MAx Perone Repression

This is a transcript of my opening keynote talk at the ‘Dehumanising the Other’ conference at the CEU in Budapest. It was called ‘Looking Closer to Home: How mainstream politics paved the way for the demonization of migrants’. A shorter version of the talk was published as the Sunday essay in the Observer on 10 June 2018.

In October 2013, a ship carrying migrants sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Some 300 people drowned.

It was not the first time that migrants had drowned in the Mediterranean.  In fact, at that time it was estimated that in the previous 25 years at least 20, 000 people had died trying to reach the shores of Europe. The real figure was most likely much higher. But that sinking in October 2013 was the first time that that such a tragedy had truly impressed itself upon conscience of Europe.

European leaders expressed anger and outrage. The Italian government declared a national day of mourning. ‘I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind’, said Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly. The disaster, UN secretary general at the time Ban Ki-moon promised, would be ‘a spur to action’.

In the wake of the tragedy, I wrote that such leaders may well be ‘sincere in their expressions of anger and grief’. And yet, I observed, ‘one cannot but be cynical about all the lamentation. The horror of Lampedusa did not come out of the blue. Much of the responsibility lies with the policies pursued by European nations.’ And I concluded:

The next time there is another tragedy as at Lampedusa – and there will be a next time, and a next time after that – and politicians across Europe express shock and grief and anger, remember this: they could have helped prevent it, and chose not to. That is the real disgrace.

And there has been a next time. And a next time after that. In fact it has happened so many times since that such tragedies barely make the news any more. Politicians have long since stopped mouthing platitudes. Instead, many have come to accept the deaths as a price worth paying for keeping Europe safe from migrants.

That mass drowning off Lampedusa in 2013 is an apposite place from which to start a discussion on the dehumanizing of the Other. Too often when we discuss hateful portrayals of migrants or Muslims or other minorities, we focus on the far right, or on groups such as Pegida, or on countries such as Hungary and politicians such as Viktor Orbán. It is certainly important that we call out such organizations and politicians, and eviscerate their arguments.

But we need also to recognize that the truth about dehumanization is far more uncomfortable and far closer to home.  The ideas and policies promoted by the far right and by populist anti-immigration figures have not come out of nowhere. They have become acceptable because the groundwork has already been laid, and continues to be maintained, by mainstream politicians and commentators.

There is a tendency among liberals to see a great divide on immigration between the mainstream and the populists, and between a more liberal Western Europe and a more reactionary East. That is to distort reality. For while differences clearly exist, the divisions are not nearly as sharp as often suggested. It is the rhetoric and the policies emerging from the mainstream and from Western Europe that have helped legitimise the hostility to immigration expressed by the populists and in Eastern Europe.

lubaina himid between the two my heart is balanced

Over the past few weeks Britain has been wracked by an immigration scandal which led to the resignation of the Home Secretary. The proximate reason for the scandal is the treatment of the so-called Windrush generation. This is the generation that came to Britain in the 1940s and 1950s from Britain’s colonies and ex-colonies, to help rebuild a nation shattered after the Second World War. As citizens of Britain’s colonies and ex-colonies they possessed the automatic right to live and work in Britain. The British authorities did not, however, record who came and who possessed the right to stay here. Sixty years later, members of the Windrush generation, and their children, lack the documentation to prove that they are British. Many have lost their jobs, many have been refused free health treatment. Some – and the actual figure is still not known – have even been deported from their own country.

Behind the immediate issue of the treatment of the Windrush generation lies, however, a deeper cause: the deliberate creation of what Prime Minister Theresa May called, when she was Home Secretary, a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. The aim was to make life hell for so-called illegal immigrants.  It nurtured a climate of suspicion in which people were deemed guilty unless they could prove themselves innocent. It dragooned teachers and doctors and landlords to act as auxiliary immigration officers, attempting to spread the climate of suspicion through society. And such was the depth of official suspicion that hundreds of people who had lived in Britain for decades, or even been born in Britain, were treated as ‘illegal immigrants’ because they could not prove otherwise.

