Monday, 10 August 2015

The Cecil message defeats that of desperate migrants - my Catholic Universe column

With the clothes on their backs, they came through a storm and those that didn’t die want a better life. And they want it here. Talk about impressive. – Aaron Sorkin
When I was first elected I was taken aside by an experienced councillor and told that getting my face into the newspapers was easy. My advisor told me that as the years had passed by the resources of local media had become so depleted that young, inexperienced journalists were so stretched that more often than not if you gave them an item already written up as an article it was almost certain to get printed.
I became very adept at writing press releases starting with the words ‘A local councillor has expressed his dismay…’ and sure as anything they nearly did always get printed word for word as I had typed them.
I noticed a problem though. The stories that I would feed to the stressed cub reporters only ever ran for one edition, how could I make a campaign last longer?
So I went back to my advisor to ask him how I could make sure my issue made it to next week as well. His response was that doing this was tougher but still achievable.
‘What you need is a name and a face, someone who has experienced the problem you are campaigning on. Personalising a problem reaches out to readers more than any councillor expressing dismay ever can.’
I’ve been reminded of that advice this week.
Big game hunting has been going on for many, many years. I can’t understand why anyone would want to kill lions or elephants myself but I understand the arguments that whilst many find it barbaric others argue that attracting big money from wealthy enthusiasts actually helps the preservation of the species.
Regardless of the fact that lions kill hundreds of humans a year and at times are a blight on local tribes this week both traditional and social media has gone made. It’s gone mad because those against hunting have personalised the issue.
No longer is it a man eating lion that has been hunted, it’s Cecil, and his cubs may well be next.
All of a sudden a United States dentist has been demonised and, despite the fact we are told he thought his actions were perfectly legal, is facing a costly battle in the courts to avoid extradition to a country with more than a little suspect human rights record.
All of this because the ‘victim’ was anthropomorphised. Good old Cecil.
The other big news story of the week has been the one constantly emerging just over the channel, although having major repercussions for us Brits, in Calais.
We heard about thousands of migrants trying to force their way into the channel tunnel, we’ve heard of the economic damage being caused to hauliers and we’ve heard about the significant inconvenience causing misery to holidaymakers and residents of Kent.
It’s probably fair to say we haven’t heard quite so much about the 10 migrants seeking entry to Britain who have died in and around Calais in the past two months.
10 is a number, it isn’t personal.
Whilst we can think of those people living rough in ‘the jungle’ as nothing more than a number then it is fine to think of them ‘swarming’ our borders, it’s fine to call for the army ‘to be sent in’.
So let me personalise the issue for you.
As Christmas 2014 turned into a grey January a discovery was made on a beach in Norway. A wetsuit was found which upon closer investigation contained the unidentifiable remains of a human being. There were no signs of gunshots or other obvious causes of death, the remains didn’t match any missing person cases in Norway itself. The case was a complete mystery.
Then somewhere along the line a link was made. Another body had washed up on another beach, two months earlier in northern Holland.
A remarkable piece of investigative journalism followed by Anders Fjellberg, published in the New Statesman and Dagbladet, which managed to piece the puzzle together, to personalise a tragic story.
Mouaz al-Balkhi had been on a journey to find a new life. He had left a war-torn Syria in February 2014 before travelling through Jordan, Turkey, Algeria and Libya and being picked up by the Italian navy on a dangerous Mediterranean crossing before heading on to Dunkirk and finally Calais.
Mouaz was desperate to reach Britain because, according to his sister, not only did his uncle live here but because we are a country who are fair to refugees and because he could study and build himself a good life.
Some people may call it illegal immigrants wanting to live off the state, to others it is the epitome of what those in the US call the American Dream.
Shadi Kataf was from Syria too. Shadi’s Damascus home was in a part of the city virtually destroyed by the civil war, a suburb where the population has reduced from 150,000 to less than 20,000.
In an interview Shadi’s father Omar says he told him to get out of Syria to have a chance of building a better life.
No one quite knows what happened to Mouaz and Shadi apart from the fact that on 7 October last year they walked into a Decathlon sports shop in Calais and using their savings bought two wetsuits, snorkels and flippers.
DNA tests show that Mouaz al-Balkhi was discovered on that beach in Holland, Shadi Kataf’s remains were discovered further north in Norway.
Two young men were prepared to face the Channel, probably in an attempt to swim it, in autumn to live their lives here. Talk about impressive.
Some might say ‘it’s because when they get here they get benefits’. The truth is that for asylum seekers housing, money, healthcare and education are virtually the same between France and Britain.
There is an important difference between asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and EU migrants but we can be certain of one thing. Virtually no one seeks entry to this country primarily to claim benefits. They seek entry, no matter how treacherous that may be, because they see Britain as a place that is fair and where you can aspire to have a life better than the one you left.
That makes me proud to be British.
Not for one second am I saying that we should open our borders and welcome everyone who wants to move here, quite frankly that isn’t sustainable and the solution (if there is one) cannot be squeezed into this column.
But never let us again think of those trying time and time again to get to their promised land as a swarm.They are Mouaz, they are Shadi, they are someone’s nephew, brother and son.

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