In Defence of Generation Snowflake

2 March 2017

Trigger warning: genuine emotion, political correctness and marginalised views.

Remember the good old days, when you could slap a receptionist on the bum or hand your suitcase to the first black person you saw in a hotel without anyone having a go at you? I don’t, because I’m 25 and I was raised to believe that sort of thing is really not ok. It’s not like my generation has reached consensus on such matters but they have at least entered the realm of ‘controversial’, which is progress.

Not everyone agrees. Sometimes it feels like we can’t do anything right in the eyes of our parents’ generation.

When we’re not being accused of becoming desensitised ourselves to violence, it’s the opposite: we’re branded the hypersensitive, excessively emotional and politically correct ‘Snowflake Generation’.

I first met this new stereotype with confusion. I’d always thought of us as Thatcher’s children, conditioned to be more competitive, individualistic and apathetic than our parents. At least that’s the reality that confronted me as a student activist, working to mobilise for democracy, civil liberties: the old school values baby boomers are meant to cherish so highly.

On 30th January I found myself amidst a young, diverse and vibrant sea of anti-Trump protesters on Downing Street, heartfelt chants erupting around carefully hand-written placards. On this particular demonstration the depth of the rage and solidarity seemed particularly profound. If I had to guess I’d say the reason is that Trump, like Brexit, represents an existential threat to who we are; what past generation’s civil rights movements gave us the space to start becoming: ourselves. And I found myself thinking hey, maybe there’s something in this snowflake generation thing after all. And if so, it’s about fucking time. What the snowflakes’ critics hear as a kitten mewing for its mummy because it can’t face the real world, I hear as a lion waking from slumber and articulating its will to change the world.

Arguably one of the most messed up things about our present system is that while we are constantly told we can and should be ourselves, unless you’re a relatively wealthy, white, heterosexual man, being yourself can be a pretty painful experience.

In certain, perhaps less visible ways that’s more true for us than it was for the baby boomers. When they were growing up, consumerism was just scratching through front doors and into people’s homes. But belittling, brainwashing and undermining us from infancy is now a multi-million pound industry. And the consequence for Thatcher’s children has been a very real mental health epidemic.

Depression, anxiety, stress, eating disorders and self-harm have reached astronomical levels in the world’s wealthiest nations. In the UK a quarter of a million children are receiving treatment. Many more are not. Self-harm amongst our youth has shot up 15% in three years, with 20,000 cases requiring hospitalisation.

It should go without saying that when tens of thousands of children are hurting themselves, that’s not hyper-sensitivity; it’s real suffering. And responsibility for it rests on the society, not the child.

Tell that to the string of self-aggrandising (usually white male) writers branding us a genertion of censorious cry babies. Much of this moaning is directed at university campuses, mainly because they’re the only public spaces where we’ve had any influence. Their favourite targets are trigger warnings, which alert viewers of potentially distressing content in film or literature (not so excessive when you consider 1 on 5 women are survivors of sexual assault, for instance); and ‘safe spaces’, which explicitly prohibit discrimination normalised in wider society, for example against women, LGBTQ or people of colour. Next to climate change, war, historic inequality, domestic violence and racism, for example, pockets of social life trying to protect people from prejudice hardly seem like the most pressing of social ills. But the argument goes that this ‘snowflake culture’ insulates us from ideas we don’t like, promoting censorship and poorly preparing us for life in ‘the real world’.

My main issue with this thinking is that it’s based on a complete mis-remembering of some golden age of the university when all arguments were had and won on their own merit. What they’re actually remembering is a time before their social privilege was broadly challenged. Ask any student from the sixties who was poor, gay, black or a woman, even, and you’ll find things remembered a little differently: as a long, collective struggle against violent discrimination. They’ll remember the ‘brown paper bag test’ to make sure you were pale enough to join civil society organisations; students excluded for their sexuality; mini skirts widely considered an invitation to rape. I mean what the hell is there to be nostalgic about there, unless none of those things affected you?

