The governments of Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, and behind them, the European Union, are feeling pressure from Belarus, which they claim has been pushing refugees across the border, flown in from the Middle East for the purpose. Ostensibly, such a policy is in retaliation for Western sanctions, as Minsk’s authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has in effect already admitted.
In The Guardian piece, the refugees are not innocent human beings fleeing for their lives. On the contrary, they aren’t even people at all, having been entirely reduced to numbers – except for one non-descript picture that seemed to serve only decorative purposes. I, for one, was, literally, rubbing my eyes: here it was, a long text about sons, daughters, brothers and mothers in distress – and not one sentence giving them a name or a voice. Impossible. Yet true. Whether the work of authors or editors, the effect was drastically revealing if, certainly, unintended.
Because when read carefully, the article is such a textbook-grade illustration of the classic technique of dehumanization that I am thinking of assigning it to my students as an example – a bad one. Reducing the representation of an individual or group to a set of numbers, it makes people appear as though they are inanimate objects. In that deprived shape, they can still be a problem for someone – here geopolitically friendly governments with whose travails The Guardian clearly invites us to sympathize. Or they can be an opportunity, in this case, Belarus’ leadership, which is deservedly the villain of the piece.
But to prove these points, the refugees are robbed of their humanity. They are not asked about their experience, quoted, or given specific names and fates. In short, they do not appear like the rest of us who write, read, or perhaps even make policies about them. We, of course, matter. They are statistics – and threatening ones, to boot – no more.
This is striking, especially coming from a newspaper that positions itself as humane and progressive. We can only guess how this fiasco could happen. My bet would be that the authors and editors responsible did not act deliberately. They just failed to reflect and, instead, followed their unconscious biases. While that, among thinking adults, is no excuse, it makes the article all the more interesting as a symptom of a larger phenomenon.
And a larger phenomenon it is. If you scan news coverage of this issue, you will find the same pattern again and again: Henry Foy of The Financial Times finds plenty of space for Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for Home Affairs, to speculate that Lukashenko’s actions are signs of despair. The same article also dwells in detail on Lithuania’s and Latvia’s difficulties and notes, maybe with relief, that the EU has already succeeded in pressuring Iraq into stopping some flights, thus, in effect shutting that door to many potential refugees. Yet, once again, not a single refugee has a name or a voice.
The Washington Post correctly reports that Lukashenko is using the refugees as “pawns.” It also refers to the case of a refugee who allegedly died at the border under unclear, if probably violent, circumstances. Identified – a name at last! – as Jafar Hussein Yusuf Al-Haris, 39, his death has become the object of propaganda: Belarus accuses Lithuania, Lithuania and friends respond by simply dismissing it all as an information war.
What is disturbing about The Washington Post’s take is that this story about a death, possibly a killing, is reduced to a Brussels-Belarus he said/she said, with a bias, of course, toward the Western side. No effort is visible to investigate Al-Haris’s alleged fate independently from the interested parties. It is given meaning, here, only insofar as it affects a contest between Belarus, the West’s foe, and Lithuania, its friend.
Al Jazeera, too, offers an article that is exclusively about the somewhat hysterical sense of threat, gloom, and doom that governments inside the EU claim to experience. Again, the refugees are numbers and nothing more. What readers do learn in detail is that Poland and Lithuania believe that they are the victims of, you guessed it, yet another form of “weaponization.” Slovenia, currently holding the EU presidency, feels called upon to weigh in with similar silly hyperbole about a “serious threat” to the whole EU. Poor Brussels, if a stream of people fleeing the Middle East is really all it takes… And we read about urgent meetings of ministers and agencies, all to address this “crisis.” If it wasn’t all rather immoral, the word ‘moral panic’ would come to mind.
Fortunately, there are small exceptions to this pattern of dehumanization: Reuters, for instance, in a piece reporting a cruel Latvian pushback operation, noted that its victims included “women and children” and quoted a young man by name. Even Valerie Hopkins of The New York Times has at least shown that even an article focusing on the geopolitics of this situation can still also give the refugees at least some voices and names.
What these exceptions prove, of course, is that it is possible, in fact easy to do better than, for instance, The Guardian. All it takes is keeping your wits together professionally and ethically, and focusing on the people worst affected by the politics.
There are two final ironies in this sad picture: first, there is another category of refugee coming, not through, but from Belarus that nobody would dream of pushing back or reducing to a mere and unwelcome statistic. Those opposing Lukashenko are treated with the concern and care that they deserve. Some, like former presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, are even lauded in the West. The perceived difference between those fleeing the country and those fleeing via the country is perverse, especially if you observe the fact that they tend to have darker skins and non-European names.
Second, with Iraqis and Afghans among the victims of both Lukashenko and the EU’s migration policies, we are also dealing with human beings leaving countries devastated by Western interventions. Yet if they happen to pass through Lukashenko’s Belarus, all we can see from the coverage is his aggression. Our contribution to their fate seems not to interest us anymore. And playing word games by labeling them ‘migrants’ instead of refugees only reveals more hypocrisy.
Johansson is, of course, right that “using human beings” is “the worst.” But she is dead wrong, morally wrong when she, in effect, diminishes the fact that even human beings who are being used, here by Lukashenko, remain full human beings. In fact, they need not less but more care and protection precisely because they are being used.
Yet, instead of noting this obvious fact, Johansson has nothing better to do than to draw an absurd but convenient line: for her, real refugees in need of help are somehow, she has decided, “something totally different from Lukashenko using people who are probably not refugees.” Unfortunately, she fails to inform us how she feels she knows that these victims are likely not to be refugees, by her standards. A perfectly unsupported ad hoc statement, crying out for a challenge, The Financial Times’s fact checker just lets it stand, too.
Here is the take-away point many in the West may not like to face. Yes, what Lukashenko is doing, namely using human beings to systematically embarrass other governments, is terribly wrong. But the real reason why it is so wrong isn’t because the governments might be embarrassed, but because of how it uses human beings in the first place. They are the ones badly abused here. And they deserve sympathy, care, and protection. If you write, read, or even think about this situation, then the people at the heart of it deserve, as a minimum, names and voices. That is human empathy.
Once you focus on them, as you have a moral duty to do, you will also see that any response that treats or depicts them merely or mostly as ‘instruments’ or ‘weapons’ in an attack on ‘us’ in the ‘West’ is as morally decrepit, literally, as the act of sending them to exert pressure in the first place.
If you, rightly, condemn Lukashenko for using them as mere objects, you must also condemn yourself for treating them merely as his objects. You and Lukashenko are in this together. Except you break the pattern of threat and defense and refocus on the suffering of those being used.
Immanuel Kant, the principled German philosopher from Kaliningrad, now Russia’s Baltic Sea exclave, had a helpful line on this. Nobody, he argued, should ever be reduced to a mere means to an end for the purposes of others. He wasn’t just talking about rogue Belarusian presidents.
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