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Refugees and Dirty Work

Gary Lineker and Lily Allen – love them or loathe them? Their pro-refugee outspokenness has sparked off a media backlash that strikes at the heart of what it means to be British in a post-Brexit world. Is it British to extend hospitality towards outsiders in need, or is it British to defend the nation from being overtaken by strangers who will only deplete already-scarce resources? These are questions that demand moral and practical positions which are inseparable.

Refugees are outsiders par excellence. Plus, their vulnerability, traumatic experiences and urgent need for help give their host society unquestionable moral and political authority in deciding how to respond. Receiving governments have a chance to demonstrate their goodness in the face of evil and suffering. But refugees can also be intensely disliked, especially by those who consider their claims bogus or who see them as undesirable in other ways – are they closet terrorists or rapists, for example?

So there is a question of moral framing here. Everybody agrees that the refugee crisis is real, urgent and that something must be done. And nobody is denying that victims of war and aggression need to be helped. But the moral debate becomes messy and crass when the question of who is an authentic (and therefore deserving) refugee gets thrown in. Here, it is important to separate the ideological strands of the debate and the realities of processing refugee claims, which is arduous and painstaking, as detailed by organisations such as the Red Cross. My point is, when people start seeing the majority or perhaps even some refugees as fake or dangerous it helps them to shirk their practical responsibilities to provide crucial help.

This is why I am particularly interested in criticisms that people like Lineker and Allen are leftie “luvvies” and hypocrites who would not open up their own mansions to refugees. The insinuation is that it’s easy to take the moral high ground if you are not prepared to do the dirty work of actually helping the people you claim to defend. That’s a perfectly valid and necessary claim. Which is why it is important for the public debate that we pay attention to the various individuals and state and non-state organisations that are doing concrete things to help refugees. For example, Lambeth was the first local council to support a resettlement scheme for refugee children. Much more can and must be done by the government, local communities and individual “leftie luvvies”, but this is a start.

Criticism must work both ways, though. Yes, it is imperative that we question “leftie luvvies” about whether they will walk their politically utopian talk. But for all the non-luvvie anti-refugee folks, who is going to walk their talk for them? If they’ve decided that vast swathes of refugees are not “authentic” – in this case, because they’re not really children – who is going to do the dirty work of verifying their age by checking their teeth? Who is then going to arrest them, charge them, incarcerate them and force them to flee yet again? Will it be the right-leaning media commentators, our politicians, civil servants, or ordinary folk who go out and physically rid our shores of these supposedly mendacious vermin?

I have no answers to these questions – and they’ve been raised before by sociologists like Everett Hughes. They continue to be important, however, because they are about the moral and practical divisions of labour that emerge whenever the public mood is hostile towards a particular group of people. For example, in many societies (and in some Western liberal democracies, too, not too long ago), anti-gay sentiments permeate public opinion. But who are the actual people who are entrusted to do the dirty work of arresting, torturing, “rehabilitating” and cleansing these societies of homosexuals? And why stop at sexuality? Who were the actual people who joined the SS in Nazi Germany and rounded up, tortured and gassed the Jews, Gypsies and Slavs? Who were the actual people tasked with catching, beating, raping and lynching African American slaves once upon a time?   

And what is the relationship between these people who did the dirty work, those who gave them the mandate to do it, those who protested, and those who stood by and watched?

Shanon Shah is deputy editor of Critical Muslim. 

Photo credit: BBC