Meanwhile, in France, President Emmanuel Macron has pursued his own ‘hostile environment’ policies. After having forcibly shut down spontaneous migration camps, in Paris and elsewhere, he has introduced new legislation to toughen up French immigration and asylum laws. It will double to 90 days the time in which undocumented migrants can be detained, shorten deadlines to apply for asylum, and make the undocumented crossing of borders punishable by a year in jail and fines. Sonia Krimi, an MP from Macron’s own party En Marche, has accused the government of ‘playing with people’s fears’, adding that ‘Not all foreigners in France are terrorists, not all foreigners cheat with social welfare’.

And wherever you look in Europe, from Scandinavia to Spain, from Italy to the Netherlands, mainstream politicians are adopting a similar approach.

Politicians like May and Macron insist that they are simply responding to popular pressures. ‘The public demand tighter controls on immigration’, they argue; ‘if we don’t take tough action, people will turn to the far-right’.

Yet, the story is more complex than such claims suggest. In Britain, the government initially ignored the growing number of cases of Windrush generation migrants being detained, denied services, losing jobs. It was public outrage that eventually forced the government to act. The public, in other words, was more liberal than the authorities.

Or take Greece. Here too, the public was, certainly initially, more sympathetic to the plight of migrants than were the authorities, whether in Athens or in Brussels.  Back in 2016, at the height of the migration crisis, EU countries to the north closed their borders, creating a bottleneck in Greece. Suffering grievously from an economic crisis and from austerity policies imposed primarily at the behest of the EU, the people of Greece nevertheless showed an admirable moral commitment to the migrants. True, there were anti-migrant demonstrations, and the far-right Golden Dawn won 7 per cent of the vote in the 2015 general election. But mostly Greeks, at that time, showed enormous solidarity.

The island of Lesbos, close to the Turkish coast, was at the very centre of the crisis. The number of migrants who have arrived on the island in the first two months of 2016 alone was larger than Lesbos’ normal population.  Yet the locals continued to support migrants with food, shelter and solidarity.

Two years on, the situation is very different.  Two years in which Greece has effectively been abandoned by Brussels, and places like Lesbos abandoned by Athens.

‘Those wishing to visit ground zero of European ignominy’, observed the journalists Girogos Christedes and Katrin Kuntz last November, ‘must simply drive up an olive tree-covered hill on the island of Lesbos until the high cement walls of Camp Moria come into view’:

The dreadful stench of urine and garbage greets visitors and the ground is covered with hundreds of plastic bags. It is raining, and filthy water has collected ankle-deep on the road. The migrants who come out of the camp are covered with thin plastic capes and many of them are wearing only flipflops on their feet as they walk through the soup… Welcome to one of the most shameful sites in all of Europe.

A camp that was built to handle around 2,000 refugees, now houses three times as many, in the most appalling conditions.

Euan Benjamin Graham, On the Wire

The EU’s primary response to the deteriorating conditions in Greece was not to help either Greece or migrants, but rather to establish a deal with Turkey to return undocumented migrants. The arrangement was meant to ease the burden on Greece. In fact it made it worse. The numbers arriving in Greece dropped. But they were now imprisoned on the islands. Travel to the mainland, let alone beyond Greece, from the islands became barred to refugees and migrants. The scheme to relocate people to other EU member states has been a disastrous failure.

The dreadful conditions in a camp such as Moria have inevitably created tensions within. Violence has become the norm.  Many migrants have taken to moving out of the camp and sleeping rough, spreading violence and disorder through the island; and, inevitably, creating increasingly hostility among locals towards the migrants. The welcome that first greeted the migrants has long since gone.

These two experiences, in Britain and in Greece, reveal two aspects of public attitudes to immigration that are often ignored. The first, as seen in Britain, is that while the public may be hostile to immigration in the abstract, it is frequently supportive of people and groups who are seen as having become unfair victims of the process. Public opinion is commonly set not by ideology but by perceptions of fairness.

The second aspect of public attitudes, as seen in Greece, is how the understanding of unfairness is shaped by the policies enacted by mainstream institutions. At the start of migrant crisis, Greek opinion was certainly divided over the question of immigration. There was support for the far-right. But there was much larger sympathy with the plight of the migrants and a willingness to help them practically. The fact that much of that sympathy has ebbed away says little about the ingrained sentiments of the Greek people and much about the explicit failure of the EU and of both European and national politicians.

