2007 - 2022

The Perfect Storm

On Sunday I waited up, mesmerised by the giant lightning storm that hovered over Edinburgh for much of the night, and, instead of passing, intensified and veered north over Fife and south and west. Much of eastern central Scotland was bombarded with torrential rain, thunder and lightening for hours. This felt like a biblical event, but it was certainly moving and elemental. I watched it from outside and then back to monitor it online, on a site where you can watch lightning strikes mapped live. I was flitting from my own live ‘real’ experience to an online mediated one. This felt like one of the great storms from literature: the storm in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the lightening in Nabokov’s Lolita or the thunder in Herman Melville’s “The Lightning-Rod Man.” It felt like a scene from Frankenstein. Stupidly I shared a photo of ‘lightning over Fife’ on Facebook, which turned out to be a complete fake, and overnight clocked three and a half thousand shares. I was Fake News.

The storm seemed like an exhilarating relief from the relentless monotony of the covid experience. The irony of my fake photo was that the experience of the storm was so real, so alive. It made me think about the difference between lived experience and mediated experience.

One such experience is the plight of refugees crossing the English Channel in small boats. While some have noted the dark irony that a Brexit Britain that is transfixed with war-time symbolism should not have applauded the Dunkirk spirit of these people, the reality is they are treated with contempt.

YouGov issued a poll declaring that: “Almost half of Britons (49%) say they have little (22%) to no sympathy (27%) for the migrants who have been crossing the channel from France to England.” In further grim detail it outlined how “50% to 35% Brits say that the UK does not have a responsibility to help protect the migrants who are arriving in England from France” and that “More generally, 46% of Britons say that the UK has done more than its fair share to accommodate refugees who have arrived in Europe when compared to other European countries”

It is true that these expressions were massively skewed towards Leave and Conservative voters. But if your instinct was to assume that this was an England-only sample you’d be wrong. 24% of those questioned in Scotland also said they had “no sympathy at all”.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise.

All summer the now redundant Nigel Farage has been engaged in strange clifftop ‘watches’ across the channel and occasional forays to sea with whatever unhinged media unit he can persuade to set sail.

Despite the miniscule numbers, and despite Britain’s obvious culpability in destabilising large parts of the world now being washed up on our beaches, the media framing is always of ‘invasion’ and the eager repetition of the far-right’s agenda. It seems a long time since the image of Omran Daqneesh bombed by British and US airstrikes was met with disbelief – or the three-year old Kurdish boy Alan Kurdi whose image made global headlines after he drowned in September 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea and led to a (brief) respite in the tabloid hate.

How is this possible for people to have so little basic humanity?

A large part of this lands with the likes of the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. Johnson told the press: “We want to stop that, working with the French, make sure that they understand that this isn’t a good idea, this is a very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do.”

His comments were immediately condemned by refugee charities.

Lisa Doyle, director of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said: “It’s incredibly disappointing to hear the prime minister using such inaccurate and inflammatory language to describe men, women and children who are desperate enough to make perilous journeys across the busiest shipping channel in the world. Seeking asylum is not a crime, and it is legitimate that people have to cross borders to do so. Instead of scapegoating people in desperate circumstances, the prime minister and his government could address this by ensuring that people do not have to take these risks.”

Rosie Rooney, of Safe Passage International, said “We recently asked the prime minister if he would meet with a group of young refugees, and so far we’ve had no reply. Perhaps if he took the time to speak with people arriving in the UK, he’d realise they are anything but stupid. Those getting in dinghies, including hundreds of unaccompanied children, are not, as the PM has suggested, ‘criminals’ and they are not ‘illegal’. They are fleeing war and persecution in the hope that this country will help them. The least stupid decision that the government could make would be to stop its inhumane policies and offer those seeking asylum a safe and legal way to do so.”

