What I’m Reading: Five myths about the refugee crisis

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I am currently studying Religion in Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University. As part of the literature course, our professor has asked us to write a bibliographical review of sources that we may use for our thesis. I have chosen to write my thesis on media and its effect on immigration policy. Therefore, I will be reviewing articles and books that focus mostly on the refugee crisis sparked in part by the Arab Spring movement in 2011.

Daniel Trilling’s article, published in June 2018, reminds us that the refugee crisis of 2015 is not only still with us, but just as pressing as it has been. The article is part of the Guardian’s Long Read series, a set of articles about various news-worthy events and societal observations. Trilling, in this article, delineates the beliefs people still have about the refugee crisis and “deconstructs the beliefs that still shape policy and public opinion” (2018).

List articles are always popular and fast reads on most websites. They are highly ‘click-bait’ worthy, meaning that people will choose to read list-based articles first. By separating his article into five myths, Trilling manages to break down the complexities of the refugee crisis into something that is accessible for readers.

The first myth that Trilling debunks is the idea that the crisis is over. Though he mentions that arrivals have declined (2018), he makes sure to stress that “the underlying causes have not changed.” Europe, despite having freedom of movement throughout much of the continent through EU, EEA and Schengen agreements, has shut its borders to non-Europeans in militaristic fashion (Trilling 2018). Making legal routes more difficult for migrants and refugees means that these people will be more likely to turn to dangerous methods, which creates an endless cycle of legal crackdowns to desperate, illegal behaviour (2018).

The second myth is the separation of refugee from economic migrant, as if the reasons for asking for asylum and trying to find better opportunities are disparate and completely different from one another. Trilling points out that what it means to be a refugee “is political, and subject to a constant struggle over who is deserving and who is not” (2018). Economics of a country are affected by any number of calamities, forcing people to make the difficult decision to leave their homes in search of a place where they are free to find a better existence. Until such time as these issues are addressed, there will always be both refugees and economic migrants, and for Trilling, there is no separating the two (2018).

Trilling discusses empathy fatigue in his third myth, and opens with the very powerful line “Empathy matters, but it always has limits, and it should not be a precondition for people to access their rights” (2018). Humans were never prepared to learn about all the terrible things happening around the world at any given moment, but our media is set up to sell tragedy constantly. The refugee ‘crisis’ was certainly media fodder for a time, but like most media coverage, it was intense for a while, and then sputtered out like a dying candle. There is, according to Trilling, a point of being overwhelmed and the could be a point of hostility (2018). Also, when media covers only the crisis, it tends to gloss over any underlying causes (Trilling 2018), choosing instead to focus on the spectacle. And in his last point in this myth, Trilling correctly writes that media have become “commodities by profit-making companies” and therefore subject to market forces like any other commodity (2018).

How the crisis might be a ‘threat’ to European values is Trilling’s fourth myth. There are two visions of Europe currently being espoused during this crisis: one of Europe being a White Christian continent trying to stay both White and Christian and the other of a tolerant, open society committed to fighting oppression (Trilling 2018). Both of these are hyperbolic.  Trilling argues that the former denies the diversity of Europe and denies the fact that many refugees are fleeing places where they have been fighting oppression, and the latter, whilst aspirational, erases the centuries of imperialism and racial supremacy enacted on the very countries that are now seeking both aid and where refugees see no option (2018). There has not been an honest reckoning with the past and the damage Europe has done to the countries whose people are fleeing.

The final myth is that there is no changing the current crisis and that it is just history repeating itself. However, the history of European displacement and the current displacement of people are not the same. As Trilling states, the current displacement of people “points to a dangerous weakness in liberal democratic societies” (2018).  The people being displaced are people that the government does not want, and those who are seeking asylum are continuously bending and breaking rules to get out of immediate danger (Trilling 2018). The history of the flight, displacement and expulsion of people is ingrained in history. However, our current times are unique because we are all “connected to a global culture and global networks of communication” (Trilling 2018).

Trilling leaves the reader with questions that are at once rhetorical and searingly important. These answers must be answered in both legal fashion and on an ethical plane as human beings.

photo credit: skeeze

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