Paris Gourtsoyannis: Our failing standards of compassion

Public perception is being shaped by a number of myths about migrants and refugees, says Paris Gourtsoyannis

The authorities have moved in to clear The Jungle at Calais but migrants will gather at a new camp. Picture: Getty Images

“The end of the Jungle”, shouted a newspaper headline yesterday, after French police moved in to clear the muddy maze of wood-framed tarpaulins and caravans that has been the entirely inadequate home to 7,000 desperate people.

Toilets were set alight and riot police exchanged tear gas for rocks thrown by angry residents of a doomed community.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Now the bulldozers have moved in, and the reporting carries an air of finality - the sense that what was a running sore in the UK’s debate on migration has been cauterised.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. The French authorities have sent in the bulldozers before, and yet the Jungle - an awful filled with unacknowledged dog-whistle racism - has simply sprouted somewhere else.

Aid workers warn that it will do so again; in fact, one of the sites that migrants are being moved to is just a few hours walk up the road in Dunkirk.

Groups will return to sleep rough in the scrub close to the motorway where they can climb into the back a lorry. On the same day that the riot police moved to dismantle the camp in Calais, Italian coastguard were rescuing no less than 2,000 migrants from the Mediterranean.

The flows of people may have eased since the imposition of the EU-Turkey deal to stop migrants crossing the Aegean and into the Balkans, but the idea that the demolition of one settlement is going to stop hundreds of people trying to come to the UK is an act of self-delusion that takes comfort in the appearance of toughness rather than the challenge of finding actual solutions.

It is also dangerous, because it will only contribute to the warped expectations of what and who a refugee should be, and what drives migrants to make perilous, often deadly journeys across continents - giving up home, possessions, family ties, and in the mud of Calais and camps everywhere, too often their human dignity.

Attitudes about which migrants are deserving and which are not seem to be shaped by entirely arbitrary and artificial criteria. Television news may sensitise us to the suffering of people far away, but it also works to create a Disneyfied sense of what someone should look like to earn the right to compassion - perfect family units, lone mothers and pre-teen children.

Worryingly, it isn’t just the public that are falling for that image, but policy makers, too. Conservative MP David Davies led calls for migrant children arriving in the UK from Calais last week to have dental checks conducted, out of fear that they might be on the wrong side of 18.

The idea that young men on their own are undeserving of asylum has gone unchallenged, yet these men are often the most at risk of violence in their own countries, drawn criminal violence and wars they want no part of. In large parts of Africa and the Middle East, they face mandatory conscription or national service, sometimes enforced at gunpoint. In Syria, human rights monitors report cases of families threatened with execution if men of military service age refuse to fight. That is in areas controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s government - Daesh can clearly have no more respect for human rights.

The war in Syria has claimed the lives of at least 60,000 enlisted men on the government side alone. The UK is in the middle of four years of remembrance for an entire generation of young men in the WWI trenches, and those who refused to fight are now recognised for their courage in the face of revilement.

So are the as many as 40,000 young American men who risked imprisonment by fleeing to Canada when their draft number came up, rather than be sent to a faraway jungle to fight a war that most of their country believed was either unjust or unwinnable.

For a couple of years at the start of the 1970s, Americans made up the largest group of immigrants to Canada, many of them deserters or draft-dodgers. After Vietnam, many settled and became citizens.

Likewise, while Syria dominates the news, it is hard to escape the sense that only those fleeing a war zone we can see are deserving of help.

One respected UK magazine last week published an article about life in the Calais camp, describing it in one breath as being full of Ethiopians, Eritreans and Sudanese, then claiming they are “young men from countries where there is no devastating war”.

Only a definition of war based exclusively on what appears on the six o’clock news could support that analysis. All three governments stand accused of waging war against their own people, with particularly bloody conflict in parts of Sudan carrying on unseen by western eyes. And while there is no longer open war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, skirmishes along their disputed border have killed hundreds of soldiers this year alone.

While these attitudes are allowed to persist, government is free to meet the public mood. In the UK, ministers continue to resist calls for unaccompanied migrant children to be reunited with their parents.

These are children whose claim to asylum in the UK has been accepted, and who have made the traumatic journey across Europe alone, yet are denied the support of their families. Putting aside the obvious moral and humanitarian questions that raises, unaccompanied child migrants put the greatest demands of all on the already over-stretched public infrastructure needed to support them.

The UK has so far taken a fraction of the 20,000 refugees that David Cameron pledged it would welcome after images of the body of Alan Kurdi were beamed around the world.

Scotland has taken far more than its share, but the numbers across the UK are vanishingly small against the scale of the crisis.

When so few of those fleeing violence and war meet the standards expected of them, little wonder that authorities fail to move faster.