South London Photographer: Why we must override our ‘groupishness’

It’s the end of half term, which with three boys can be more than a little demanding. I mustn’t complain too much though because we have spent the week relaxing after a very busy few weeks moving house. And how lucky we are to have found a really lovely, spacious home near to everything we need; most importantly for all of us, we are still within the community that I love so much. Of course, most rooms still have a final cardboard box waiting patiently for me to decide whether the things inside are ever going to have a place, or else be ditched like so much other junk I managed to get rid of when I was packing up the old place. I’ve promised myself to be rid of these boxes very soon one way or another because it’s really rather nice having a home where I can put everything away in its proper place, probably for the first time in my entire adult life. Now all I have to do is pay for it. Which means my discomfort around marketing myself is going to have to be pushed aside – I really have no choice about it anymore.  Probably a good thing!

However, all of that that pales into insignificance when I am reminded of people travelling the world, having been forced to escape from villages and towns that have been bombed to smithereens.  Or where they fear for their lives for any number of impossible to imagine reasons. It might be constant bombing, the threat of starvation, brutality from governing states and other groups, in the form of senseless executions, gender based violence or mindless, heavy-handed coercive measures.

When I see footage and still photographs of people fleeing, and consider the risks and lengths people will go to to reach safety, it makes me feel incredibly grateful to have been born at a time and in a part of the world that is relatively stable.  Perhaps the fact that we haven’t had bombs dropped on us for over 70 years is what prompts some to be extraordinarily unflinching and lacking in compassion.

I am prompted to express this after reading some comments on social media, and beneath news articles yesterday, which were really quite distressing. Are people really that wrapped up in their own lives? So hardened to other people’s suffering that they simply cannot imagine what it must be like for a child or teen to be living without adult care in a tent for months. Even with adult care.  And I wonder what it must be like to have had no choice but to put your children though that kind of journey. To leave everything you know behind, and exist in transit for months on end, and to top it off, then be faced with so much enmity from people in the countries you travel to.

I was, as I always am, gobsmacked and appalled by the words “them” and “they” – the connotations of “Other”, a people separate and different in some fundamental way from the writers of these comments. “They have places to go….” was one such comment. Really?

As people who read this blog will know I visited the camp in Calais just before Christmas. As we drove towards France my companions and I discussed the shipping containers that have been put in place to house refugees and I thought to myself, well surely that must be better than the cheap nylon tents that are so woefully inadequate. And then I saw the crates.  The reality. And I discovered that the authorities were planning to bulldoze the high street, churches, mosques and school that had sprung up in the shanty-town that the Jungle has become. At that time it had been promised that the school and religious buildings would not be bulldozed, but some of them disappeared a couple of weeks ago. More of the Jungle is scheduled to be demolished on Tuesday, although a census indicating that there are many more vulnerable children living there than previously thought has delayed further destruction until a judge has seen it for himself.  Whether or not it goes ahead on Wednesday morning, the physical signs of humanity’s resourcefulness are deemed a threat; and so the innate need and ability to create a community, even under the most awful circumstances, is under attack from people who have the resources to do far, far better.

The crates, where a limited number of Jungle refugees may stay, look hard, cold and soulless. They are packed on top of each other and surrounded by a tall metal fence. In effect, a prison has been built for desperate people who have escaped the brutality of their own lands, and everyone wonders why some are reluctant to sign up for it. We shouldn’t be surprised since the UK also has a long record of holding people in ‘detention centres’, including children, where adverse effects on mental wellbeing is well documented. Just this afternoon, I read about someone recently committing suicide in an immigration detention centre in the UK [1].

Us humans have a long history of being extraordinarily cruel to people from other groups, especially when we fear that they are after our most precious resource – space in which to exist. Sociobiologist, Edward O  Wilson, has coined the term ‘groupishness’. Groups are very good at dehumanising different peoples that they fear might be a threat. We are genetically primed for it.

However, when I went to Calais, I saw human beings, who despite having suffered a great deal, greeted me with kindness, generosity, and gratitude for my interest.

We have to do better. Leading economists and international officials wrote an open letter to our prime minister at the beginning of this month critisising the UK’s response so far, calling it ‘woefully inadequate, morally unacceptable and economically wrong”. And last week another letter from celebrities and business leaders*, which can be signed by everyone, implores the UK government to consider the children and families who are being forced out of their makeshift shelters, and ensure they are taken care of properly.

No-one wants a shanty town on the shores of the English Channel.  But had the area been declared an emergency zone, making it possible for proper refugee camps to be set up, we might not now be sitting by while people are put inside packing crates.

My oldest son just came downstairs and said to me, without knowing what I was writing about, “Mum, I’ve been thinking… we are so lucky to have been born in the time and place where we are now…”

Yes, my little boy, we really are.

 

*Add your name to the letter urging our government to act positively for children who need to be taken care of properly and fairly.

[1] An extract below from an article about a detainee’s suicide, and a review into detention centres, from Politics.co.uk  17th February 2016

“The death comes a month after the long-awaited Shaw review into detention centres concluded that numbers should be reduced “for reasons of welfare”.

It found that the process of indefinite detention with heavily-restricted access to a lawyer was mentally traumatic for many detainees and that there should be a “presumption against detention” for victims of rape and sexual violence, people with learning difficulties, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

[Shaw] also found that the academic literature “demonstrates incontrovertibly that detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability”.”

(c)Images SJField 2016

 

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The area where the shipping containers are situated was being prepared when I visited in December. Even if these were more humane there are not nearly enough spaces.  Since the beginning of the year, several areas of The Jungle have been bulldozed, displacing people and requiring temporary wooden shacks that were built by volunteers, as well as tents, to be moved.  Larger areas are scheduled to be bulldozed later this week but a judge has postponed the eviction and will decide on Tuesday evening if it should go ahead.  The number of children, including unaccompanied minors, is significantly higher than was thought.
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