Don’t get me wrong, the sixties were awesome. But they were awesome precisely because they marked a battle for deep cultural change. They brought a youth revolution that protested, occupied and marched in the face of police brutality and social exclusion to spearhead a social revolution. Let me put it another way:

It was the ‘snowflakes’ of the baby boomer generation that made the sixties what they were.

Ideas have never battled on a level playing field. The arguments made by or empowering marginalised groups have always come up against unique obstacles (police batons, powerful institutions, all the money invested in the status quo). And if a safe space does anything to protect against, or a trigger warning anything to validate, the trauma of that experience, what right does anyone with no lived experience of oppression have to deny us that?

The Snowflake Generation critique is absolutely manufactured by the most privileged in our society, protected by the lottery of their birth from the brutal realities of exploitation and racial, gendered and anti-LGBTQ violence. These are not the people who were flooding onto Downing Street last week to stand up and be counted. They are the people for whom most spaces are safe; whose self image and self-confidence is bolstered everytime they see their own reflection in political and popular culture; people who disparage the notion of a trigger warning because they have no idea what it takes to survive trauma.

If anyone’s being infantalised by the system we live in, it’s them; it’s the guys who can’t even be confronted with their own privilege without erupting into bigotry or hurt feelings.

That they’re well placed to succeed in ‘the real world’ is hardly a revelation; for centuries, the rules have been written with them in mind. But this system isn’t working out for the any of us. Looked out your window at the world lately? It’s a mess. So shouldn’t we be more concerned with fixing it, than being like it?

As a species, we now inherit the power to destroy ourselves, whether through climate catastrophe or nuclear holocaust. (Nice one, baby boomers.) Bearing that in mind, perhaps Generation Snowflake is a necessary antidote; that we, born into a violent and divided world, cradle the embryo of a new culture that can find it in itself to respond to trauma with kindness; that can respect individuality and will defend diversity.

If, as both science and history teach us, people have always been snowflakes – completely unique and acutely fragile – then recognising that will get us further than denying it.

And a generation willing to protect and cherish those timeless human qualities will be infinitely more capable of creating peace, sustainability and democracy than its critics ever dared think possible.

snowflakesystem

Published by Speakers Corner, Hunger TV

Artwork by Eskay Lama

We must go big, bold & migrant-led, says New Sanctuary Movement

27 January 2017

This is the second instalment of the Still We Dream series, where we’ll hear from grassroots migrant rights and racial justice organisers across the United States. They’ll share how they’re building their movements in Trump’s America and tackling racial privilege not just beyond the movement – but to transform it within. 

The City of Sanctuary movement in the US goes back to 1979, when Los Angeles introduced a policy banning police officers from asking arrestees about their immigration status. Throughout the 1980s this was replicated in many states and hundreds of religious congregations hid and transported refugees fleeing conflict and US-backed death squads in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. At the movement’s height it operated an underground railroad reminiscent of the one that operated during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In the 1980s, more than 500 congregations were secretly hosting refugees, moving them from Mexico to find sanctuary in cities across the US.

Today, there are over 200 sanctuary cities across the US; outposts of a principle treasured and upheld by a powerful, national movement. This week, we’re interviewing Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia (NSM). This migrant-led, inter-faith organisation is developing a rapid response systems to raids, taking the sanctuary movement on to the streets.

Marienna: It’s been a few days now since the inauguration, how are you guys feeling?

Peter: We had our People’s Inauguration on Friday and it felt really good to focus on something active. We had 20 different groups there: Catholics speaking alongside trans people and former sex workers and it felt really good to see everyone coming together like that. In a way, now Trump’s actually here, after all these months of anxiety and anticipation I feel like we can engage, which is good. But it’s a mixed reaction. There’s a lot of anxiety and fear about what he’s going to do and how that will impact our communities – but the flip side is that we’re seeing more people coming out than ever, ready to fight.

Click here and scroll down to see what the People’s Inauguration looked like

Marienna: How did the NSM get started and how has it evolved?