Priti Patels response was to appoint a former Royal Marine to the role of “clandestine Channel threat commander”. The appointment of Dan O’Mahoney, a former Border Force official, was widely condemned, as was Patels idea to “send in the navy”. The home secretary told MPs she obtained legal advice that sending in the navy would be permitted under international maritime law.

Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action said: “The home secretary’s hysterical plea to the navy is as irresponsible as it is ironic. Pushbacks at sea are unlawful and would threaten human lives.No civilised country can even consider this, let alone a country with a tradition of offering sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. Our armed forces defeated nazism and paid in blood for the refugee convention signed after the horrors of the second world war – as if our military could be deployed to frustrate its central objective.”

But here we are. We have dehumanised and vilified desperate children fleeing destruction we are culpable in.

How is this possible?

One of the ways it is possible is the media framing of it which clouds our own judgement. The broadcasters have been sending out boats to follow and record the dinghies and small boats traversing the busiest shipping lane in the world. They are observed and commentated on like objects or participants in a dystopian sporting venture. Their stories are not told, they are not offered help, they appear as if from nowhere, our own complicity gently erased and their plight reduced to a spectacle.
One commentator on the YouGov polls (a John Meakin) expressed this beautifully: “The males come here and gain status and a NI number. At that point they are “entitled “ to start bringing their immediate and extended families.”
This reference to “the males” is a not-so-subtle shift into language usually adopted for other species. The myths about Britain’s “generosity” are part of the hazy self-delusion that engulfs sections of post-Brexit Britain, sustained and nurtured by a hate-filled and paranoid media and a corrupt and quietly terrified set of politicians. Patel and Johnson have surfed into power on the wave of this hatred and this rhetoric but, as all the indicators suggest are now about to be marooned on their own self-inflicted economic catastrophe. Having evicted the foreigners and turned the navy on the most vulnerable, they will run out of people to blame for their (and our) predicament.  As we emerge from lockdown we need to rebuild an economy, and salvage what we value from our society, but most importantly we need to regain our humanity and rebuild our sense of solidarity or we will all be lost at sea.


Comments (14)

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  1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Thanks for this, Mike.

  2. Lisa Simmons says:

    Well said!

  3. Daniel Raphael says:

    I am touched by the beautiful heart that made this eloquent statement–and plea. Please continue, Bella.

  4. Dougie Harrison says:

    Such an appropriate metaphor Mike! The crazy climate change caused by unthinking uncaring human behaviour, and the crazy anti-refugee politics caused by unthinking uncaring – and often illegal – international political interventions in the affairs of other countries.

    1. thanks Dougie, I worried it was all a bit tangential

  5. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Someone recently introduced me to the writings of contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. The predicament of refugees is one of Agamben’s concerns. Here is a relevant excerpt from an online article —

    by Nasrullah Mambrol (March 2018)

    “Here then is the worry behind the paradox of sovereignty: the risk that a sovereign might resort to violence in an irresponsible way. Agamben points, for example, to the suspension of law (including the suspension of the Geneva conventions on the conduct of war) in the ‘war on terrorism’ with respect to those interned by America at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. There, prisoners have no legal identity and recall the plight of stateless people between the wars referred to by Hannah Arendt (see Arendt 1951: 292). Agamben also cites the arbitrary policies involving the suspension of the law being employed to deal with asylum seekers. Increasingly, asylum seekers are purposely processed and their claims assessed outside the boundaries of any state, in international territory. They thus have no legal status and thus cannot appeal to any authority if their human rights are violated. They are non-persons.

    “Agamben’s further point is that the condition of the asylum seeker seems to be the general condition on the horizon, as ever larger numbers of people find that conditions have become impossible within the state of origin. Increasingly, too, therefore, the political entity of the nation-state is unequal to meeting the challenge of this new political reality. It is unable, for example, to guarantee human rights by virtue of a person’s humanity, founded as the state is on essentially legal principles.

