Anyone who has been following media reports of the disturbances in Calais will have been struck by the way in which the language we use reveals more hidden attitudes. The BBC seems to have opted for ‘migrants’ as the most neutral term it can find to describe those trying to make their way into Britain via the Eurotunnel. Add ‘illegal’ to ‘migrant’ and one immediately has a more disapproving idea of the people involved. Why should anyone think they have the right to enter Britain? Aren’t they already in a free country (France)? They only want to come here so they can enjoy a better standard of living at our expense! Conversely, call such people ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’ and a more positive note is sounded. What unimaginable horrors they have fled from, and at what cost! A compassionate society must provide for them. Shame on those who show reluctance! How we talk about all the others caught up in the disturbances, from the French police or Eurotunnel guards to British lorry-drivers/holiday-makers, also reflects our underlying attitudes.
What I think is indisputable is that we are all, in some measure, afraid. Our language about Calais is the language of fear, whether we take a positive or negative view of people and events. Some are afraid of being swamped by an alien tide of immigrants; others are afraid of being found wanting in compassion, of inhumanity to those most in need. Ask me where I myself stand and I can’t answer because the situation is too complex. How does one weigh the case of a young person fleeing poverty and distress against (significant word!) that of the middle-aged lorry-driver whose freight company is being pushed towards financial collapse? Everyone wants the situation resolved peacefully and soon, but how shall we be fair to everyone involved?
To many, it will seem lame and inadequate to say that, unless we are called upon to give practical help, the only answer is prayer; but there is a very important truth contained in that answer. Prayer, because it invites God into a situation, opens it up in a way impossible to us as mere human beings. It drives out fear and selfishness (which is only another kind of fear) and allows us to work for the common good. In all the debate about what should or should not be done in Calais, no one seems to have addressed the importance of changing the economic/political circumstances that drive people to make that hazardous journey to Europe in the first place. Until we do something about that, I suspect we are destined to go on being afraid. Calais is a challenge to more than the way we use words. It is a challenge to the way we view the world.