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30 July 2015

Why do we care more about Cecil the Lion than we do about the “swarm” of migrants at Calais?

This dehumanisation isn’t exclusive to the Daily Mail. Our prime minister believes he can publicly describe some of the most vulnerable of human beings as dirty, buzzing locusts, too.  

By Frances Ryan

In the early hours of yesterday morning, a young asylum seeker was crushed to death trying to make it to the Channel Tunnel. I would use his name but the British press prefer vague descriptions. (“Sudanese” and “aged between 25 and 30”). Perhaps if he had been a lion called Cecil it would be different.

If we needed an insight into this country’s differing standards for empathy, the front page of today’s Daily Mail provides it:

“Agonising last hours of lion king killed…” runs the banner at the top, lamenting how cruel mankind can be.  

Underneath sits: “CALAIS: SEND IN THE ARMY.”

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It is a lesson in juxtaposition. The choice of images as much as the words. The lion: vulnerable and waiting for sympathy. The migrants: threatening and worthy of disdain.

The capitals in the lower headline convey the sense of peril. For the British, that is.

Asylum seekers – some reported to be as young as thirteen – are tackling fences to freight terminals in the dark. The young Sudanese man crushed by a lorry was the ninth person to die near the tunnel since June. But it is us – reading our morning paper over breakfast – who deserve concern.

As Nigel Farage put it: “Unless something radical is done it is only a matter of time before a British holidaymaker or lorry driver dies”.

Yes, if we are not careful the next person who dies may be someone who matters.

Luckily, our government is on the case. Some MPs have joined the Mail’s call to send in the military but the home secretary says the priority is to install an extra £7m worth of fencing.  It may be worth pausing on that. We are currently responding to a humanitarian crisis by choosing between deploying the army and erecting hundreds of metres of high fences, topped with razor wire. 

Still, David Cameron pledged his own idea this morning: deporting more illegal migrants out of Britain. It will apparently be a deterrent to – in his words – the “swarm” of migrants coming here.  

De-humanisation is not isolated to the Daily Mail or even the “cockroach” language of Katie Hopkins. Our prime minister believes he can publicly describe some of the most vulnerable of human beings as dirty, buzzing locusts.  

There is not a general deficit in our ability to feel a living creature’s pain. The sadness the media are managing to evoke for Cecil the lion suggests that. What we are seeing with the migrant crisis is a particular form of coldness, shut off for a certain section of flesh and feeling. It is the sort that sees the Telegraph – literally live blogging human tragedy – describe families making a desperate, sometimes lethal bid for a better life as a “mass assault” on our boarders. It is what we saw when Europe decided to leave hundreds – men, women, children, babies – to drown in the Mediterranean or Britain began to detain women in state-sanctioned hell like Yarl’s Wood.

Compassion – that most basic of feeling – is now saved for worthy targets. As the news of a man’s death in the Channel Tunnel spread, David Cameron told the press he had “every sympathy with holidaymakers who are finding access to Calais difficult because of the disturbances there”.

Let us feel for British holidaymakers and foreign lions. That is the power of de-humanisation. We have reached a point where animals are easier to identify with than so-called migrants.