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Daniel Trilling: 'We haven’t reconciled with Britain’s history as an empire'

WoW sat down with journalist and writer, Daniel Trilling to talk about Lights in the Distance - Migration History on our Shores, an event on migration history which will take place on 11th October as part of WoW's Black History Month festival. You can buy tickets here for the event

Please introduce yourself.

Hello, I’m editor of New Humanist - a magazine of ideas, science and culture that began publication in 1885, although I obviously haven’t been editor for that long - and a freelance writer and reporter who contributes to the Guardian and London Review of Books among others. I’m also the author of two books: Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain’s Far Right (Verso, 2012), and Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe (Picador, 2018).
What can people expect from this panel on 11thOctober? You’ll be alongside Dr. Kathy Burrell (University of Liverpool), Reader in Human Geography with interests in migration, especially aspects relating to mobility, memory, material culture and cultural representation, and is a specialist in Polish migration particularly; Dr. Arshad Isakjee (University of Liverpool), a social and urban geographer who specialises in identity, belonging, security and the governance of communities; author and PhD candidate Emy Onuora (Liverpool John Moores University), Pitch Black: The Story of Black British Footballers (Biteback Publishing).

We’re going to be talking about some of the various kinds of migration that have shaped our recent history - in Liverpool, in the UK and in Europe more widely. I’m looking forward to hearing what the other panellists have to say; as you can see from their interests above, it’s a hugely important subject that touches on some of the big political and cultural questions of our time. We’ll be talking about why migration has become a site of political conflict in recent years, how the hostility and fear that often surrounds the subject might be challenged and broken down - and also thinking about the different stories that emerge from what, after all, has been a common feature of human experience throughout our existence. Migration is also about people building new lives, making new connections and forming new communities. Could we benefit from recognising some of the stories that often get overlooked? Whose histories get told, and whose get ignored?  

I remember watching a conference about how language is used in the media to discuss migration. Words such as ‘masses’, ‘looming’, ‘hoards’, ‘crowds’ to create a real sense of fear and urgency and eliminate the fact that these stories are about real people, humans. How much has language played in your work, whether in articles or books and as a journalist, are you aware how much your words have an impact? 

For individual journalists, it’s our job to describe what we see in as precise a way as possible. But there’s always more to it than that. When it comes to a subject like migration, the very terms we use are heavily politicised; their meanings are fought over and placed into the service of larger narratives. Take the term “asylum-seeker”, for instance. Strictly, this describes someone who has come to to a particular country to claim some form of protection under refugee law. It doesn’t tell you whether their claim is valid or not, or anything about their character. But for many years asylum-seekers have been the target of distorted and vicious coverage from sections of the UK press; so much so that in some contexts - for example, if you were to see the term on the front page of the Daily Mail or the Sun - it has a pejorative sense, one that the journalists wouldn’t even need to spell out to their readers because of the constant associations made between seeking asylum and crime, or the claims that asylum-seekers are lying about their situation and a drain on the welfare state.

On the other side, people might want to use different terms when they want to evoke sympathy or a sense of kinship with certain kinds of immigrants. There’s a whole hierarchy of terms - think about the different ways in which terms like “expat”, “globetrotter”, “refugee” or “economic migrant”. They’re often racialised, or tied up with ideas about class and social status.

In my own work, I’ve tried to write about things as clearly and as honestly as possible - when words have specific legal meanings for instance, be clear about what those are - but also to be aware of the particular arguments I want to make, or how my own biases affect the way I approach situations and think about them. Lights in the Distance is a book about the experiences of people who’ve come to claim asylum in Europe in recent years - and for me, it was important to let people tell their stories in their own words, as far as possible.

I’d really like to hear your thoughts on the issue of Windrush if possible. In the media, it’s been described as a ‘scandal’, something that’s just been hushed up.

Scandal… I don’t know, do you call it a scandal when the government announces a new policy, is told “here’s what will happen as a result of your new policy”, and then the thing happens? Because that is essentially the story of Windrush. For several years I think the government was very happy with the “hostile environment” policy aimed at making life unpleasant for unwanted immigrants so that they would leave the UK - because it only seemed to be affecting people who attracted little public sympathy. One reason why the Windrush scandal has provoked such a backlash is because it involves a migration story that is now celebrated in official UK culture: post-war Caribbean immigration to the UK is now celebrated, and the contribution of Caribbean immigrants is sometimes even used to cast aspersions on other groups deemed to not to have “integrated” into British society.  