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Peter: Here in Philly we started in 2007: clergy, immigrant members and folks from other migrant rights organisations. It was all volunteers. No one was organising the faith community even though many congregations were being hit by the fallout of immigration policies. We started with education and accompaniment – walking through the process with families facing deportation, making sure they had trustworthy lawyers and going with them to court, or visiting them in detention. That was all about building relationships. We work with 21 congregations at the moment, half are migrants. And the same with our staff, we make sure at least half the board is migrant and becoming more migrant-led has been really important.

It’s one of our key values: that those affected are the experts in what they need. Ultimately we’re working towards a shift in the balance of power in favour of those most marginalised, and if that’s what we want to see we need to do it in our own organisations.

It’s a solidarity structure we’re continually working on – being a mixed organisation of migrants and allies – but how it’s worked developing strategy is that we start with listening campaigns, interviewing migrant members about what issues affect them. And then for each campaign we do strategy retreats with migrant working groups and they set the direction. Then we found we were creating a lot of segregation, with our migrant members and white allies really working in quite separate spaces and we were like ‘well this isn’t really working, we need to figure out how to bring them together.’ So we did shift a little.

Marienna: NSM was central to ending collaboration between local officials and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). How was that victory won and what did it mean for the community?

Peter: This is something that really started after 9/11. The collaboration between immigration agencies and police started under Bush but really escalated under Obama. At first it was opt-in but they kept changing the rules. In Philly our mayor kept stalling, sympathetic in meetings but never taking action. He wanted piecemeal changes, tied very much into this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant’ narrative, but we wanted everyone to be protected from the impacts of collaboration, whether people were pulled over for having a broken tail light or had been arrested for violent crime.

Marienna: Here you have some quarters wanting to protect refugees only or ‘good immigrants’ only, so it’s contentious to come out and say: ‘no, this shouldn’t be happening to anyone and we want protection for everyone.’

Peter: It was and it still is. Some of our members still aren’t 100% on board, though being in a faith organisation really encourages us to reflect on the ideas of forgiveness and redemption. I remember, we were working a lot with the Cambodian community, whose kids were getting beaten up in school and formed gangs to protect themselves, and later got involved in drugs and some violence. That also pushed us to challenge this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant,’and highlighted how many people get left behind by that.

Marienna: Talk about Sanctuary in the Streets.

Peter: Sanctuary in the Streets started under Obama when he announced an escalation of raids against central American communities. The sanctuary offered by a congregation is no good if ICE come and raid your house, you can’t get there. So the idea was to bring the congregation to them, holding an interfaith service outside the house. We have a raids hotline open 24/7, the idea being we get a call and mass-text everyone who’s signed up to show up at the address and show solidarity and shine a light on what’s happening. We had 64 sign up, then Trump won and suddenly hundreds of people were signing up in hours. There’s over 1000 people on the list now. So now we’re running trainings, with people willing to risk arrest also signing up for civil disobedience: to encircle the house or the vans and block their path.

Marienna: what do you think has raised the courage or the determination for so many people to be signing up to risk arrest?

Peter: It was really a response to something much bigger, with Trump coming in and the programme being a concrete way of getting involved in standing up to everything he represents. I think it’s been successful, again because it’s so bold.

It’s disruptive, but in a way that fits with and communicates the peaceful values we hold.

It’s not the whole answer, though. Stuff like Sanctuary in the Streets, which is very defensive, is also very draining and hard to sustain. Moving forwards we need to make sure that while we’re fighting back against Trump we’re doing something positive locally. We learned under Bush that even when things are terrible at the federal level, we can have a real local impact. For example, we have another campaign to stop migrants’ cars being towed because they’re not allowed to have a driver’s license. We had people being left on the side of the road with their kids at 2am. Plus it costs like $1000 to get the car back, which for many of our members is a month’s wages. And we were able to get the city to reinterpret the law in a softer way, to at least give them 30 minutes to call someone to come and get the car. Again, that’s solid, concrete results for people in the here and now and that balance is important: between fighting back but always pushing for something positive.

Marienna: You’re organising across not just boundaries of race and class but also faith, and one of your next priorities is incorporating more mosques into Sanctuary in the Streets.