‘For the last three years’, says the mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos, ‘we have been bearing an immense burden on behalf of Greece and Europe. But they have left us defenseless and alone.’ The result, he observes, is that ‘Kindness has turned to anger … and where there is anger there is room for all sorts of extremism.’

Indeed there is. Earlier this year, irate locals led by far-right anti-immigrant activists, attacked Afghans in Mytilene’s central square as they camped out in protest against their enforced confinement on the island. Some screamed ‘burn them alive’ as they set upon the migrants, including children, with burning bins and flares.

Galinos suggests that the chaos in the camps is deliberate policy on the part of Athens and Brussels: a message to other potential migrants. The bigger the mess in Greece, the harsher the conditions, the greater the deterrent for other refugees and migrants who see the country as a route into the EU.

How deliberate is the chaos is difficult to know. But the consequences are clear.  If EU politicians want to know why hostility to immigration has grown, or why many have turned to the far-right, or why people who once welcomed migrants now try to burn them alive, they only have to look to the impact of their own policies.

There is no iron law that says people must be irrevocably hostile to immigration. Many have become so because the way that the issue has been framed by politicians on all sides. That framing has made immigration into a symbol of unacceptable change.

On the one hand, politicians have recognised a need for immigration. On the other had, they have promoted the idea of immigration as a social problem that must be dealt with. And at the same time, politicians often express disdain for those who express anxieties and fears about immigration, anxieties and fears that politicians often present as mere bigotry and racism.  This poisonous mixture of necessity, fear and contempt has helped both to stigmatize migrants and to create popular hostility towards the liberal elite for ignoring their views on immigration.

Moustafa Jacoub Syrian Exile

The contradictory needs and desires have also resulted in an incoherent, unworkable set of policies that have, paradoxically, been exacerbated by the development of free-movement policies within the EU. Freedom of movement is a good, and I am advocate of such policy.

The dream of free movement within the EU has, however, also spawned paranoia about the movement of people into the EU. The quid pro quo for Schengen has been the creation of a Fortress Europe, a citadel against immigration, watched over by a hi-tech surveillance system of satellites and drones and protected by fences and warships. When a journalist from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine visited the control room of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, he observed that the language used was that of ‘defending Europe against an enemy’.

That indeed has been the tenor of EU immigration policy – a sense of saving the continent from invasion. For more than three decades, policy has consisted of a three-pronged strategy of criminalising migrants, militarising border controls and externalising controls by paying non-EU states, on the other side of the Mediterranean, huge amounts of money to act as Europe’s immigration police; in effect, relocating Europe’s borders for the purposes of immigration policy to beyond Europe.

Fortress Europe has created not only a physical barrier around the continent, but an emotional one, too, around Europe’s sense of humanity. Migrants have come to be seen less as living, breathing human beings than as so much flotsam and jetsam to be swept away from Europe’s beaches.

Cast your mind back to that shipwreck off Lampedusa in October 2013 with which I began. As the people on the stricken ship were dying and pleading for help, three fishing boats refused to provide aid.  Why? Because, as Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa, put it, there is a long history of ‘our country bringing fishermen who saved human lives to court, charging them with aiding and abetting illegal immigration’.

In 2004, the Cap Anamur, a German ship that belonged to a charity of the same name, rescued 37 migrants who had been stranded, sick and freezing, in a rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean. The Italian authorities banned the ship from landing because it might, in the words of the then Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu, set a ‘dangerous precedent’. The Cap Anamur eventually entered the port of Empedocle without permission. The authorities seized the ship, arrested the crew and charged the captain, the first officer and the head of the charity with  ‘aiding illegal immigration’, a charge that carried with it a penalty of four years’ imprisonment. After a five-year court battle, the men were eventually acquitted.

In 2007, two Tunisian fishing boats rescued 44 stranded migrants and brought them to Lampedusa. Again, the Italian authorities refused the ships permission to enter port and even tried physically to block them.