    “[…] What is the connection between human rights and the nation state? […] Can passive rights (those acquired simply by virtue of being human) be sustained and defended? The record is not good when it comes to supporting refugees and stateless people. Refugees put sovereignty in question because they cannot be classified in terms of ‘blood and soil’, ‘nativity and nationality’ (cf. the German ‘blood and soil’ and the juridical ‘ius soli’ and ‘ius sanguinis’, from Roman law), but only in terms of passive human rights (Agamben 1998: 131). The problem is that human rights are linked to the rights of the citizen. Bare life has no rights.

    “What is essential is that, every time refugees represent not individual cases but – as happens more and more often today – a mass phenomenon, both these organisations [Bureau Nansen (1922) and the UN High Commission for Refugees (1951)] and individual states prove themselves, despite their solemn invocations of the ‘sacred and inalienable’ rights of man, absolutely incapable of resolving the problem and even of confronting it adequately. (Agamben 1998: 133). The problem concerns the separation of the rights of man from the rights of the citizen.

    “[…] As Hannah Arendt said, human rights are connected to the fate of the nation-state, and that when the latter declines, so does the defence of human rights. The implication is that globalisation impacts negatively on human rights.”


    1. Alistair Robertson says:

      Interesting. Must go look at some of this writing. Cheers.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    Priming and context are very significant factors in polls. The availability of the drowned child image in public imaginations would have had a significant priming effect. Questions in the same poll on the Mayflower and the Santa Maria could have a strong contextual effect if the appropriate history is well-enough known. The European Age of Discovery is as notable for the kindness of strangers to desperate and shipwrecked European incomers as it is for the atrocities and genocides with which such kindness was often repaid. My guess is that a section of the UK population who idolize these past European invaders (Pilgrims, Columbus) have a deep and perhaps inarticulate fear that someday the same will happen to them, like some divine retribution play.

    Otherwise, how great is it to be able to help someone in need. What are we here for, if not for that (in a mutual aid as a factor of evolution kind of way).

    1. Gashty McGonnard says:

      It looks that way to me too.

      People fear most what they fear they might deserve. It’s deep in our wiring as a social species. Dehumanising the feared ‘other’ just sets up a whirlpool of more fear and more blame.

      I’m seeing signs of some of the more strident opinions being moderated on social media and the (anti-social?) media, though. So maybe sanity will bubble back up before we hit rock bottom.

    2. Alistair Robertson says:

      Absolutely. If we can’t help others what is the point? If we can’t help others how could we expect others to help us when the time comes.

  7. Don Munro says:

    “You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.” The terrible truth facing Europe is that the refugee “problem” is going to get much, much worse. The population of Africa is forecast to be 3 billion by 2050. They will need food at least, and shelter, medical services, education, and most of all, good governance. If they don’t get these things they will migrate to the nearest continent, as will millions from the Middle East. Much of that vast area is desert. There is a good chance that what the South Americans have started to do to the Amazonian rain forest (“the lungs of the world”) will happen to the African Equitorial forests (basically, the second lung – and the third one, in south-east Asia, is already being plundered as we speak). Helping a few hundred refugees is just a bit of practice for the humanitarian effort that will be needed to get Africa on its feet.

    1. c_heale says:

      Actually there was another report that due to climate change the world population is going to decrease.

      1. DM says:

        Yes, in most of the developed world, including China; it has already started in Japan and several European countries. The exceptions are India (which will outgrow China by mid century), and Africa.

  8. Alistair Robertson says:

    Great piece Mike. That photo of wee Allan just breaks my heart any time I see it and adds another layer to my bitterness and anger at the attitude0 of our UKGovt. They’d be happier rehoming dogs from these areas than people it seems to me.

    Many of us have fallen foul of republishing inaccurate stuff from somewhere or other on social media in the moment, caught by an image or a phrase or whatever. It’s inconsequential when it’s just a photo of weather but potentially of great consequence when it contributes to shaping or reinforcing attitudes on more important aspects of life. I’m much more cautious now than ever before.

    Thank you for publishing

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