Peter: We have not been successful in organising mosques. It’s something we’ve been trying for a couple of years, and I think I’ve learned some big lessons about the importance of who you have in the room when you start, because that does form the culture immediately, whether you want it to or not, and many of the things facing the Muslim community are quite unique. To form something and then invite other people and groups into it is much harder.

We are building relationships with mosques but it’s very challenging also because of the level of government spying and intimidation of the Muslim community. There was this one mosque I was working with and I’d swing by for Friday prayers and then suddenly this big story broke about the New York Police department infiltrating mosques in New York and Philadelphia and there I am, this random white dude walking around probably looking like a cop, which wasn’t very helpful. There are very high levels of mistrust, and for very good reason. I think we’d really need to start with that tried and tested method of a listening campaign within the Muslim community to identify what they want to work on, and work on that rather than bringing them into what we’re already doing. We haven’t had capacity for that yet, but it’s something we’re trying to figure out.

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Marienna: What’s going on in American hearts and minds? How did we go from Obama to almost-Bernie to probably-Clinton to Donald Trump?

Peter: When Trump came on the scene 18 months ago, we dismissed him as a clown who’d have his moment and then go away.

Marienna: – that’s what a lot of people here said about Brexit.

Peter: Exactly. I remember reading about UKIP and the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Germany and right wing nationalist groups popping up in Europe, and here we just have Republicans and Democrats, but watching that enabled us to put a name to it, to see: ‘oh, Trump, he’s a nationalist if not a fascist,’ and after that we started taking him a lot more seriously. It’s been a challenge for us to name what he is, but listening to Europe has really helped us to see what’s happening here in the US with a clearer lens.

To answer your question, there’s these census reports showing that in 20 years white folks will lose majority in the States and that has a lot of people very scared. They’re scared of losing their power, and there’s been this trend recently in poor white communities getting that life spans are getting shorter, there’s a lot of drug addiction and for the first time the next generation’s quality of life is worse, not better. People see themselves as victims, somehow.

Marienna: Looking forwards, where do you think the movement needs to be a year from now and what are the key principles that are likely to get us to that critical mass moment?

Peter: Wow, that question makes me realise that with managing crises like we are right now we’re maybe a little too stuck in the moment, putting out fires – Trump, the election – and we do need to keep looking forwards, too.

We’ve been talking about the importance of going beyond defence, beyond ‘Trump’s terrible’, to put forward an alternative vision.

Marienna: Trump’s terrible, but here’s something beautiful.

Peter: Yeah, I like that! And nobody’s really moving on this because it’s really difficult and really contentious, but there are a lot of poor, white people that voted for Trump, and who’s going to start organising them? The trade policies that allowed all the factories in the US to go abroad, they left a lot of people here unemployed and are also devastating the global south, so they migrate to the global north and come up against a really hostile environment. So someone needs to reach out to them and start effecting change there. And nationally, I think we need to do some soul searching, especially with so many people coming out onto the streets for the first time, we need to know: what are we really fighting for? And how do we channel all this energy in a way that’s sustainable?

Marienna: What’s your message for migrant communities over here, and their allies, who might be looking at what you’ve achieved and wondering: how do we get there?

Peter: I feel what’s been most important for us is to be deeply grounded in our values and take risks based on those, whether it’s Sanctuary in the Streets direct action or hiring people who are undocumented. Looking back at the things I’ve been most proud of in our past, we’ve been at our best when we’re really bold. Bold things that connect with people’s values and give people the space to play that out.

Also we recently went to a racial reconciliation workshop, evaluating organisations on a spectrum from ‘no people of colour’ through tokenising through to being led by people of colour and having authentic engagement. Now in our history we definitely moved across that spectrum, and prioritising that and being ready to slow down to protect and strengthen those principles, in the long run we’ve built a stronger organisation because of it. What’s helped more than anything is listening and being ready to change. I mean really make big changes to our organisation according to what migrant members and communities are saying.

