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What the Calais ‘crisis’ reveals about racism

The deaths we have seen in Calais are not the first, and until Britain can come to terms with race and racism, they won’t be the last, says Zak Suffee

July 30, 2015
5 min read

Since the beginning of June, ten people have lost their lives in Calais, including Samir, a baby who died one hour after being born. Her mother fell from a truck triggering a premature delivery.

The Prime Minister David Cameron has “every sympathy” not with the families of these tragic deaths, but “with holidaymakers who are finding access to Calais difficult because of the disturbances”. These disturbances he later termed as ‘swarms’ of migrants.

In effect, the Prime Minister is saying #WhiteLivesMatter, and he is saying that #WhiteLivesMatter more.

Rather than addressing the dehumanisation of migrant/people trying to get to the UK, or the use of criminalising narratives perpetuated by the media around migration, it may be time for Britain to address the underlying issue of racism.

Whose lives are we talking about?

The prevailing narrative is that the ‘illegals’ want to access the rights and privileges that the British public enjoy. It is not because these migrants are without proper documentation, or whether they have a legal right to claim asylum, or even whether they might be fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution that makes the British society repel with disgust and ignore the details of their case. It is because they are not white.

How ‘we’ view British society explains how ‘we’ respond to the ‘Migrant Crisis’ in Calais, or similarly in the Mediterranean, where nearly 1900 people have also lost their lives. People of colour in the UK are an ethnic minority, but nevertheless, are a part of the UK, but are not included in this ‘we’. Some have a lived experience of having to justify their belonging, their Britishness, or their own legitimacy from a young age. Being asked ‘where are you really from?’ is now deemed rude and insensitive, but the debate that comes from why it is rude and insensitive has been swept under the very British carpet.

When these isles are thought of, it is not as an ethnically diverse landmass, it is thought of as white. The news reports it as white, the Prime Minister addresses it as white, and policies are designed with that in mind. Not white people, just white. This can be seen as the prevailing hegemony of whiteness reinforcing a privilege afforded to being white, or in its simplest form – White Supremacy.

Is it easy to spot who are they holiday makers and who makes the swarm?

There are Britons of colour who may share the same countries of origins of the Calais migrants. What of the Britons of colour, who resemble the faces of those who have died? What of the people of colour, British or not, who have been given the right to live in Britain, are they the lucky ones to have made it? They were ‘given’ the opportunity afterall. Are we to feel lucky for being born, raised or naturalised in this country, even though we’re not white? Because there are people who look like us, who are not worthy. Who are swarming and causing disturbances to holidaymakers.

If this ‘swarm’ of migrants infect the UK, and ask for asylum, a majority would be placed in one of 12 Immigration Removal Centres while their claims are processed. In these centres, they have no access to council housing, to welfare benefits, to work. They are locked away, allowed visitors at certain times and can even be placed in solitary confinement. They enter a violent and racist institution and if they emerge it is into another one.

Is it too easy to say it’s all ‘just’ racist, or is it too hard to accept that it is? When Home Secretary Theresa May was asked whether Black Lives Matter, in response to deaths in police custody her response didn’t include the word black. Essentially, her point was that ALL deaths in custody matter. A legitimate point.

When Black people are stopped and searched nearly three times more than White people in London, and when the PREVENT programme encourages doctors, health professionals, teachers and carers to be suspicious of their Muslim colleagues, patients or students who may be ‘at risk’ of being radicalised, race is an issue. The legitimacy of the belonging of a person of colour in the UK is being questioned, so yes, Theresa May is correct, all lives matter. Her message is clear, Black Lives Matter less, and poor Black lives even less.

The intersection of race and class in this respect cannot be ignored. The ‘we’ in British society doesn’t include those who are affected by the new welfare bill, or those who won’t be able to afford higher education, or who survive domestic violence or transphobia. But again, within this we see people of colour disproportionately affected . Positive discrimination won’t solve this, with the narrative is set in racist gear, and can be used to further widen the divide, for example, between white working class and working class people of colour. The overall question of who are deserving and who aren’t is still being asked. And it is not the white working class, or the working class people of colour who are doing the asking, or the deciding.

Britain’s time of austerity measures has revived an old framework of racial neglect, arguably of white supremacy, making it easier to reinforce who is and who is not deserving. Dividing people into who are legitimate, perpetuating a race divide among its own citizens, which eventually lead to more restrictive migration policies. The deaths we have seen in Calais this year are not the first, and until Britain can come to terms with race and racism, they won’t be the last.

Zak Suffee is an activist with Black Dissidents.

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