In the refugee debate, both sides fear the masses

Two opposing views on the EU’s migration crisis made headlines this week. Actress and UN special envoy for refugees Angelina Jolie Pitt and former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove both spoke about migration at the BBC’s ‘World on the Move’ day. Jolie Pitt ‘blasted’ the EU over the refugee crisis, berating heads of state for creating a ‘race to the bottom’ and accusing them of neglecting their responsibilities. Dearlove, meanwhile, warned that the EU faced a ‘populist uprising’ if migration was not kept in check.

While it may appear that Jolie Pitt and Dearlove were taking two very different views on the refugee crisis, they were in fact expressing a shared sentiment – a contempt for ordinary people. Where Jolie Pitt patronisingly urged Europeans to show their sympathy, Dearlove warned against the volatile passions of the people. In both cases, ordinary people were treated like emotional creatures to be educated or feared, rather than rational citizens to be engaged and reasoned with.

A distrust of the public is now common on both sides of the migration debate. On the one hand, migration is used as a means for moral grandstanding by liberals, who see themselves as enlightened, caring and cosmopolitan – superior to the ignorant masses who do not understand the plight of refugees fleeing Syria. So, Jolie Pitt, the high priestess of do-gooding, has to educate us about doing the right thing. ‘Isolationism is not strength. Fragmentation is not the answer. Strength lies in being unafraid: in working with others, and living up to our highest ideals’, she said.

On the other hand, the likes of Dearlove use it as a tool for fearmongering. According to Dearlove, ‘If Europe cannot act together to persuade a significant majority of its citizens that it can gain control of its migratory crisis, then the EU will find itself at the mercy of a populist uprising’. The former MI6 chief did not want to promote a political dialogue that acknowledges the genuine concerns some might have about migration. Instead, he delivered a warning against the volatility of ordinary Europeans. Dearlove seems to think that millions of Europeans are hibernating racists, waiting to erupt and riot. He even used the analogy of storing gasoline near a fire to describe what could happen if visa-free travel is extended to Turkish nationals.

Jolie Pitt and Dearlove also used the European referendum to patronise and scare the public. While Jolie Pitt implicitly advised Britain against exiting the EU, telling us to curb our ‘fear of migration’, Dearlove described leaving the EU as ‘the first roll of the dice in a bigger geopolitical game’, warning that the numbers of migrants coming into Europe could shoot up over the next five years.

Migration should be freely discussed and people’s opinions should be engaged with. But instead of an open debate, we are faced with a shallow emotional treatment of the subject on all sides, in which the public is treated with contempt and suspicion. People who do have concerns about an increase in migration are depicted as heartless and irrational bigots. In the same vein, migrants are reduced to either helpless victims or a serious threat. This focus on emotionalism and fear does not lend any clarity to the issue of migration, it just reveals the elite’s mistrust of the public.

Sadhvi Sharma is a writer and researcher based in London, and has a PhD in international political economy from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

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