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Originally published by Red Pepperand produced for Right to Remain

The extended interview transcript is available on the Right to Remain website

Still We Dream: learning from the US migrant rights movement

19 January 2017

Throughout the Still We Dream series, we’ll hear from grassroots migrant rights and racial justice organisers across the United States talk about how they’re building their movements in Trump’s America and tackling racial privilege not just beyond the movement – but to transform it within. 

phoenix

The election of Donald Trump as the next US president has shaken the world. Not that Hilary Clinton was much of a champion for migrant rights, but what Trump’s victory reflected in the hearts and minds of the American people has been a sobering wake-up call. Even here, the few days after the US election were dark, with activists and community organisers visibly shaken. As with Brexit, we had all been warning of the danger but when it actually arrived, found we couldn’t believe. How could such a brazenly racist and sexist figure be elected the most powerful position in world politics? And now, what?

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Over the past three years in the United States, in the face of a record 2.5 million deportations under Obama, the nationwide Dream Movement has been heading towards the most significant victory the immigrant rights movement had seen in 40 years’. It had gone far, alongside Black Lives Matter, towards restoring faith in the enduring power of social movements to shake the ground and change the world – even in the USA. The election of a president who has declared war, not just on a movement but on a people, could have been a death blow. But there are encouraging signs that this movement is rising like a phoenix from the ashes, learning, mobilising and connecting faster than ever before.

In this series of blog posts, we’ll be interviewing migrants and organisers from across the United States, who’ll share experiences and insights from this extraordinary moment in their movement’s history. They’ll talk about everything from winning the public debate to building rapid-response systems to immigration raids. And we’ll be thinking about what might work for us, to meet the challenges ahead for UK movements against racism and for migration justice.

“I am genuinely afraid, but I firmly believe in the power of the people. I am heartened by all the people, especially young people in the streets. That is the movement I come from. We must disrupt, obstruct, hold each other, strategise, organise, and fight like we never have before. “

– Cindy Wiesner, national coordinator for the U.S.-based Grassroots Global Justice Alliance

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During a presidential campaign dominated by scandalous allegations of sexual assault and racial slurs against immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Mexicans and the Black Lives Matter movement to name a few, Trump’s intentions for his first 100 days in office have been gut-wrenching. He has pledged to begin his first term with the forced removal of more than two million undocumented people from the country and completely close US borders from ‘terror-prone regions’ and impose ‘extreme vetting’ on all people coming to the United States. He has pledged to introduce a two year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence for anyone illegally re-entering the country having been deported and build a ‘deportation force’ dedicated to expelling a jaw-dropping 11 million people.

Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, told the New York Times that:

“[Trump] would have to conduct a sweep, or raids or tactics such as those, to reach the numbers he wants to reach. It would create a police state, in which they would have to be aggressively looking for people.”

Sarah Lazare writes: “In interviews with grassroots organisers who work with undocumented people across the country, AlterNet was repeatedly told that the task, now, is not to petition or persuade the Trump government, but to fortify communities on the local level and coordinate resistance nationally, in order to levy the most effective and strategic defence of people at risk. At a time when many are upset, scared and willing to take bold steps to protect their neighbours, communities and families, these organisers are working to develop infrastructure for a nationwide fightback.”

This movement has a long and rich history of solidarity activism stretching well beyond the more famous examples of the civil rights movement – most notably the Cities of Sanctuary, which will be the topic of next week’s blog. Sanctuary cities offering asylum and protection for exiles and migrants date back thousands of years and have been associated with religious traditions from Christian, Islam and Judaism to Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism.

In the United States the tradition goes back to 1979, when public pressure saw Los Angeles ban police officers from asking arrestees about their immigration status. Throughout the 1980s this was replicated in many states and hundreds of religious congregations hid and transported refugees fleeing conflict and US-backed death squads in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. According to Puck Lo, writing for the Nation, “At the movement’s height, more than 500 congregations nationwide hosted refugees and operated an underground railroad that moved migrants from Mexico to cities all over the United States and as far north as Canada.”

Today, there are over 200 sanctuary cities spanning the United States. In the next Still We Dream blog, we’ll look at Trump’s tactics to intimate and eradicate these sanctuary cities, and interview Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia, about how people are responding: how communities are building their own sanctuary spaces, challenging churches, mosques and other religious buildings to return to their sanctuary roots and ultimately taking the sanctuary movement back to its beginnings – in the streets.

