13 August 2015, The Tablet

Humane light on the jungle

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has publicly applauded the BBC’s decision to record an edition of its popular Sunday religious programme, Songs of Praise, from the notorious refugee camp in Calais known as “the jungle”. From there, thousands of migrants launch nightly sorties to try to board lorries and trains bound for Britain, either by ferry or via the Channel Tunnel. Mainly from trouble spots in North Africa and the Middle East, their aim is to claim political asylum as refugees from persecution, which many doubtless are.

Along with a strike of French ferry workers, their efforts have disrupted and intimidated tourists and lorry drivers, and this has had a knock­-on effect north of the English Channel in Kent. It has also had a knock­-on effect on English public opinion, which is why the archbishop’s intervention is timely. That opinion, stirred up by lurid headlines in some tabloid newspapers, seems to have become polarised. Even before the programme is broadcast, the BBC finds itself at the centre of the controversy.

It is disturbing how easily normally responsible politicians such as the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary can lapse into defamatory and inflammatory language. David Cameron talked of the migrants as a “swarm”, and was correctly reminded by Harriet Harman, Labour’s acting leader, that they were human beings, not insects. Philip Hammond spoke of “marauding migrants” who are a threat to the European way of life, as if they were ruthless gangs of armed robbers. Right­-wing newspapers seem to have perceived such remarks as a licence to go further, and what has particularly annoyed them is any attempt to portray these refugees in a sympathetic light. Hence their antipathy to the BBC’s decision to broadcast Songs of Praise from Calais. The usual format of the programme, with well­-known hymns interspersed with personal stories from members of the congregation, is not easily applied to the situation in Calais. There is an improvised church and a mosque where services are held, though Hymns Ancient and Modern is probably not the hymn book of choice. But personal stories there are – of persecution in their homeland, of deserts and seas crossed at great peril, death ever near, of hopes for a better life. And of ruthless exploitation and fraud by criminal gangs.

This raises the question: why is it so unacceptable in some quarters that the British public should see these desperate people as human beings? Is it because a more sympathetic public might demand a more sympathetic treatment of migrants by the authorities?  Or is there a racist streak in the British psyche, that it might be profitable for newspapers to work on? The Calais story is of course only a small part of the total picture of Europe’s grossly mishandled migration crisis, with hundreds of thousands of refugees reaching European shores every month and hundreds more dying on the way. They are breaking the rules, but that is not the primary issue. They are human beings in desperate straits. It is shameful to treat them otherwise. The right­-wing tabloid press may know no better, but political leaders should.

What do you think?


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