When the captains disobeyed those orders, they were charged not just with aiding illegal immigration but also with ‘resisting a public officer’ and ‘committing violence against a warship’. In court, they were acquitted of the former charges but convicted of the latter ones. It took until 2011 for the Court of Appeal to overturn all the charges.

Such inhuman actions are not restricted to the Italian authorities. In 2011, a boat carrying 72 migrants left the Libyan port of Tripoli for Lampedusa. It soon ran into trouble. The migrants contacted the Italian coastguard. NATO, which had many vessels in the area, was informed of the boat’s plight by the Rome-based Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre. According to the survivors, military airplanes, from the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, buzzed the boat. A military helicopter, thought to be Italian, even dropped some bottles of water on the first day of their plight. But no one deigned to rescue the stricken boat. It was allowed to drift in open waters for more than two weeks, without fuel or supplies. Sixty-one of those on board died of hunger, thirst and cold.

A subsequent eight-month long Council of Europe investigation  revealed that ‘the Libyan authorities failed to maintain responsibility for their Search and Rescue zone, the Italian and Maltese Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres failed to launch any search and rescue operation, and NATO failed to react to the distress calls, even though there were military vessels under its control in the boat’s vicinity when the distress call was sent.’

St. Luke School, Colossi, Limassol, Immigrants 2

‘We can talk as much as we want about human rights and the importance of complying with international obligations’, the report’s author Tineke Strik told reporters, ‘but if at the same time we just leave people to die – perhaps because we don’t know their identity or because they come from Africa – it exposes how meaningless those words are’.

‘That constitutes a crime’, observed Father Moses Zerai, a priest in Rome whom the migrants had contacted, and who in turn had contacted the coastguard, ‘and that crime cannot go unpunished just because the victims were African migrants and not tourists on a cruise liner’. But that crime has gone unpunished, because no one in authority regards deliberately allowing 62 African migrants to die to be a crime. This is the reality of Fortress Europe: politicians and officials so blinded by their obsession with illegal immigration that they have lost the ability to recognize their most basic of obligations to other human beings. The fear of allowing illegal immigrants into Europe seems to weigh heavier than the guilt of allowing fellow human beings (who just happen to be African) to die.

So when the far-right identitarian movement harasses MSF and other NGO rescue boats, or when they attack migrant camps, we ought to remember that they are not the first to do so. They are following in the tracks of European officialdom.

Such official inhumanity extends well beyond Europe. Because the EU’s reach stretches well beyond Europe.

Over the past few years, the EU has stitched together a series of agreements with various authorities across North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East to act effectively as Europe’s immigration police.  The approach began initially with deals with Turkey, Morocco and Libya (in the days of Gaddafi’s rule). It crystallised with the EU-Africa trust fund in November 2015, when European leaders offered an initial €2bn to be spread across 26 countries to help deport unwanted migrants and prevent people from leaving in the first place. And separately, the European Commission has signed migration deals with Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Ethiopia. These migration ‘compacts’ tie development aid, trade and other EU policies to the agenda of returning unwanted migrants from Europe. The EU, in other words, hands over huge sums of money for would-be or thought-to-be migrants to Europe to be apprehended and locked up before they reach the Mediterranean shores.

These are some of the most unstable regions in the world.  The EU has made agreements not just with legitimate governments, however unsavoury they may be, but also with regional leaders and militias, often in conflict with each other and with the central authorities, and de facto with criminal gangs too. The impact has been to distort not just the economy but political relations across this whole region.

Europe’s policies have turned migrants into a resource to be exploited.  A huge new kidnap and detention industry has been established, paid for by Brussels.

In Libya alone there are at least 20,000 migrants held in detention by the General Directorate for Combating illegal Immigration (DCIM), a division of the Ministry of Interior. Thousands more are held captive by militias and criminal gangs.  Amnesty International has detailed how all are imprisoned in the most degrading of conditions, and many subject to torture, sexual abuse, and extortion. European governments, Amnesty’s European Director John Dalhuisen has observed, have not just been fully aware of these abuses… they are complicit in these abuses’.

