An essay on empathy – reflections on the migrant journey

Most of us were heart-stricken to hear the story of 39 lives lost in the back of a truck in Essex. 39 lives, 31 men and 8 women, found dead in a land unknown to them.

As the story continues to unfold, I like many others, were met with some surprise when reports of their nationalities arose. With reports first stating that the victims were Chinese nationals, and of course this would be rightly disputed as the bodies had not yet been properly identified. And now, there is confidence that the victims were all in fact Vietnamese.

I recognise that I was braced to hear that the victims had come from a war-torn country like Yemen or Syria. This would reconcile the pre-conceived stereotype that I held in that those who would make that perilous journey here, must be those who are escaping violent conflict. This expectation would create a kind of detachment as we tend to accept this sort of thing as another tragic consequence of the times, but I am very guilty of feeling drawn to this story simply for the fact that these people looked like me. But remembering the fact that their nationalities shouldn’t even matter.

Much smarter people than me have covered the migrant stories of those escaping conflict. Those refugees who are left isolated to live as sub-standard citizens, stuck in purgatorial refugee camps on the French coast. Or those refugees who drown at sea clasping their loved ones, only to have their bodies found washed up on a European shore still embracing their kin.

But I admit, my surprise to hear that these victims were Chinese, or Vietnamese was drawn from a place of personal ignorance. The pattern of their migration is not usually as visceral, and this should not detract from the significance of any refugee journey.

I was aware of the Vietnamese refugee camps hidden in the forests of Calais, and the long-held stereotype in British Chinese society towards those coming from the Fujian Province in China, in that they must have been smuggled in and are here as migrant workers. Even with my own mother’s refugee story with her being resettled from Vietnam to Northern Ireland. Yet despite having some awareness of these specific migrant journeys, there was a disconnect from what I knew existed in the wider world, to what occurred earlier this month.

Chinese and Vietnamese migration to the UK isn’t new. The Chinese have migrated to the UK as early as the British set out to establish the realms of their empire. With the first Chinese migrant settling in the UK as early as the 18th century; then as the commonwealth would absorb Hong Kong, parts of China, the Malayan isles and others, many Chinese would migrate to the “colonial” home in search of opportunities as sailors or labourers.

Following on from this, mass migration from the Commonwealth would take place at the beginning of the 20th century, with migrants being called to plug the gaps in both the UK workforce and the military as the country endured through two World Wars. They would settle in British society against growing prejudices, setting up businesses, starting families, but legislative restrictions such as the Alien Restriction Act of 1919 and the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act would eventually steady the flow of Chinese migrants and consequently, erode the citizenship rights of those Chinese migrants already in the UK. Now in the new century, we see Chinese migrants from the mainland entering as students and entrepreneurs, again seeking their opportunities.

The Vietnamese, whilst their migration was not as long-standing, would begin to migrate to the UK as part of refugee resettlement programmes from 1975, following the collapse of the democratic government in Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War. My mother being one of these people.

We have our roots heavily entrenched in British society. Despite our first-generation British Born/naturalised cohort only making up less than a 1% of the UK population, we have been here for a while and we can stand proud of that fact.

But the question still arises about current migration from China and Vietnam to the UK, and we should note that tragedies such as the one in Essex have happened before. We might remember the tragedy of the 23 Chinese migrants who died at Morecombe Bay in 2004. Or in 2000, with resonance to this recent story, where 58 Chinese nationals were also found dead, suffocated in the back of a lorry. Dreadful consequences of people smuggling operations by gangs who prey on those who again seek a path to better opportunity, but now with no legal route to enter the UK as their countrymen that came before did.

Stories like this tend to get swept into the miasma of public discourse. Especially today, stories that find a link with anything to do with immigration, sit and fester from within a fractured and venomous pool of divisiveness, with the fumes of internet hate and vitriol masking the inherent humanity in these victims that has now been lost.

