Valeria Martinez Ramirez was 23 months old when she drowned in the Rio Grande with her father Oscar in June this year. They had made the long journey from Salvador to the US border with her mother and brother. The image of Valeria, her arm round her father’s neck as they lay face down on the riverbank, shocked and moved all who saw it. They were the latest casualties of the US government’s immigration offensive.
Like the image of three-year-old Alan Kudi from Syria, who drowned (September 2015) off the Greek island of Kos, the photograph of Valeria and her father is an icon of pain; individual tragedy triggering collective sadness.
An unprecedented number
In the last decade huge numbers of people have been driven from their homes by war, or have migrated in search of a better life. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimate that there are now 70.8 million displaced people in the world, ‘an unprecedented number’. 41.3 million are internally displaced, 25.9 million asylum seekers (over half are under 18) and 3.5 million refugees, i.e. people acknowledged to be fleeing persecution of some kind. Those on the move head for countries that are peaceful (comparatively), economically healthy and offer opportunities for a new beginning.
The decision to leave home is, for the vast majority, taken reluctantly, the journey into a new life undertaken with trepidation; criminal gangs run the migrant routes, exploitation is commonplace and for many of those who successfully traverse the dangers, exclusion, prejudice and hardship often await them.
Immigrants epitomize the notion of the ‘other’, encompassing a number of key areas of difference; the way they look, pray and speak. To those poisoned by hate and the ideology of tribal nationalism, immigrants are the perfect targets of prejudice.
In the last five years or so hate crime in its varied forms, all vile and pernicious, has been increasing in virtually every developed country; migrants are increasingly the victims. In Britain incidents of reported hate crime have doubled in the last five years. It’s a similar story elsewhere in Europe, Italy and Germany for example; in Hungary, which has a far right government and intolerance is policy, hate crime is five times the level it was in 2013. In America, where African-Americans and Jews are the most commonly targeted groups, hate crime has increased year on year for the past five years.
The increase in violent acts against people who are different in some way has occurred in tandem with the rise of right wing and extreme right wing groups, political and non-political and so-called populism of all shades. Politicians, weak and lacking vision, refuse to address the systemic causes, retreat into ideology, construct regressive arguments to curry favor with a disheartened and angry populace.
Dogmatic opinions, judgmental attitudes and an absence of tolerance have created a putrid atmosphere of division. Moving within this Paradigm of Fear policies of division are enacted, further strengthening intolerance, fuelling prejudice. A rabid spiral of hate and distrust is created; palpable, we live within its narrow boundaries and omnipresent threat.
Exclusion as policy
Instead of dealing with the underlying impulses of migration (many of which lie at the door of the countries migrants are seeking entry to), and setting up properly run processing centers, governments have tried to deter people by inhumane policies and methods. Such an approach removes choice and forces people to take risks, sometimes life-threatening risks.
In Europe, where a coordinated, compassionate immigration policy has been shamefully lacking, tens of thousands of desperate people have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea in unseaworthy vessels since 2010. Inhumane immigration policies establish division between the One – the Hallowed State and, the Migrant – the ‘Other’. Once this division has been set up a space is created in which all manner of abuse can take place – by the State and by those conditioned by the poisonous ideology of Tribal Nationalism.
Under the presidency of Donald Trump, immigrants are seen as a threat, thieves who want what Americans have for themselves, enemies of the State. Exclusion and isolationism have become government policy – the Policy of Hate. Into this Crucible of Intolerance walked Valeria Martinez Ramirez and her 25-year-old father Oscar. They drowned in the currents of the Rio Grande; their entwined bodies were discovered on 24th June. So, the proponents of the Policy of Hate will argue, it was an accident, tragic certainly, but nobody’s fault.
Óscar Martínez Ramírez decided to try to enter the US by crossing the river with his family because the US authorities would not deal with their claim for asylum. In his frustration and desperation he waded into the water with his daughter, watched by his wife and son. The interconnected strands of cause and effect are complex, often indirect; certainly they died as a consequence of US government policy.
Such policies are feeding intolerance and agitating hate, polluting the collective atmosphere in which we live. Violence is sanctioned, self-restraint abandoned, fear and hate fermented. To dispel this suffocating fog compassion, tolerance and understanding are called for; as Martin Luther King said, “returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”