The EU’s own policies, then, present an image of a continent under siege. And of nations willing not only to enact the most immoral policies to protect Europe’s borders, but to push the problem so far away that they can pretend that it does not exist, or that the problem is really someone else’s. Is it any wonder, then, many people see migrants as a threat, or imagine that there is legitimacy to the claims of the far-right?

Tindar Radici

When Hungary built fences on its borders to keep out migrants, it was widely condemned. But what has the EU done but built fences – indeed walls – not round the EU but in effect in Turkey, Libya, Niger, Eritrea? When Viktor Orbán called for refugees to be allowed to request asylum only from outside the EU, it was seen as unacceptable. But what is Emmanuel Macron’s policy now but just that? To build offshore reception centres in countries such as Niger and Chad?

‘Nobody will admit it in this town’, an EU official told the Politico website last year, ‘but yes, Orbán’s narrative is prevailing’.

Another official put it differently. ‘It’s not a matter of being in line with Orbán’, he observed. ‘It’s just that first we had to show things are under control, then we can work on better ways of managing flows’. But ‘to show things are under control’, mainstream politicians, whether in Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin or Rome, have come ‘into line with Orbán’.

Orbán himself has no doubt as to who has won the debate. As he told journalists before a European Council meeting in Brussels in 2016, ‘The positions which were once condemned, despised, looked down upon and treated with contempt are becoming jointly-held positions. And people who stand up for these positions are today being welcomed as equal partners’. ‘Our position’, he noted with satisfaction, ‘is slowly becoming the majority position.’

So what do we do?

First, we need to be clear about our starting point. Is our starting point the attempt to stop the demonization dehumanization of migrants. Or is it to stop the far-right? That might seem a strange question. After all, are they not inextricably linked questions, and answers?

Yes, they are. But in practice the two approaches do not necessarily provide the same answers. The policies and strategies that mainstream politicians have pursued to staunch support for the far right has largely involved being seen to be tougher on immigration and, indeed, often to appropriate anti-migrant policies and rhetoric. From Theresa May’s hostile environment to Emmanuel Macron’s clampdown on asylum seekers to the EU’s Fortress Europe policy, it is, as the EU official put it, Viktor Orbán’s narrative that’s prevailing.

Such policies have done little to stem support for the far-right. They have merely confirmed the sense that the far-right’s anti-immigration agenda was right all along, while also increasing cynicism about mainstream politicians and their willingness to tailor policies to suit their political needs. Far from protecting migrants from demonization, it is an approach that gives legitimacy to the idea that immigrants are a social problem and that there needs to be a crackdown on illegals and scroungers. It is, in other words, an approach that can only increase hostility to migrants and make the far-right seem more acceptable.

The starting point, therefore, must be to challenge the dehumanization of migrants, their casting as the Other. It requires us to challenge the very framework of the debate over immigration.

To do this might require more courage and imagination than mainstream politicians may possess. They certainly find it easier to create a climate of hostility than to defuse one; to strike deals with Turkey and Eritrea to lock up would-be-migrants than make the case that Europe needs to deal humanely with migrants that land on its shores. But without reframing the whole immigration debate, there can be challenge to the demonization of the Other.

Second, we need to recognize that creating Fortress Europe as a quid pro quo for freedom of movement within the EU will not work. The policies of Fortress Europe are both immoral and unworkable. Immoral because their aim is to treat migrants as noxious objects that must be kept away from Europe at whatever cost, and which has led the EU to destabilize large areas of North Africa, collude with brutal leaders and regimes, transfer responsibility for the issue to some of the poorest countries in the world, and adopt the very policies that are condemned when they come from the mouths of Viktor Orbán or Marine Le Pen. And unworkable, because the lesson of the past 25 years is that however vicious EU migration policies become, they will be insufficient to wall off Europe from migrants.

At the same time, the policies of Fortress Europe, far from protecting freedom of movement within the EU, undermine the arguments for such freedom. By promoting the image of a continent under siege, and by accepting that the most immoral policies are necessary and acceptable to protect Europe’s borders, such policies only legitimise the arguments of the anti-immigration populists and the far right. Fortress Europe is the dehumanization of the Other.


Third, we need politicians to stop blaming the public. Public opinion has become both a get-out clause for restrictive policies – ‘we’re doing what the public demands of us’ – and a means for politicians to occupy the moral high ground – ‘We’d like to be liberal about immigration, but the public will not let us’.