This story was no different. One can simply scrawl through the numerous comments on Twitter, Facebook etc to find a smorgasbord of comments. They range from the compassionate to the misinformed (nowhere in the 1951 Refugee convention does it say that a person must claim asylum in the first country they arrive. This misunderstanding comes from not knowing how the 2003 EU Dublin regulations work); to the downright racist, with special emphasis on those internet trolls who thought it funny to make Chinese delivery jokes.

These comments still shock me. Not just because they are racist, but because they are devoid of any human empathy. They are pointless remarks dressed up as barely justifiable reasoning to be wary of the immigrant, weaponised by those in positions of power to further stoke hostility in pursuit of corrupt agendas.

Even in our own East Asian community. It is comforting to stereotype those coming from Fujian or rural Vietnam as different being as they’re not like us. Our family came in the legal way. But this sentiment reaffirms our place in British society at the cost of another.

I could argue that these misinformed and racist attitudes are a kind of defence mechanism. They work to dehumanise the victims and justify a detachment from them, where the person avoids being confronted with the commonality that they undoubtedly share with those they look to demagogue. Without this clear nexus between the national and the “other”, there is no need to recognise the humanity in these people, meaning those of the misinformed or racist persuasion are free to divert to matters of little or no consequence.

For example, I remember reading one comment about how China has a lot of wealth and money, therefore, why would there be any need to escape? Also, there is no war raging in Vietnam last I checked. The implication here is that those who died are not refugees deserving of protection but are instead economic migrants who are looking to take advantage of the UK welfare/economic system. They are looking to undercut the British worker to siphon funds to their homelands.

The devil’s advocate would declare that this could be true on the surface. People smuggling and human trafficking from rural areas of Vietnam and China is a very real global issue, particular in this case, triad gangs operate non-stop to prey on those in need of work, plying them with dreams of a new world with unabashed economic opportunity.

But it’s in the comments like the misinformed and the racist, that there also lies the point of commonality hidden within the xenophobic undertones. For instance, the UK also has a lot of money and wealth, and I like many others, certainly don’t see much of it. If given the opportunity to accrue wealth for myself and generations of my family to come, wouldn’t the risk be worth it?

Of course, the big difference between me and a migrant is that I am here, in the UK. I do nothing and I am still reasonably secure by virtue of simply being here.  I’m merely one of the lucky ones and it is surprisingly easy for me to say that I wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to enrich my family because the risks obviously outweigh the benefits. Then again, remember my default position has always been general comfort so the benefits seem zero-sum.

Regardless of this apparent hypocrisy, the big existential questions remain. How do we stop people dying in the back of trucks? This is a protracted and collective challenge for those in charge and I can’t claim to offer any educated policy changes.

But for us in the mosh pit, in the same way I cannot shout at a racist to make them less racist, I can only encourage those with a proclivity to focus on the detached circumstances to instead focus on the commonality. I am guilty too of relying on the detachment to avoid facing the humanity and normalising this loss of life.

Think about it this way. When embroiled in any kind of argument or dispute, whether in the work place, with friends or in your relationships, have you ever directed this thought towards your opponent?

They don’t know what I’m going through…they would understand if they knew my story”.

That sentiment is a constant in human nature. We want people to empathise with us. To know our stories.  Whether from China or Vietnam, whether from Syria or Yemen. From the deserts of Afghanistan to the African plains, each migrant is a storyteller in their journey to the West.

These stories which should invoke an understanding of shared humanity for those who have lost brothers, mothers, fathers, sisters, friends, no matter the circumstances, tend to unravel into internet conflicts in defending your right to be pragmatic or empathetic.

Let’s not consistently fall into this trap. These conflicts are the flashpoints which spiral into political games. We forget the human and place the politics centre stage

Remember the human story. And from that position of empathy, these arbitrary labels of “economic migrant” begin to lose their significance in public discourse. When the focal point of any catastrophe is the human experience and we emphasise these threads of commonality, we can at least be reminded that no matter the circumstances of wanting to come here, human beings had lost their lives in the pursuit of a better life.

These people were victims. Let’s try to remember that.