Spiked has long been at the forefront of calling for a generous, liberal approach to migration. Our take is that there should be as few restrictions as possible on the movement of people across borders as they search for stability or work, and the makings of a new life. However, we won’t be getting behind the hyper-moralism of the pitying political narrative around the refugees arriving from Syria. This media-orchestrated moral drama, complete with invasive photos of dead children, highly inappropriate comparisons with the Holocaust, and the performative piety of politicians and the Twitterati holding up pro-refugee placards or promising to open their homes to migrants, confirms that what ought to be a democratic discussion — the question of what caused this crisis and where refugees should go — has been reduced to an opportunity for virtue-advertising in which rational thought and public engagement are positively frowned upon.
The most striking thing about the outburst of ostentatious concern for the refugees is its bad faith. What is presented to us as a sad humanitarian disaster that somehow materialised over the past seven days is in fact traceable to the disintegration of the Middle East over the past five years and the hollowing-out of 50 years worth of state structures in Libya and the knock-on destabilising effect that had across north Africa — globe-shaking events which our governments in the West played no small part in bringing about. The same governments whose officials now make sad-eyed promises to take in a Syrian orphan or provide clothes to victims of this allegedly sudden humanitarian upheaval. The hyper-moralism of the sad-for-refugees narrative wrenches this large-scale movement of people from its political, global context, meaning even some of the contributing authors to the exodus from Syria (Western governments), and those who have traditionally been cagey about migration (the Labour Party, tabloids, trade unions), can assume the role of humanitarian saviours. The bad-faith depiction of this swell of humanity as a kind of politics-free natural disaster, or something whose origins lie entirely Over There, means it can be casually moralised, turned into a platform for posturing by the concerned classes.
Such moral preening is now widespread. Indeed, the value of the refugees seems to lie in the extent to which, through playing dutiful humanitarian victims, they might help Western politicians assume the role of smiling saviour and in the process repair their flagging moral authority. It’s well known that sections of the hard right have a tendency to dehumanise asylum seekers, treating the complex human beings who cross borders as an amorphous threat. Over the past week we have seen that the other side in this discussion, those who pose as friends of migrants, also play the dehumanisation game. Where the right criminalises migrants, liberals infantilise them, reducing them from moral agents who have made a decision to migrate to childlike victims in need of rescue by virtuous Westerners. The much-shared, wept-over photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi spoke to the new Western view of the migrant: as hapless, helpless; pathetic; children requiring our care. The hard right juxtaposes itself to the threatening migrant; the pseudo-humanitarian left presents itself as lifesaver to the childish migrant. Both sides dehumanise them, for self-serving reasons.
European elites’ exploitation of this political crisis repackaged as a humanitarian problem has been swift. Politicians publicly signal their virtue by promising to open their homes to refugees. Yvette Cooper, who is aspiring to lead a party that campaigns for tougher immigration controls, says she would house a Syrian family. So does Nicola Sturgeon, who has never once let a bandwagon pass her by. Bob Geldof and other celebs have also offered to house refugees. Of course they don’t say how long they would do this for. (A year? Three? And would they provide the families with meals and money?) But then, this isn’t about practicalities: it is performative, designed to draw attention to one’s own decency rather than to housing shortages and other issues. Meanwhile the Twitterati take photos of themselves looking earnest as they hold up bits of paper saying ‘Refugees Welcome’, and everyone tweets and retweets the photo of Aylan’s corpse to show how sensitive they are. Where the refugees are assigned the role of helpless moral casualties in this media-fuelled melodrama, observers assign themselves a starring role as good, upstanding possessors of virtue.
The media have played a key role in constructing this humanitarian drama that so flatters Western Europe. Newspapers splash dead Aylan on their font pages. They hint darkly at Holocaust-like scenes in Eastern Europe, where the refugees first arrive. Every time a Hungarian in uniform puts a refugee on a train, there are whispers about a return to a ‘darker period in European history’. Others call for a new Kindertransport to get Syrian children through Eastern Europe and into the West so that they can be cared for by Sturgeon and Geldof. These historical comparisons are unseemly. The Syrian refugee crisis is unique to our times and has nothing in common with the extermination of Europe’s Jews. However, when it comes to orchestrating a morality tale to benefit a morally confused Europe, it seems history can be casually plundered, its imagery and crimes exploited by those in desperate need of a political adrenaline shot today.