What this shows, I think, is that we haven’t reconciled with Britain’s history as an empire. For many years, Britain ruled over large parts of the world, justified by an ideology that treated non-white colonial subjects as inferior to white British people. Today, the descendents of some of those colonial subjects - even those who have lived most or all of their lives in the UK - discover that their rights to citizenship has the potential to be revoked. The government’s response so far has been to try and rectify the Windrush injustices, but to leave the rest of the system intact. But this hasn’t addressed the root of the problem, which is the deliberate mixing up of crime and immigration, leading to a situation in which migrants are treated as suspect and even the act of migration is criminalised. (I wrote about this in a recent piece for the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/may/17/champion-boxer-caught-in-britains-immigration-dragnet-kelvin-bilal-fawaz-operation-nexus)

With Brexit looming, what does this mean for those who are seeking refuge or even those who are European nationals and migrants who currently live in the UK?

Brexit, and a possible end to EU freedom of movement, is currently being presented as a great victory by our political leadership. It’s actually an attack on our rights - including the rights of UK citizens. For refugees it leaves a big question about how the UK will co-operate with its European neighbours on things like reuniting families, or dealing with situations like Calais, where people get trapped as they try to move from one country to another.
You have previously written a  book, Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain's Far Right where you discuss the rise of the British National Party in 2012. In 2018, we are still seeing a rise of right wing organisations and even politicians not only in Britain but in Europe. Just in June, we saw far-right Italy minister, Matteo Salvini, vowing action to expel thousands of Roma people. Do you think the right wing rhetoric is harmful to those seeking asylum and refuge and even migrants?  

Yes, it absolutely is. But what’s also harmful is the behaviour of politicians who think of themselves as mainstream and moderate, who think that the best way to respond to the far right is to adopt a bit of its rhetoric to keep voters happy. We need to challenge the racism of the far right directly, and make the case for a society in which people from many different backgrounds have control over their lives.
As a journalist, do you feel that it’s a moral balancing act you have to do when you report on these stories about trafficking and migration? I’ve heard stories of artists, writers and journalists who have gone to places like the Jungle and found that migrants don’t want to speak about their experiences, because they don’t want to be used for the artist’s gains, because of course, you’ve been through this traumatic experience – why would you want to re live this experience for an exhibition or a book that you don’t gain from?

There’s a risk that telling people’s stories can become exploitative: I think it’s important to always be asking yourself why you want to do it. What does this help your readers (or viewers, listeners, etc) understand? How does it affect the person who is telling you their story, for better or worse? I always used to tell my interviewees that what I was doing probably wouldn’t help their individual situation, but that it would help readers understand what was going wrong, so that in the future they could help make better decisions. This was useful not only because it made my intentions clear, but because people who needed something more immediate would know not to waste their time with me.

That said, I think people very often do want to tell their stories - because they want to get something off their chest, because they’re angry about what’s happened to them and want some kind of justice, or even just because they want to connect with other people. It’s a thing that all of us want to do at points. In my work, I got to know people over fairly long periods - several months to several years - so it meant we could build up quite a bit of mutual trust.

Please discuss your process of your recent book, Lights in the Distance. It took you five years to write it. What made you want to write it in the first place?

Originally I wanted to write a book about the far right in Europe - but on an early research trip to Athens I met a family of Afghan refugees who had been targeted by violent racists. What shocked me about their situation was how the violence was only one part of a bigger problem for them: they were totally trapped, without access to a functioning asylum process, which left them living in extreme poverty, pushed about by the Greek authorities but not allowed to go anywhere else in Europe either. I wanted to understand how we’d managed to construct a border system that had such a damaging effect on people, so I set out to see it for myself.

We as a writing organisation get to work with people who are seeking refuge and asylum in the UK. They have participated in our writing projects and then have gone onto volunteer and even perform at our events in our literature festival in May. Are there any organisations that you would recommend to people who want to connect with and help those who are in need i.e. charities?

Yes, there are lots - and it’s always a good idea to start locally. The Refugee Council has a searchable directory of services around the UK on its website, and you can use that to find groups you might like to support. Beyond that, there are groups like Safe Passage and Help Refugees who work on refugee rights around Europe, and help to reunite families or bring vulnerable children over to the UK. There are also political campaign groups who try to change or challenge government policies - have a look at the groups that contributed to Liberty’s guide to the hostile environment, for instance. And currently, a group of activists who prevented a deportation charter flight from taking off from Stansted airport last year, are on trial and could face lengthy prison sentences. You can find out more about their campaign and how to support it here.

On 11th October, journalist Daniel Trilling will be in conversation with Dr. Kathy Burrell (University of Liverpool), Reader in Human Geography with interests in migration, especially aspects relating to mobility, memory, material culture and cultural representation, and is a specialist in Polish migration particularly; Dr. Arshad Isakjee (University of Liverpool), a social and urban geographer who specialises in identity, belonging, security and the governance of communities; author and PhD candidate Emy Onuora (Liverpool John Moores University), Pitch Black The Story of Black British Footballers (Biteback Publishing), and hosted by Lida Amiri (University of Liverpool), 'Language Lounge' Language Adviser (French) and PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at the Department of Histories, Languages and Cultures.