A Modern Refugee

A
Syrian refugee apparently took a selfie on a decent mobile phone and it was not
okay with the right wing militants of Britain. At the moment a hate-fuelled
meme is doing the rounds on social media and it tells us some important truths
not only about the frighteningly fascist attitudes towards refugees in our
country but also about the role that the refugee is expected to play in the ideology
of right wing Britain.

image

The
horrible meme makes out that fleeing a war zone and the traumas associated with
that is not enough to deserve our sympathy if you have a Samsung phone. Possess
a symbol of capitalist success and modernity, manage a smile of relief and, in
our unforgiving political climate, a traumatised refugee is be deemed a fraud.
This article has asks two questions. First, in the eyes of the British right, why
should a refugee not have a mobile phone? Second, why should a refugee not take
a selfie?

The
Independent have pointed out that one of the
first things you’d buy if you were fleeing your home is a smartphone
, and
that people surprised to see Syrian refugees using them are idiots. The
smartphone is a symbol of modernity and the claim of the meme is that if you
have already been brought into modernity then you do not require our help. This
shows a colonial viewpoint still present in our right wing: they see the west
as more modern and civilized and expect the countries from which these refugees
come to be backwards and primitive. The oddness in the meme is the fact that it
claims these countries are just as modern as us, as if we should only be helping
‘backwards’ or ‘primitive’ countries and that people from nations with
smartphones would be fine on their own.

If
refugees are seen to come from a barbaric and uncivilized world that can be
labelled primitive, then they come from a world that is not that of modernity
and this justifies a diminished responsibility on the part of the UK public and
politicians. It naturalizes the
refugees experience and makes it part of the natural or inevitable ‘course of
history,’ a language often used by UK and US politicians, meaning that specific political
conditions (which the west is responsible for) are not seen as the reason for
trauma and devastation. Modernity is not seen as responsible for devastation
but as the saviour from it.

In
short, the meme claims that people without a smartphone do need our help
because they need bringing into western modernity: fleeing mud huts and ‘backwards’
nations is okay, but fleeing modernity throws up all sorts of difficult
questions surrounding Britain’s foreign policy (which has a direct hand in
Syrian air strikes) and confronts us with a need to consider the cause of fleeing.

So to the second question: why can refugees not take a
selfie? It is first worth noting that some have suggested this meme may even be
photoshopped to include the mobile, and second that it is clearly not a

‘selfie’
in terms of our culture but is more likely to be an attempt to communicate the
refugee’s safety to her family. Nonetheless, the meme and its circulation show
that the idea of a refugee taking a selfie is significant. Selfies in
themselves are interesting to discuss in that they hold a controversial place
even in our own society, they are the absolute symbol of modernity,
encompassing all sorts of complex arguments about vanity and identity. Having a
sense of the portrayal of oneself does not fit in with the image of a refugee
that our right wing culture likes to consume. A refugee taking a selfie throws
into question the way that refugees are typecast within our media. The
mainstream media response to young, able men being refugees has been written
about in The Huffington Post for example: people, and not just those at Britain
First, seem troubled by images of refugees that do not conform to their
expectations.

In
conclusion, whilst Germany and other European countries opened their borders to
help ease the crisis, the British media remained closed and unwelcoming.
Thankfully, recent weeks have seen a strong backlash against this and the media
have begun to take something of a u-turn in their coverage of the international
refugee crisis. This is a relief from the militant right wing stance on the
refugee crisis, which shockingly had become the voice of the mainstream media (see
this
earlier article
). However, this meme points us to a possible danger that this
u-turn is reserved for only the neediest and most desperate (usually women and
children), those who aesthetically appear war torn and desperate enough and conform
to our expectations of what a refugee should look like and how a refugee should behave. 

In the end this meme shows us three things. First, it quite simply and
obviously shows how much hateful fascism there is in our society. Second, it
shows how these structures are still supported by a colonial ideology that sees
the passage to modernity as the natural course of events and does not want to
admit that this trauma and devastation is a modern problem that our own brand
of modernity is responsible for. Third, it warns us of the danger of our preconceptions and expectations when it comes to refugees and shows us how
deeply ingrained in right wing ideology some of our assumptions may be.

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