youths that 80 years ago, in Europe, were forcing elderly Jews to scrub streets with toothbrushes. In other words, they are indulging in legitimised hatred – shared by all their tribe, and therefore regarded as reasonable, desirable, even praiseworthy.
And what makes the gloomy sky seem even more appropriate, this week, is the sense that Europe is sliding rapidly back into a new age of legitimised hatred, when treating whole categories of people as vermin, a kind of polluting threat, is once more the norm. To say that this week’s media coverage of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and at Calais has been depressing is an understatement: it has been disproportionate, irresponsible, near-hysterical in its exaggeration of the alleged “threat”, and almost inevitably toxic in its social consequences, culminating yesterday in a series of shrill and staggeringly inappropriate calls to “send in the army”.
For, as the UN special representative on migration, Peter Sutherland, pointed out yesterday, while there is clearly a humanitarian crisis for migrants in the Mediterranean and at Calais, there is not, in terms of numbers, a serious immigration crisis currently facing the European Union. The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR estimates the number of would-be migrants detected trying to cross the Mediterranean in the first five months of this year at 105,000; this tallies roughly with an estimate by the EU borders agency Frontex that a total of 153,000 would-be migrants have been detected on the EU’s borders this year, including the eastern land borders.
As a total, this is vanishingly small in relation to an overall EU population of more than 500 million. It’s also surprisingly low given the extent of the destabilisation in the Middle East over the past ten years, much of it actively promoted, in its initial phases, by western governments. Half of the entire population of Syria, around nine million people, have now been displaced from their homes by the catastrophic civil war which began, with western encouragement, in 2011; a staggering 1.5 million of them have fled to Lebanon, a small and fragile neighbouring country with a population smaller than that of Scotland, and almost two million are in refugee camps in border areas of Turkey.
Under these circumstances, the idea that wealthy Europe would balk at accepting another few tens of thousands of these refugees is both shaming and astonishing. And the EU, it should be remembered, is a community of 28 nations, all living in conditions of relative peace and stability.
If the current wave of migrants had been dealt with calmly and decently, under a system which divided the processing of their applications among all member states, each country would, so far this year, have had an average of about 7,000 applications to process, barely a blip in the great picture of modern population movement.
And as for the bedraggled 5,000 at Calais – well, their numbers are small, their determination striking, their English often good, their education level high, and the courage with which they have saved up, struggled and fled difficult situations in order to grasp the chance of a new life, difficult not to admire. To treat them like an advancing enemy army is as foolish as it is barbaric; as the MSP Roseanna Cunningham said yesterday, we should be giving them skills assessments, not threatening to send in the Gurkhas.
Yet despite all these truths, we still hear senior politicians feeding the media hate-machine by talking of “swarms” and “floods” and “armies”; and adopting the current fashion, spreading from the Middle East through Hungary to Calais, for solving intractable human problems by building ever-bigger fences and walls, an idea about which recent European history might surely have taught us something. It’s also true that the typical British news bulletin remains shockingly parochial in its concerns, rating a few hours’ inconvenience for British holidaymakers as more significant than the deaths of would-be migrants, and ending each report with a flourish by opining that it’s only a matter of time until the disorder at Calais results in the death of a British lorry-driver or tourist – that is, they imply, in the death of someone who actually matters.
And of course we all know, in our more sober moments, where this kind of thinking leads; at worst to genocide, and at best to decades of mounting ethnic conflict, hatred and racial tension in our cities, and across the world. Long ago, writing from the depths of a culture drenched in antisemitism, Shakespeare used his huge sympathetic imagination to write Shylock’s great, iconic appeal against discrimination and “othering”. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” he made Shylock ask. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? And if you wrong us, shall we not be revenged?”
And 400 years on, it should be second nature to us to make the same imaginative effort with any group we see being scapegoated by shallow politicians and cheap, sensational media; and to insist on a common-sense recognition that if western countries continue to treat people arriving from Africa, Asia and the Middle East as if they were less than human, then our children and grandchildren will be the ones who will pay the price for our betrayal of our own best values, and our foolish indulgence in unnecessary, whipped-up fear and hatred. Have migrants at Calais not aspirations, hopes, a right to try for a better life? And if we drive them under the wheels of a train, will they not die? The rhetorical questions invite the obvious answer, today as four centuries ago; and to point that out is not woolly-minded idealism, but an essential recognition of the human reality on which any immigration policy must be founded, if it is to have a chance of success.