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Friday, 4 November 2016

Where Documentary Fails: Prematurely Aged Asylum Seekers and Grooming

Three men who were part of an inner city sex ring involving the abuse, rape and trafficking of young girls have been jailed

It was terrible when the Jungle was taken down and the UK and France prevaricated and played politics over the kids who were there.

One of the worst things was the questioning of the ages of the young people in the camp due to the fact that some of them looked much older than their stated years. I believe a poster was even found in the House of Commons showing the asylum seekers as pensioners.

I remember when I taught ESOL to 16-19 year olds, we'd do the same thing. It was a standard joke. It kind of had to be. When you have a 17-year-old who is taller than me (I'm tall) asking if you want anybody beaten up because that's what he used to do back home for the 5 years before he left, it does make you wonder about whether this man is really 17-years-old.

He was a horrible man in some ways. But then he had never had an education, he was brought up in a dysfunctional, mysogynistic country, in a family where power comes through force, and he was intricately connected to that. So in some ways, due to his lack of schooling and maybe even love, he was about on the level of an 8-year-old, in a good way, and it was sad to see where his life had gone.

He'd got to the UK the hard way, overland with the Jungle as a holding camp. He would have known the laws on ages in the UK and what is a 'good' age. Supposing you crossed half of Asia in the back of trucks without a passport, at the hands of traffickers, what would you do? I've lied about my age in the past to get into clubs, to get a drink. Damn right, I'd lie about my age to get a life.

The reason he was pretending to be 17 was because then he couldn't be deported, then he could get something of an education, then and maybe, just maybe move away from his history of violence. Or maybe he'd bring his violence with him. Or a bit of both. Perhaps the purpose of the education, of civil society, of a functioning liberal-minded nation is to remove at least some of the violence and the misogyny that is required from most people for a society to function adequately.

It doesn't come cheap of course, and if you provide counselling and education and a lot more, you're creating a massive problem. You're embedding that violence into the community of which it becomes part.

That violence (not just of deed, but of word and of thought) needs to be counteracted through education, through advice, through accomodation and health care, through compassion.

So we had many prematurely aged children (and travelling across Asia or Africa without papers does age you). But some of them were beyond old, they were Yoda-Old. Our favourite and most troubled old child was a case in point. He was absolutely lovely and had been through a terrible time. His parents had been murdered along with half of his village, he'd woken up covered in bugs in a mass grave, his family next to him, and he'd walked out of his country and managed to get to the UK. He was probably about 25 but he looked about 45. Nobody cared.

His mental state was awful. He was near psychotic, he self-harmed to make sure he was still alive and was not in hell, attempted suicide on regular occasions, never slept and lived in constant fear of being deported when he was 19 and going back to face what he thought was certain death.

Every year, when he was about to turn 19, he'd go to see a home office doctor to get his age checked. And every year, until he got refugee status and leave to remain, his age would go down a year. He was like a real-life Groundhog Day, a man who was stuck on his 18th birthday.

And every time his year of birth changed, a cheer would go up all round the building, in the staff room, in the class room, from his friends. We didn't care how old he was, we knew he was somebody who deserved to be in this country, who deserved every bit of help he could get. And believe me, it wasn't much, it wasn't what he deserved.

And of course, once he did get his indefinite leave, the psychosis (which wasn't psychosis - it was justified fear), disappeared and he ended up in college, a poster boy for what a country can do for a refugee, for what a little bit of compassion from a faceless doctor at the Home Office can do.

The other thing we used to wonder about was who was grooming, who was a predatory piece of shit. Gender-based violence was very real and ever present in our classrooms and in the homes our students came from.  It turned out to be one of the men in this dreadful story had been in my class. It was no surprise, it was just terribly sad.    But the abuse and the rape didn't come out of nowhere. It came out of a devaluing of a girl's life. It came out of a culture and misogyny that was never fully challenged by any number of parties. (He wasn't an asylum seeker or refugee by the way. Not that it makes any difference).

David Goldblatt once said (and I can't remember where so I'm paraphrasing wildly here) something about documentary not being about good or bad stories, it's about the whole story, and the approach you take to it, especially when it is an empathetic approach, should encompass all of that story.

I wonder if documentary photography does that on all occassions. In all the photography I've seen on migration, I've never seen questions such as faked ages, sexual violence, grooming, or the need for counselling and education addressed. Perhaps I've missed it.

It's as if it's a taboo  to say anything remotely negative about people who are undertaking these epic, tragic migrations, as though all of them are saints. It's demeaning as it reduces them to absurdly romantic stereotypes. It's damaging as it doesn't recognise the need for meaningful support - which costs money, which used to be provided up to a point, but was massively cut in the name of austerity by our current robber-baron government. And it leaves those negative elements as propagandist weapons for the cruel and greedy to use. And it's deceitful and stupid. And it misses out all the parts that make a story interesting, emotional and life-affirming. Because not everybody is Mohammed Dahir. And despite everything, teaching these kids was my favourite job of all time, and the kids were the greatest and most human people I've ever met. But it could be upsetting. And it still is.

So there... Time to get on with something else now. .

 For more on refugees and asylum seekers, go here. 


Stan B. said...

What!? You want subtlety, nuance- in journalism no less, about... immigrants???

Surely, you jest.

colin pantall said...

Hi Stan.Always good to see your name!