In the meantime, you can show your opposition to President Trump tomorrow, on the day of his inauguration, by joining one of many Bridges Not Walls actions happening across the UK and around the world. Find out more at the website bridgenotwalls.uk or on facebook.

Published by Right to Remain

Read More of the Still We Dream series

  1. The New Sanctuary Movement says we must go big, bold and migrant-led interview with Peter Pedemonti in Philadelphia

 

 

Migration Messaging and the Silence of Africa

12 January 2017

“I am an invisible man…I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

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Take all the lives lost in Bosnia, Darfur and the Rwandan genocide, then add the 2005 Asian tsunami, plus a 9/11 every single day for 356 days; then go through the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Put all of those together, double your total and you still don’t reach the number of lives lost in just one of Africa’s silent conflicts.

“Most people aren’t forced out of their homes, they choose to go. Most people could, should and don’t stay in their home countries or neighbouring countries. Africans need to stop fighting each other. Africans need to stop wasting our aid money.” These are just a few of most stubborn and baseless ideas I spend a frustrating portion of my Facebook life arguing against and factual back-up from other journalists is often harder to find than it should be, thanks in part to a growing orthodoxy that information just doesn’t change minds these days. But after four years studying international politics and economic development, six years campaigning and a year working with migrants and refugees, I remain convinced that unless we find a way to change minds while challenging propaganda in the name of truth, we will never make the world a safer, fairer, freer place: not in Britain, not in Africa, not anywhere.

“Information just doesn’t change minds.”

This is familiar phrase to anyone involved in campaigning for change. When it comes to migration, the government and mainstream media have successfully projected the image of Britain as a ‘soft touch’. And the disastrously inaccurate impression many are left with is that every year, countless people risk Europe’s dangerous and difficult migration routes to reach Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’, skipping over a host of safe alternative countries on the way, almost out of spite.

The ‘no-numbers argument’ is starting to gain traction in civil society and amongst progressive NGOs, particularly on immigration, where any mention of the historic numbers of people being forced from their homes often do frighten British people taught to hold migrants and refugees responsible for our social and economic woes. So, the argument goes, even though the British public is overwhelmingly misinformed about immigration, we mustn’t correct them.

The argument came from a good place: a desire to humanise vulnerable groups of people, too often reduced to mere statistics. It has an important role to play; we do need to tell peoples’ stories and they are a powerful way of creating connection between those we talk to and those we talk about. Numbers can frighten people – reality is sometimes frightening. But that doesn’t mean the truth – the whole truth – no longer matters, or that we don’t have a right to it. The numbers are important for the same reason personal stories are important; because they’re not really numbers at all; they’re people – they’re us, our families, our communities, but for a random lottery of birth. Erasing them silences the human stories of millions; nowhere more so, than Africa.

“What’s happening in Africa?”

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In Africa, well over half of those displaced are staying in their own countries (contributing to a total of 40.8 million internally displaced people worldwide.) In December, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre released its report on displacement and forced migration in the African continent. Muted by a media more concerned with the Queen’s Christmas flu, it was announced that in 2015 alone, conflict, violence and other disasters forced 3.5 million Africans from their homes.

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DEFINITION: Internally Displaced Person (IDP) – someone who is
forced to flee their home but who remains within their country’s borders. They are often referred to as refugees, although they do not fall within the current legal definition of a refugee, who must have been forced beyond their home borders by conflict, violence or persecution. 

Let’s take just two of the more prominent examples.

Snapshot: the El Niño Drought

37 million African people started 2017 without food. And no one seems to know about it. As Ian Johnston writes, during the last drought in 2010: “women bound their waists with rope to deaden the pangs of hunger as they gave what little food they had to their children. In stark contrast to such selfless acts, the international community stood back and watched until it was too late for the 260,000 people who starved to death.”

