I set out one day with the good intention of listening to or reading the news every morning, determined to find out what had gone on while I had been sleeping and what world-changing thing event might happen on that particular day. The problem, I have come to realise, is that when listening to the news becomes a habit, the news itself becomes a habit : events, tragedies, wars, massacres come and go and we stop noticing because it’s just another thing that’s happened and it hasn’t affected my life, so why should I even notice?
I saw a story recently, though, that made me stop and think for a moment. It was about a girl, around fifteen years old, who had been taken off a schoolbus by the police and deported along with the rest of her family back to Kosovo. It is, no doubt, the unusual circumstances of this, the fact that she was physically removed from her classmates, in broad daylight, rather than simply not coming to school one day and never being seen again, that have made this case such a big deal in France. Yet there must be hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of children who have been deported from here and across the world, of whom we hear nothing, and to whom we do not react.
The fact is, the human mind is a strangely contradictory organ. No doubt for that girl’s classmates, and maybe for their parents too, she was a friend and a fellow pupil, and they would never have suspected that one day she might suddenly be taken away. Yet ask this same group their opinions on immigrants and asylum seekers in general, and you’d probably find at least a handful who would express opposition to the arrival of ‘foreigners’ in their country, and the belief that said ‘intruders’ should indeed be ‘sent back to where they came from’.
It is no doubt this same reasoning that allows US politicians who are vehemently opposed to Hispanic immigration to nonetheless employ a Hispanic cleaner, or the inhabitant of a town somewhere in the English Home Counties to call a Polish plumber to fix their boiler despite their belief that there are ‘too many Eastern Europeans in the country’. And it is this same way of thinking that allows us to sit and watch the news as dozens of bodies are hauled out of the Mediterranean Sea after yet another overcrowded boat has capsized trying to reach European soil, and to think only of how stupid they are to have paid so much to crowd into such unsafe, unsanitary conditions and to try to do something so plainly illegal, without even stopping to consider how lucky we are to be able to flash a passport and hop on a plane to get where we want, or to wonder how bad things were back in their country that they were willing to try such a desperate means of getting out.
What worries me is the sense in which we tend to extrapolate this contradictory information, which tends to work along these lines: I am suspicious of the group but I like/ sympathise with/ pity/ can understand the individual. Thus the individual must be the exception to the group. Those calling for the return of the Kosovan schoolgirl to France aren’t saying that everyone, or even every child, forcibly removed from the country over the past year, month, week, should be allowed to come back too. We admire Malala Yousafzai, yet there would no doubt be outrage if there was a suggestion that an open invitation be granted to all Pakistani girls to continue their education in the UK.
It is this failure to equate the group with the individual which has allowed for the rise of far-right political parties, and it is this which stops us from using our common sense and our compassion to openly debate and reform immigration policy across the world. If I saw a man drowning, I would try to save him. Why, just because he is with dozens of his fellow countrymen and labelled as an illegal immigrant, would I let him drown, or fish him out only to lock him up or pile him onto a plane to send him back to the country he tried to escape without even asking why?