Yes, there are many racists out there. But the reason that so many people are drawn to anti-immigrant parties or to the far-right is not because they are out-and-out racists, but, as I have argued, because of the way the issue of immigration has been framed and because of the logic of mainstream policies.

But equally we have to face up to a central dilemma in migration policy. It’s this: on the one hand, any moral and workable immigration policy will not, at least for the moment, possess a democratic mandate; on the other, any policy that has popular support is likely to be immoral and unworkable.

This dilemma exists not because European populations are particularly drawn to immoral or unworkable policies but because of the framing of the issue. And it is a dilemma that has spawned two broad approaches, neither of which provides a solution.

The predominant approach is the one that I have described – that Europe needs stricter controls, bigger fences, more military patrols. Such policies may attract popular support but although those who promote such policies portray themselves as ‘realists’, it is not just an immoral approach but an unworkable one. However strong one makes Fortress Europe, fences and warships will not deter migrants. And, so, however strong the Fortress, the demand will be for it to be stronger still.

The ‘idealists’, on the other hand, seek to promote a more moral immigration policy, but also seem willing to ignore the democratic will to do so. This approach is no more workable or moral than the realist stance. No policy to which the public is hostile is likely to work in practice, nor is ignoring democracy a moral approach.Liberal immigration policies can be enforced only by winning public support, not in spite of public opposition. Winning such support is not an impossibility. But there are no quick fixes that allow us to tie together the moral, the workable and the democratic.

The migrant crisis is a longstanding one – its roots go back to the 1990s – and whatever policies are conjured up will not solve it this year or the next. Indeed, the key problem lies not at the level of policy at all, but at the level of attitude and perception. That is why we need to think much more in the long term.

Finally,  we need a more open debate about immigration. By this I don’t mean that we don’t talk enough about immigration. If anything, public discourse is too saturated with immigration talk. I mean, rather, that the character of public discourse, not just about immigration but also more broadly about diversity and the kinds of societies we want to build, needs to change.

The debate about immigration is, of course, a debate not about the external, but about the internal. The fear of the Other is really an expression of anxieties about the Self. Debates about immigration are about he ways in which we imagine society, and the values we want society to embody. In recent years, much of this has been discussed through the medium of ‘diversity’.

When we talk about diversity, what we mean is that the world is a messy place, full of clashes and conflicts. That, in my view, is all for the good, for such clashes and conflicts are the stuff of political and cultural engagement. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgments upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can, paradoxically, help create a more universal language of citizenship.

freedom of movement 11

But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is precisely what many fear. That fear can take two forms. On the one hand there is the nativist sentiment: the belief immigration is undermining social cohesion, eroding our sense of national identity, turning our cities into little Lahores or mini-Kingstons. And on the other there is the pluralist argument, that respect for others requires us to accept their ways of being, and not necessarily criticize or challenge their values or practices, but instead to police the boundaries between groups to minimize the clashes and conflicts and frictions that diversity brings in its wake.

It seems to me that the one approach encourages fear, the other indifference. The one approach views migrants as the Other, whose otherness poses a threat to European societies. The other approach views the otherness of migrants as an issue that society must live with.

Both perspectives view migrants as the Other, as people fundamentally different from Us, though they differ in how deal with the otherness. What neither approach begins to address is the question of engagement. Engagement requires us neither to shun certain people as the Other with values, beliefs and practices that are inevitably and fundamentally inimical to ours, nor to be indifferent to the values and beliefs and practices of others in the name of ‘respect’, but rather to recognize that respect requires us to challenge, even confront, that values and beliefs of others. It requires us to have an robust, open public debate about the values, beliefs and practices to which we aspire, accepting that such a debate will be difficult, and often confrontational, but also that such difficult confrontational debate is a necessity in any society that seeks to be open and liberal.

The dehumanization of the Other is a process that happens in many ways, and through many agencies. Too often, we look upon the dehumanizers as they look upon the Other. As not part of us, as the political Other, the far right, the populists, the deplorables, the really nasty people. And we look upon the process of dehumanizing as something out there, as something that we have played no part in creating.

