NewsNorth AfricaImmigrants or Refugees: The limits of empathy


Posted on Tuesday, 20 October 2015 15:40

Immigrants or Refugees: The limits of empathy

Photo©ReutersEurope's influx of migrants shows the perils of selecting groups of 'deserving' and 'undeserving'

It took the tragic photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up dead on a Turkish beach, for the events at Europe's borders to break into South African headlines.

So what do these graphic images of dead migrants mean both in South Africa and Europe?

Conversely, in 2008, it was the image of Ernesto Nhamuave, the 'burning man,' that brought vivid news of xenophobic violence in South Africa to a shocked world. Local media have been asking: what do events in Europe mean for South Africa and our attitude towards refugees and migrants?

Migration has been a hot topic in South Africa this year. In April, as xenophobic violence was again flaring up around the country, yet another series of tragic photos dominated our news.

A journalist witnessed the stabbing to death of Emmanuel Sithole, a Mozambican migrant.

Claiming that his real name was Manuel Josias, that he was in the country illegally and that his death was not due to xenophobic violence but sheer criminality, the South African government sought to locate the death of Sithole in its narrative of xenophobia denial and stigmatisation of "illegal" migrants.

The picture of Aylan provoked a confused reaction from governments in Europe. Public sympathy certainly was moved – to the point that citizens were taking action themselves.

In South Africa, too, ordinary people were moved to protect their non-national neighbours, donate to temporary camps for the displaced and join solidarity marches, prompting government to limited acknowledgement and action.

The media response has been to pay attention to the words they use as contributing factors towards shaping social attitudes. This is a good thing.

The Al Jazeera network announced that it will now use the word refugee to describe the people arriving at the ports and stations of Europe in order to acknowledge that people are forced to move from their homes due to wars and conflicts; that they have no choice but to use people smugglers and to travel in perilous ways; and that they have the right, under international law, to protection, not least in the very countries that have supported, fuelled and exacerbated conflict from colonial times to the present. So far, so good, particularly viewed from the South.

What complicates this picture is that it tends to classify people on the move into the 'deserving' – refugees – and the 'undeserving' – migrants. It allows us to limit our empathy. We feel sorry for some, but not for others. Migrants can still be demonised as illegal, criminals, job-stealers, social-service scroungers. We are not obliged to have sympathy for them. The response of the South African government to the death of Sithole is a case in point.

So what do these graphic images of dead migrants mean both in South Africa and Europe? That the only 'good' migrant is a refugee – or a dead one? No. We still act with a shared humanity when we see images of dead children and people being murdered. In South Africa and in Europe, it is up to us to assert that no one is illegal. ●

Roshan Dadoo Acting executive director, Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa 

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