Identity, Representation and Art: Challenging Narratives About Refugees and Migrants
Almost any human rights issue in the public domain is saturated in identity politics, things that should be clear, are complicated by attempts to frame them in politically charged terms. Considerations of human dignity and compassion are often side-lined.
An example of this is the discussion surrounding the refugee crisis and the status of migrants. A YouGov poll suggested that opinions on migrants who had been crossing the channel from France to England were starkly divided along party lines. As reported in the Independent, “The number of Tory voters and Brexit voters with little or no sympathy both sat at 73 per cent – the same as the proportion of Labour voters who reported having a “great” or “fair amount”.
The conservative government have accurately been accused of contributing to a culture of identity politics when defending their position towards migrants and refugees, describing law professionals seeking to protect the human rights of migrants as “lefty human rights lawyers”. “Lefty human rights lawyers” itself displays an attitude towards migrants that is informed by political allegiance, rather than a duty to protect the rights they are afforded by law. This use of language contributes to the political polarisation of humanitarian issues related to immigration, encouraging right-leaning voters to take away compassion in favour of allegiance to their chosen party.
The fact that politicians and the media are able to frame stories of human rights violations with a severe lack of empathy, speaks to the dehumanisation of those groups whose human rights are threatened by government policies. Rather than human beings, they are political pawns.
Additionally, cultural and artistic depictions of human rights issues may affect public opinion. According to Edward Said in Orientalism, “Television, the films, and all the media’s resources have forced information into more and more standardized moulds”, and the “history of popular anti-Arab and anti-Islamic prejudice in the West” has informed the depiction of these caricatures.
The migration observatory at Oxford University, when discussing the assessment of public attitudes towards immigration, drew attention to the ways in which distinctions between groups of immigrants are often blurred, meaning they are collapsed into a single homogenised group in the minds of the public. They suggest that “it is not clear whether or how the public distinguishes migrants from others such as short-term visitors, naturalised British citizens, ‘second generation migrants’... and ethnic or religious minorities generally”. This speaks to the bite-sizing of information into dangerously ill-informed “standardised moulds” that Said describes. The repeated representation of foreign subjects as cultural stereotypes and “standardised moulds” makes it easier for much of the public to justify the deprivation of their rights, and neatly place them against the backdrop of a worldview informed by rigid identity politics. They are seen less as individuals seeking security, and more-so as part of a larger “swarm” of “invaders. It helps facilitate the framing of refugees as criminals “trying to play and profit from the broken system” as Priti Patel described, rather than humans escaping dangerous situations.
Labour MP Zarah Sultana, speaking to the Labour Muslim Network, drew attention to the way in which opinions on those seeking safety in foreign countries have become tied to ethnic identity. When describing her experience of Islamophobia and racism, Sultana noted that the “hostility and abuse” she is subjected to is “dialled up a significant notch” following instances in which she speaks up for migrants and refugees. Often told to “go back to her country of origin”, her sympathy for refugees is always ascribed to her assumed status as a “foreigner”.
The racist nature of the online abuse, and the divisive language of many tabloid newspapers and politicians, might suggest that the negative responses to sympathy for refugees and migrants are fuelled by sense of political/national identity. The migration observatory at Oxford University also noted that public views towards immigrants from “white, English-speaking, Europeans and Christian countries” are the most favourable, “while at the least preferred are non-whites, non-Europeans and Muslim countries".
Although refugees and migrants who flee human rights abuses are in no way obliged to prove their productivity to the state they have fled to, the shared economic benefits of immigration are prevalent. Given the positive effects of immigration on productivity, businesses and investors could do more to help foster social cohesion, expand employment opportunities for refugees and other migrants and combat the dominant narrative that "they take jobs away from British citizens”. The same paper also drew attention to the way in which the NHS, an institution that is often accused of being placed under strain by migrants, is actually dependent on the labour of migrants, and would be threatened if those migrants were to leave: “the healthcare sector is acutely vulnerable to the potential effects of Brexit, with the exacerbation of staffing shortages a major concern”. Zarah Sultana has spoken about how the government’s demonization of migrants and refugees has drawn attention away from the ways in which underfunding and tax avoidance has undermined institutions such as schools and hospitals.
Considering this, the need for art and representation that counters racist and reductive narratives, that presents the victims of human rights abuses as victims, is vital. The Boy at the Back of the Class, by Onjali Q Raúf is a good example of this. The book engages with the experiences of child refugees tackle subjects of immediate relevancy to the public, in a way that is accessible to child audiences. The author presented the questions and concerns by the story through an innocent, empathetic lens; one less mired by the cultural baggage that these issues are often imbued with on the political stage. To place too much emphasis on art and representation alone would be naïve and reductive.
Overall, art should be seen as an aspect of a larger effort, integrating academia and other forms of media, in order to dismantle erroneous myths and encourage compassion and empathy.