That is far too comfortable a view. And we adopt it because it is such a comfortable view. It’s time to discomfit ourselves. If we are really serious about challenging the dehumanization of the Other, indeed about challenging the creation of the Other, we need to start far closer to home.


The images are (from top down): ‘Repression’ by Max Perone, from the Etobicoke School of the Arts, Ontario, Canada, shortlisted for the 2016 Saatchi Gallery/Deutsche Bank Art prize for Schools;  Lubaina Himid, Between the Two My Heart is Balanced  (From the Tate exhibition ‘Migrations: Journeys into British Art’, January-August 2012); ‘On the wire’ by Euan Benjamin Graham; Image of Syrian refugees by Moustafa Jacoub, illustrating the poem ‘Blade’ by Kirun Kapur. It was part of the ‘Responses’ feature by Broadsided Press in which writers and artists created work about the Syrian refugee crisis; ‘Immigrants’, created by students of St. Luke School at Colossi, Limassol and winner of the 2016 Saatchi Gallery/ Deutsche Bank Art Prize for Schools; ‘Radici’ by Tindar; ‘Resistance’ from the Refugee Art Project; ‘Crowd in motion’, my image.


  1. damon

    Really interesting and challenging thing to read.
    And as we could see in the comments under it in the Observer, a lot of people have a lot of different opinions on what to do about the situation. Reading Kenan’s article and the views of a wide readership of it, I can only conclude that you make your mind up about what to do (or not do) and there will be little consensus between the different sets of views.
    I know from previous reading, that Kenan would like to see it be reasonably easy for the people who are now doing this dangerous migration across Africa and the Mediterranean, to be able to do it legally and just take a plane from their home countries to Europe. Which could well be the solution to ending this desperate and deadly clandestine modern migration crisis.
    And that means that European countries are going to have to change enough to accommodate several millions of new people from Africa who want to come and live with the Europeans.
    A problem is of course, that most of the people who make up the citizens of Europe, haven’t shown themselves to be largely in favour of this happening. It is quite radical a proposition. And within twenty or thirty years would change the composition and culture of many European cities – which is going to happen over time anyway.

    What “frustrates” me most about an issue like this, is the lack of meaningful cross-dialogue between the people who hold different views. You can have a meeting at a conference between open borders advocates and someone from UKIP – which I did see a few years ago ….. but there will be very little actual engagement between the people and it ends up being just a 90 minute argument back and forth without getting anywhere.

    People who propose much higher immigration rates will just not entertain or take the people who put up opposing arguments seriously. And vice versa.
    This article here, about Barking and Dagenham on the edge of east London shows to me, the huge disparity between the views of people who advocate a new society through large population exchanges and more freedom of movement and those who are wary of, or opposed to that.
    I would like to see the sets of people with the different opinions, work through their arguments with each other, but that rarely happens.

  2. I can’t be as optimistic as you, Kenan. I think racism is (like it or not) at the core of the European response at both official and popular levels of discourse and action. In the past, yes, official narratives could shape the popular agenda because it was possible to exclude alternative sources of information. But today alternative sources of information are everywhere. The repulsive Orban was re-elected by a big majority. Let’s not deny those who voted for him their agency. They made a conscious decision to act OUT OF solidarity with migrants and the Other, despite the multitude of factually based, rationally argued sources setting out the case for Hungary to simultaneously help desperate people and enrich itself with migration. That Orban is now setting the agenda across Europe is a very worrying and unhealthy sign that says nothing good about core impulses within European culture.

      • damon

        I don’t think they’re joking. That’s the divide. Many people can’t understand why people in Hungary might not want to have the same kind of diversity that London has.
        I was just in Corsica for a couple of weeks, and the thinking would go, that why should Corsicans not want to become as culturally diverse as the suburbs of Paris?
        I don’t think they would by the way …. but maybe I was underestimating them and they wouldn’t mind that at all. It’s just that reading about their separatist movement in the past, and that they don’t even have one McDonald’s or Starbucks on the island today, makes me think that they like their more isolated traditional culture. There has been active resistance to unwanted change in Corsica.

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