It’s been a busy few weeks in politics, to say the least. What’s happened? Well, Brexit, leadership elections on both sides, and a new Prime Minister, installed just yesterday, for good measure.
Can you remember life before the referendum? It seems a long time ago now, and sometimes, it feels difficult to think of exactly what we talked to each other about before June 23rd turned everything on its head.
But there was another significant event that took place the same week as the election – it was Refugee Week, an annual programme of arts, culture and educational events that celebrates the contributions of refugees to the UK and promotes better understanding of why people seek sanctuary here (in Scotland, a Refugee Festival is held in June). The theme of Refugee Week 2016 was ‘welcome’, and its message was ‘different pasts, shared future’.
If you didn’t realise this, don’t worry – the UK’s media didn’t realise it was happening either.
Of course, the backdrop to Refugee Week is the mass displacement of 65 million people, who find themselves fleeing violence and conflict in search of safety. Sometimes, but not always, these people attempt to find a new place to live outside of their home country.
You and I know about this situation, and so does the British press. In fact, this ‘crisis’ was drawn to the attention of the British public very dramatically less than one year ago, after newspapers published the image of the body of a toddler, Alan Kurdi, washed ashore on the Turkish coast. The death of Alan was covered by every major UK newspaper, eliciting a change in public opinion which resulted in the government responding with some small but positive changes in policy. A Syrian refugee crisis, which to many seemed distant, now had the face of a young child.
But this outpouring of collective grief seemed a distant memory in the weeks leading up to the EU referendum. The same newspapers that just months before bore the image of a drowned child became dominated by divisive rhetoric, symbolised by the infamous “breaking point” poster.
In many respects. Alan Kurdi became the face of “genuine” refugees, who have a “real” reason to seek refuge in the UK, whilst those living in the Calais refugee “jungle” camp have been largely labelled as “economic” migrants, who are trying to come to the UK illegally and apply for asylum when they get here.
Whilst it is evident that such distinctions are very hard to identify, they have consistently been used by concerned parties to create a sense of immediacy concerning the ‘migrant crisis’ affecting the UK, and a sense of distance in relation to the ‘refugee crisis’, which is something happening ‘out there’ on the continent.
As a result of these narratives, and the rapidly changing British political landscape, I fear we are already beginning to forget about the suffering of millions of people throughout the world.
These narratives have caused us to forget the long-term reality of this crisis, which is not new, but has been unfolding for years. Conflict and unrest and poverty in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and parts of Sub Saharan Africa have contributed to the movement of millions of people. The Syrian civil war has now been going on for five years.
Have we forgotten that people are still dying making unsafe journeys across the Mediterranean? Almost 3,000 people have died in the first six months of 2016 alone.
Have we forgotten that countries which have responded most generously to the situation are also some of the world’s poorest? In Lebanon, a country of just 4.5 million people has registered more than 1.2 million Syrians since the beginning of the conflict.
There are numerous instances of collective memory loss in the Bible, most notably in the week after Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Within days, those who had laid down palms and cloaks in front of the donkey Jesus rode in upon were part of the crowd calling for this same man to be crucified.
Perhaps now more than ever, we as Christians have an ethical duty not just to remember but to act, by reminding our friends, colleagues and the media about the ongoing suffering of millions of displaced people around the world, and finding out the ways in which we can support those who still face dangerous journeys today.
There are a number of ways you can do this:
Download our new resource ‘Made for Goodness’ and learn about the origins, facts and realities of the refugee crisis
Write to the new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, reminding her of our legal and ethical duty to protect and enforce the rights of refugees
Support Christian Aid’s new #changethestory campaign, and write to your local newspaper sharing a positive story about the contributions of refugees and migrants within your local community