Migrant or Refugee – An Unpleasant Fact

Britain is abuzz with conversation about refugees and migrants.

“We should take refugees,” I heard the other day. “But a lot of people coming are economic migrants.” This delivered scornfully, as if disgusted that people in the world have the temerity to be so impoverished they are willing to risk death for a chance to do exhausting, sub-minimum wage jobs for entitled assholes.

This attitude is alarmingly ubiquitous. We privileged of the First World have willed ourselves into collective amnesia not just about how “they” got to be that way but about how damn close we are to when we were that way.

World War II is only a generation past. My father (German) was among millions of the violently displaced from Europe. I have friends whose parents fled Saddam’s Iraq, Mao’s China and the Luftwaffe’s bombing of London. The woman complaining about economic migrants is Spanish-Irish.

The unpleasant truth — the reason we can’t bear migrants — is they are a too-vivid reminder of our good fortune. Anonymous faces and exhausted children cut close to the bone. However hard we kid ourselves that the world is a meritocracy and that we deserve our petty securities, their eyes accuse. They demand we acknowledge that we’re all trapped on a overheated lunatic asylum spinning towards infinity.

Any of us could, at any moment, slip from the ranks of the blessed to the damned. Accidents, a shift of political wind, a storm surge. We are all a heartbeat away from the unthinkable. Naturally, we try to not think about it. But all the pretending in the world won’t save us from becoming them, if that’s the way the coin flips. We are as helpless as they are, just luckier (for now).

Kindness would be wise.

"Economic Migrants" in the Great Depression (Dorthea Lange)

“Economic Migrants” in the Great Depression (Dorthea Lange)

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