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Tragedy of Aylan Kurdi brings out Britain’s split personality over refugees

Dip below the line on the Daily Mail to find the views of those who fully agree with David Cameron's reluctance to accept more refugees

Stalin once infamously said, “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.”

It seems odd that one terribly poignant image can almost singlehandedly spark a political crisis after more than four years of horror coming out of Syria, and a year of shocking deaths of refugees crossing the Mediterranean.

My own reaction to the pictures of Aylan Kurdi, which have sparked a storm in the UK and across Europe, was visceral and immediate. On seeing images of the toddler washed up on a Turkish beach, I got out of my chair and walked away from my computer to sit alone and fight back the tears.

However, a quick glance at the below the line comments from Daily Mail readers gives a flavour of how some view this tragedy and political storm very differently. Beneath a story about two babies called Hope and Shelter, who were born in Keleti station in Budapest, among thousands of refugees awaiting transit, were the following comments:

“Want a headline to soften up the public, then a Baby will do it; this is Britain today; everyone wears their emotions on their sleeves, a soft society that will, in the end be the creator of its own demise.”

“Why bring a child into such conflict and then expect another country to support it?”

“If you are living in a war torn country why would you conceive a child? - Surely you wait until you are in a safe enviroment before bringing a child into the world.”

“Here we go, sending the world on a guilt trip.”

The clear message from these heart-warming comments was that any attempt to see the people fleeing war and destitution in the Middle East as human beings in dire need of help is a form of self-deception and misplaced sentimentality. Essentially, we are being “softened up” to accept a large number of refugees onto our “crowded island” which is, of course “full up”.

To be fair to the DM reader, these weren’t the only comments – but they were among the most popular. Others suggested that the Daily Mail might be feeding a sense of resentment and panic about “hoards” of refugees “swarming” across Europe through “sensationalism and doom”.

But such reflections were in a minority. If you want to score a big thumbs up among the online readership of the Daily Mail, a hard cynical response is required to the plight of the refugees. Don’t be fooled!

What is striking about this kind of response is how polarising the refugee/migrant issue has become and how Britain – or rather England in particular – is actually two countries.

One is compassionate, liberal and internationalist, and welcomes a diverse population and an open approach to our increasingly mixed society. Among this group, understanding and sympathising with refugees is as natural as going to help a child or old person you see in distress on the street, fulfilling the age-old Christian principle that you should do unto others as you would want done to yourself.

The other group – who, I hazard, include most of the 49.5 percent of the electorate who voted Tory or Ukip in May - view migration and refugees as a problem that requires a hard-headed, practical response. Essentially, we are a crowded country and the taxes we pay go toward services for those who already live here. To open the door to more people will lead to an overburdening of services and the worsening of the housing crisis, and for many, undermine what remains of our Christian European, majority “white” country.

This is a view of Britain that the Daily Mail has promoted since the 1930s, and which the Conservative party has championed since Margaret Thatcher: selfish and nationalistic, it sees Britain is an island nation that has allowed too many immigrants in and needs to somehow reverse the flow, not let more people in, no matter how desperate their plight. Such a view is of course promoted every single day in many of our right-wing newspapers. This polarity will dominate British attitudes to refugees over the coming period, but moreover, will be a major and potentially decisive factor not only in the EU referendum next year but also in the 2020 general election.

To liberals (small ‘l’) many of the views of the Small Islanders are based on myths, such as that these people are coming here for benefits – rather than to work and contribute to society, which any rational view of the evidence shows they overwhelmingly are.

But rather than beat my head against the wall and join in the chorus of those who find such views repellent, it strikes me that there are some underlying reasons people think this way. First, the economy created under successive governments has given grounds for the kind of views found below the line on the Daily Mail - views Prime Minister David Cameron clearly sees as representing his core voters when he said we should not take any more refugees (a line he has modified in face of a public backlash over Aylan Kurdi).

Politics in Britain has favoured tax-dodging corporations and property owners to the detriment of workers for at least three decades. In practical terms, we have seen a concentration of wealth, stagnation of wages, increased deregulation of the labour market, and a property market that has seen no less than three house price bubbles since the 1980s – leading to the crashes of 1990 and 2008. We are now in the midst of the third bubble – prices and rents have never been higher. There is now a market in land that, with tax breaks thrown in, means landowners can make huge gains while sitting on land, which leads even Tory councillors to spit in fury at a system that prevents them from building desperately needed new homes.

Second, an open-door EU labour market has attracted millions of workers from Eastern Europe to these shores, thanks to a “flexible” labour market, a global language that millions speak or want to learn, and a tolerance that still exists towards newcomers. Given the lack of housing or employment security for the majority, tensions of some kind are almost inevitable. Refugees cannot be blamed for this state of affairs.

When combined with decades of refugee-bashing by the right-wing media and politicians of all stripes, and a history of racism and xenophobia, the Small Islanders’ views can in part be explained, even though, they are, at base, stomach-churningly dreadful.

Sadly, Britain has been socially engineered – both through economic policy and a diet of refugee and poor-bashing hate media – to view all those who are vulnerable, whether they are here, or over there – as a threat to our precarious well-being. This is the legacy of the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron ascendancy.

It will take Labour leader in waiting Jeremy Corbyn an almighty effort to turn back this tide of resentment and suspicion, but he does have the knowledge that millions of Britons share his deeply held views of solidarity and diversity.

Joe Gill has lived and worked as a journalist in Oman, London, Venezuela and the US, for newspapers including Financial Times, Brand Republic, Y Oman and the Morning Star. His Masters was in Politics of the World Economy at the London School of Economics.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Three-year-old Aylan (L) and his five-year-old brother Galip (R) drowned at sea (Twitter/@Majstar7)

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