Stories like this one expose the ‘bogus asylum seeker’ narratives – and the increasingly tenuous distinctions between migrants and refugees – for what they are: privileging some lives above others. Are you any more free to choose whether to flee a war, than mass starvation? Would our fear for our children, for our future be any less? And given that since 2013 climate change rivals conflict as the leading cause of forced migration, how morally meaningful is that distinction in today’s increasingly unstable and unequal world? The answers to these questions all reinforce the value of the approach taken by forward thinking organisations like Right to Remain, which rejects this moral distinction. The frightening truth is that in the absence of a significant political shift, as the driving factors of forced migration worsen, the migrant/refugee distinction will become increasingly meaningless and policymakers will either get up to speed on that, or let millions die. So it falls to civil society and all people of conscience to get policymakers and fence-sitters up to speed.

The hypocrisy deepens when we look at what’s driving these disasters, deep down. This drought was triggered by one of the strongest El Niño events ever recorded, impacting weather patterns and spreading disease the world over (yes, it will affect us too); part of a global warming process driven by greenhouse emissions for which the richest nations in the global north – particularly the UK – are overwhelmingly responsible.

Snapshot: Africa’s world war

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We hear a lot about Syria, where over 400,000 people have been killed since 2011. But how much do we hear about ‘Africa’s world war’? We hear a lot about Daesh, but how much do we hear about the decades of equally brutal (and often, Western-backed) violence by government troops as well as armed rebels and private militias in this war?

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) saw six million people killed and 2 million displaced between 1998 and 2003. To make that number mean something: take all lives lost in Bosnia, Rwanda 1994 and Darfur then add the 2005 Asian tsunami, then add a 9/11 every single day for 356 days and then go through the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Put all of those together, multiply by 2 and you’re still not even close.

Successive British governments bear considerable historical responsibility for the state affairs in DRC as well. British corporations continue make a killing from what Amnesty International describes as ‘plunder and slavery’ in the country’s £15.5 trillion mineral sector, which operates business as usual while the people of the country remain the third poorest in the world. I believe there are certain things journalists have an obligation to report, even if it makes some readers uncomfortable. And this is definitely one of them.

In Defence of Numbers – and People

There is a problem with how NGOs and journalists talk about the vastly complex challenges the world faces today but it won’t be resolved by avoiding numbers any more than by avoiding the real human experiences of conflict, climate change, poverty and the quest for progress. The problem isn’t with statistics themselves so much as it is with their source. People are, rightly, suspicious of where numbers are coming from, with public trust in the establishment – that’s politicians, charities and the media – at an all-time low. And there are solid grounds for that, I think many of us can agree. So those of us campaigning for change need to stop relying on those institutions to truth-tell for us and start challenging them, because no one believes in them anymore.

Secondly, there is an obvious contradiction in the media and civil society’s new-found passion for ‘personal story telling’. If the life experience of these people is so valuable, why is there so little expert-by-experience testimony in the media? Why are black and migrant communities so under-represented in the press, civil society and even the charities meant to represent them? And why when migrants’ stories are heard in the media do they so often lose control of them, sensationalised and commodified with no regard for the teller? Meanwhile, projects like Unlocking Detention, which produces a wealth of powerful, personal testimonies from migrants detained in Britain, reaches a comparatively small audience.

Finally, these different ways of communicating have been segregated from each other. Cold statistics are used to persuade the powerful, distancing them from the human cost of their policies, while emotive ‘human interest’ stories are exclusively relied upon to sway the public an elitist press either considers incapable of learning, or is uninterested in teaching. We need to break down that barrier, bringing humanity to news and policy while restoring facts to their rightful place in the public debate. When truth fails to strike a chord with people, we need to find a way to make it mean something instead of surrendering it to silence, along with the stories of those who struggle hardest to be heard.

Published by Right to Remain

Right to Remain group launches in Sheffield

It started with just a handful of locals, as these things often do. Like many international volunteers, Fran, who has been organising supply runs to Calais over the past year with her Unite Community branch, is turning her attention to the home front: Fortress Britain, where so many people risk and endure so much to reach in what Theresa May proudly calls her ‘hostile environment’. And Rosie, having spent many months collecting donations for Calais, came to realise how much solidarity work was needed here at home after attending a Right to Remain workshop.

