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We must do more for Europe's refugees

Those seeking sanctuary deserve a better response than the one given by Britain's government, says Diane Abbott.

The two-and-a-half mile stretch of the Aegean Sea between the Greek island of Lesbos and the western shoreline of Turkey marks the front door to Europe.

Last week I traveled to Lesbos to see this waterway which is also a graveyard for thousands of people escaping war and poverty on the hope  of a better life.

I met organisations like Save the Children, Action Aid and the Hellenic Red Cross struggling to offer help and support to the thousands of people making their way across the seas from Turkey to Greece. 

One of the amazing volunteers I met was Georgious, a volunteer search and rescue worker at the Hellenic Red Cross, who welled up recalling the story of a mother emerging from the water with a plastic bag which held her dead baby. I met fishermen who spoke of the hundreds of bodies they have found over the past year caught in their nets.

Among the tide of people now moving into southern Europe across the Mediterranean’s seas are millions of refugees. Over a million refugees arrived into southern Europe in 2015 and in the first six weeks of this year the rate increased tenfold on the same period last year. The number of missing children across Europe has topped 10,000. This year alone, over 320 of the 77,000 arriving to Greece from Turkey drowned at sea.

But the British government is turning a blind eye to the humanitarian fallout in Europe from the civil war in Syria.

Its arms-length refugee policy involves raising money to spend in “the region”, a euphemism for paying off the states that neighbour Syria to keep refugees within their territory.

The UK expects Lebanon, a country half the size of Wales which hosts more refugees than in the whole of Europe combined, to do more. It expects Jordan, a nation with a one of the world’s highest youth unemployment rates, to create jobs for its 1.4 million refugees. And it expects Turkey to use a €3 billion EU pot to somehow stop refugees from leaving its camps for Europe.

The notion that we can expect host nations in the region to shoulder the responsibility for four million refugees, while we take next to none, is fanciful.

Some refugees, tired of eking out an existence in the vast camps in the Jordanian desert on in the steps of southern Turkey, will naturally make their way to Europe because it is richer and more stable so offers them a chance of a better life.

But when these refugees leave the region, the UK denies them help. We thereby create two classes of refugees: refugees in the Middle East who deserve our help and refugees in Europe who don’t.

Britain must stop ignoring the European migration emergency. 

In Lesbos (and on another trip I made earlier this month to the refugee camp in Calais) I was struck at how organised and ruthless the people smugglers are. They are a genuinely multinational million dollar business. Moving thousands of people a month from Turkey to Greece, for instance, is no cottage industry.  And death is part of their business model. To maximize profit they deliberately overload the rubber dinghies and wooden boats they put people in,  knowing that inevitably people will die. And then they charge people extra for completely useless  life jackets.

We must work with Europol and individual EU states to crack down on people profiteering from refugees. Northern France is particularly rife with people smugglers promising people safe passage to the UK for several thousand pounds. They should be arrested and required to face justice. Rather than spending tens of millions on razor wire in northern France, which just increases the revenues of the smugglers, money should be spent on bringing down the smuggling networks themselves.

Britain must work with its EU partners in the spirit of solidarity which started the EU project after the War and take its fair share of migrants under a mutually negotiated relocation quota, which would take the burden off Greece and Turkey for hosting refugees and share it with northern Europe.

In Lesbos, I was particularly struck by the kindness and hospitality of local people. But it is wrong that Greece, a country already on its knees economically, should be bearing such a disproportionate load. 

Britain has pledged to take only as many refugees over five years as Germany takes in a week. While we do nothing, Angela Merkel, despite the short term political cost, has taken a brave stand to provide asylum for these refugees because she knows it to be right and knows it to be in the long term economic interest of her country.

The British government must work within Europe on a sustainable migration policy, setting up safe and legal routes by which a fair quota of refugees can enter Britain from the region, without having to pay with lives or their life savings to get here.

Lastly, David Cameron needs to give up the fanciful notion of the “pull factor”. Namely, that Britain can stop people fleeing wars in the Middle East trying to come to Britain by spending millions securing its borders or cutting benefits for asylum seekers further. 

Clearly, Cameron feels himself politically hobbled by the opinions of a handful of newspaper proprietors. In doing so he plays into the toxic narrative that claims showing compassion for people who are the victims poverty and war is wrong because they are really here to take our welfare and do us harm. 

I appeal to the Prime Minister to have the courage to stand up against this narrative and contribute to a shared European endeavour to bring about an effective and sustainable solution to the emergency on our doorstep.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health. 

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge