Death on the Tracks: Why Language Matters

October 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

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I’ve been reading about the appalling conditions in the refugee camp at Calais. I recommend this Independent newspaper article from which I take the image of the camp also known as the Jungle. To my mind it tells you more than the two articles I’m going to focus on to talk about language. Here there is detail and real encounter, the banality and desperation come through. To escape the Jungle some have been wiling to risk death on the tracks – you don’t get this from The Guardian whose reporting seems more distant in this case. For the Independent Joseph Charlton writes,

“I ask Tom Radcliffe, a volunteer who has been fund-raising and coming here since July, for his estimation of the Jungle. “It’s like a rock concert,” he says. “It’s like a rock concert that’s been going on for 10 years where nobody likes the music, and the only way to leave might kill you.””

For the (it seems a) billionth time in recent days I rue the devastating repeat of history, for in 1939 Spanish Republican exiles (including members of my family) were kept behind barbed wire, under armed guard, in insanitary conditions with limited or no supplies. Many of the exiles did not survive. In those days, in those times the term exile was in use.

Also reading The Guardian article entitled  Calais refugee camp conditions diabolical, gave me shivers of recognition with my own research into my father’s and grandparents’ period of internment in France more than 70 years ago. These are the facts and we need to know them so that we can act and give more aid and more refuge today. The newspaper reports on,

“… 3,000 people…with cramped makeshift tents plagued by rats, water sources contaminated by faeces and inhabitants suffering from tuberculosis, scabies and post-traumatic stress.”

But the Guardian has also published the article Calais terminal ‘invasion’ halts Eurotunnel overnight in which, along with so many other sources it uses terms refugee and migrant together – perhaps this is an attempt at accuracy, but it is not accurate. We cannot know the exact status of the 100 or so people involved in this incident. In some ways I understand why The Guardian hedges it’s bets in this way and it should perhaps not matter. But it does so. AND, there are those of us who argue passionately that no-one choses the Jungle.

Yet it all does boil down to questions of choice or compulsion – which feed and perpetuate confusion and prejudice in the public mind, fuelling the debate over what to do with a such a mass of displaced people trapped in the Jungle of Calais. There is a feeling that compulsion deserves (though with reservations and not in great numbers please!), whereas choice does not. It’s a false dichotomy in truth but one used to divide opinion and shelve what is truly a humanitarian crisis of great proportion.  We know that language is important and often politically charged, and it’s been highlighted in many quarters that a refugee is not a migrant by any means. The Oxford Dictionary provides the definitions which prove this point. A migrant is “a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions” while a refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.”

These terms are thus problematic when combined or interchanged, the BBC (itself criticised and the subject of a petition on this matter) usefully reports on this complex issue of language, opinion and changing trends, describing it as a battle over language. Interestingly I note, exile has gone out of fashion – too ennobling it seems.

“”Exile has gone out of credit,” says Betts, since the end of the Cold War. “It had a slightly sort of dignified and noble connotation,” he argues.”

My father was extraordinary lucky, both to survive and to be given refuge and life long exile in England – in his time the term migrant was not used, although he was classed as alien and under curfew in his first years in the UK. His rescue was due to the actions of altruistic individuals and a network of committed volunteers working on behalf of the Spanish refugees. All were working in opposition to government policy as it happens, and as certain European voices turn with talk of following the example of Hungary, I hope that the people will again continue to mobilise and act as others did before us. We must give what we can, and speak out for the refugees. We must counter both rampant and creeping xenophobia. The creeping variety is almost as dangerous if not more so – it can be contained in the very language we choose to use and we must make our choices responsibly.

This is simple to grasp and truly concerning. I ask myself if the public memory will stretch long enough. Barely a month ago, the tiny body of a young boy, washed ashore, pricked consciences and pierced hearts across the globe. I fear the chill of yesterday’s news. That the image of this child will fade in the shadow cast by greed and fear.  A defenceless child is one thing but marauding hoards of the undeserving are another.

So, I’m really not nitpicking. I hate that it matters so much. We should simply reach out to all those in desperate need. It also exposes fully the seam of xenophobia running through our society at many levels. Are not migrants increasingly cast in a different light from those genuinely in need of succour, seen as greedy for our privilege, after our jobs, our welfare our soil. You can blame austerity politics for the pitch of hostility in certain quarters, and you only have to read the comments sections of the Guardian, and those who troll #refugeeswelcome on Twitter to find where the xenophobes hang out.

For a short film about my father’s rescue and exile to England please follow the link Without You I Would Not Exist.

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