On 19th October I met them both in a cafe in Sheffield, just a few days after I joined the team at Right to Remain. These women had ambitions to launch a new local group to fill the gaps in Sheffield’s solidarity infrastructure, and had organised an open meeting for existing volunteers and interested locals. Right to Remain has supported the development of local groups like this for more than twenty years – but this time things were a little different: they wanted to build a group based on Right to Remain’s model of mutual aid and practical solidarity. “It feels really good to be part of something so collaborative, that’s about humanity and solidarity,” Rosie explained.

At the meeting hall, I met her dad, Tom Heller. His parents had been refugees from Nazi persecution in Europe. They had fled together at the last moment, forced to leave everyone and everything behind.

“When they arrived in England they were put into a detention camp,” Tom said softly. “They never talked about what happened there… I don’t have to say anything else about why I want to help.”

Tom had been to Right to Remain’s annual gathering in Manchester a few weeks earlier and shared his thoughts with the group. “Being there helped me imagine that it’s possible to create a community of common interest and that together we can actually do something positive. This is a moment of enormous social upheaval, forcing mass migration all over the world and so many challenges for us here, too. How we react will define us as nations, communities and individuals. But as an individual, it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed. It can be paralysing, that sense of: ‘what can I – or we few alone – really do about all this suffering?’ But at that national gathering I felt a strong common bond was formed. People from all over the world, many of whom have had experience of displacement and seeking asylum, made personal contact with each other and together we looked for ways to overcome.”

What followed at the Sheffield meeting was similar. More than thirty people attended from a range of backgrounds: students and pensioners, those seeking asylum and locals from the community. Much of the time was spent exploring their questions. We talked about how Right to Remain would support and complement existing local groups; the range of different ways everyone could contribute; and the importance of local work linking into a national network to share knowledge, resources and mutual support.

Michael from Right to Remain also shared a little of the organisation’s history. Starting as the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, it represents over 20 years of solidarity work. Over time, with the system becoming more treacherous to navigate, campaigning against individual deportations simply wasn’t achieving enough.

“I joined Right to Remain in 2009 and much of the work was on our helpline for people in increasingly desperate situations. Sometimes we were able to delay deportations – but it was heartbreaking, frustrating work because it just wasn’t winning people what they needed: the right to remain.”

So, those involved decided to re-define their approach. They travelled to migrant communities and the solidarity groups that supported them across the country, to find out what they really needed. The overwhelming response was: solidarity, not charity; and early-stage support, because when things go wrong at the start it’s often impossible to undo the damage. Part of what defines Right to Remain is this understanding: that the system is set up to send people back, not to find the truth.

That’s how the toolkit was born: Right to Remain’s comprehensive, clear and honest guide to the British immigration and asylum system. The toolkit now forms the heart of the training Right to Remain offer to migrants, asylum seekers and their allies, since it was first tried in Calais back in 2011. In European camps I’ve seen first-hand what a difference such guidance can make. People are thrown into a bewildering legal system it takes English-speaking law students years to get their heads around. Often there’s no independent advice on regulations, but failing to obey can mean assault, family separation and detention.

Many participants at the Sheffield meeting were keen to attend the training session Right to Remain will host there on 10th November, for supporting people through their initial asylum interview. Lisa, from Right to Remain, shared her conversation with someone seeking asylum in Liverpool the previous day: “He told me, ‘When you go into that interview, they all tell you that you’re this thing; this thing that you’re not, because they don’t believe you, they don’t believe your story. And then you start to become this thing, that the Home Office says you are.’ And so our approach is all about fighting back for the person that person actually is; it’s about having people around you who say I believe you and I stand by you.”

I felt her conviction being quietly taken up by the rest of us. “And he’s about to get a decision, so it’s not an abstract point for him whether he gets the right to remain,” she continued.

“But he said ‘even if I get refugee status, the way the Home Office treats you, if that’s all you have… it changes you.’ That’s why we need to see mutual support happening all over the place. It’s not just the person going through the process that’s important in this approach, it’s about us as well, it’s about having stronger communities at the end of it. And that’s the kind of thing that really threatens people like Theresa May.”

Originally published by Right to Remain