I can’t sleep. It is 4.30 a.m. Thursday 3rd April 2014. There are lots of reasons for my sleeplessness. One is that I have to go to an important hospital appointment with a family member tomorrow.
The other is that a young girl, Yashika Bageerathi, just about to take her ‘A’ levels, has been unnecessarily sent away on her own, back to a dangerous domestic situation from which she was fleeing. She is on a plane now, treated like a dangerous criminal, surrounded by empty seats and with guards, a very costly flight paid for by tax payers’ money. Many thousands of people (177,892 at this point) signed the petition to ask the Government not to deport her. Many thousands of people asked our government not to put her in Yarls Wood Detention Centre (already a source of great concern about its running) and to let her stay. She had the support, not of troublemakers or extremists, but of her headmistress, her fellow students, her own Conservative MP and the Christian Evangelical Steve Chalke. The money spent could have been saved and compassion and common sense have at least allowed her to stay with her family for a further two months until her ‘A’ levels were completed and proper arrangements for her safety ensured.
Why is this important? She is only one person amongst many, after all. All around us, as the world turns, wars and famines rage and individuals suffer. When I go to the hospital tomorrow I will not be the only person worried for a relative. People will die even as I wait with my relative for the Consultant to see us. If we get bad news – well, we won’t be the first or the last. Yet if the Consultant who sees us, treats us merely as one case in millions when we sit in his or her consulting room, we would rightly regard him or her as shockingly callous and lacking in humanity. Each patient, to a good Consultant, is an individual. Each life is worthy of respect. Budgets have to be decided and general decisions have to be made, but each person who will be seen in that hospital tomorrow, and indeed each person who works in that hospital, is unique, and the wonderful mathematics of Compassion is that the more each individual is treated with kindness and compassion, the better for the population of the country as a whole. As John Donne said, ‘No man is an island.’ That whole poem should be read by our Government.
We have just had Sport Relief, and on the television the fund raisers encouraged us again and again to empathise with individual stories of suffering around the world. Each time a person’s story was told the money flowed in, and it was marvelled at time and time again how kind and generous people could be. The presenters proudly announced that the Government would match the money donated by private individuals with money from taxes, and everyone felt good. Our Prime Minister and his wife were filmed preparing to run to raise money. The Government understood that something wonderful was going on, and they wanted to be part of the outpouring of empathy and compassion generated. They understood the power of the individual story and they wanted to be associated with it. Cynics might say it suited them. I hope that is being too harsh, but if we feel good about helping an individual we can sometimes overlook any unjust economic and political factors which led them to that position. However, I would say that the reason why we as a nation feel good about Sport Relief is that it IS good. It is profoundly humane to feel compassion for individuals, and as long as this goes hand in hand with creating Just structures and systems where individuals flourish we will have a healthy society and world. The two factors complement, rather than oppose each other.
So what is the power of Yashika’s individual story? Does it complement a just ordering of our society? In what way has the Government chosen to be associated with it? Is it being used to encourage compassion and empathy, or is it being used for something far more worrying?
I don’t think it is inhuman in itself for a country to have restrictions on immigration. It must be in the power of a nation to decide that some people are given citizenship and others not. What is important however is that these decisions are made and are seen to be made, with fairness and compassion, with the right values, and that each individual case is taken on merit. Yashika’s story is important for us all and for the future of our nation as a compassionate, decent place, because of the context of the decisions made around this particular case and the way that a young woman has been deliberately made a political football in the full glare of publicity. The shamelessness and unnecessary public conclusion to this case is very chilling.
Yashika’s case is important because this is a time of high unemployment and where people are struggling, and historically, as I know from years of research for ‘Girl with a White Dog’, such a time is one where we need to be very aware of scapegoating and demonisation of others. It is important because those who know Yashika’s individual story love her and understand her situation, and those who made the decision yesterday to deport her did NOT know her as an individual and chose, in the full sight of the nation, to refuse to do so. This Government deliberately and shamelessly chose to let us all see them act with coldness and contempt, not just towards Yashika herself, but towards the Head teacher and the young students supporting her, the community who spoke for her, her M.P. and the thousands who signed the petition. They even seem to have acted contemptuously towards Parliament itself, as Yashika is due to appear before the Home Affairs Committee in June. Our Government deliberately chose not to see her individual need, and deliberately chose to let us see how unimportant such individual need was to them, even though they were given ample evidence and time and opportunity to do so. This is frightening for us all.
They inflicted suffering utterly needlessly and were not ashamed. They seemed to glory in their own imperviousness to appeals for compassion- they would not even let a hard working student complete her exams before sending her away. They ignored the fact that she was suffering and seemed to rejoice in their power to do this. They used her for their own political ends, tapping into an undercurrent not of compassion but of fear of the immigrant because they estimated that this could gain them political power, and they didn’t care at what moral cost this came.
Why? Why would a democratically elected government behave with such contempt, such arrogance? Is it because they judge that they are in charge of all the stories being printed in our press, the programmes being churned out by our television studios, the politcal debates on our radio stations? Only yesterday I was informed by a taxi driver that he had seen on the television that most of the people with disabled stickers for their cars were fakes. When I asked him where he got that information from he said a programme on Sky television. He accepted the story because it was from a place of power, and it shapes the way he looks at disabled people. It is not a good story, and we discussed that any abuse of disabled parking in this story is not being used to encourage a tighter, fairer system and crack down on offenders, but to feed into a bigger narrative that somehow disabled people aren’t ‘really’ disabled and shouldn’t have special treatment. It seems that our ‘free’ media and our government are telling the same stories. This is not healthy for democracy.
We live on stories. We are story-makers and we are made of stories. We each have a responsibility now to fight to make sure our nation’s narrative is one of fairness and decency , of honour and compassion and kindness, of basic humanity, or we, and our children are all, as John Donne might have said, stuffed.
P.S. I know that these opinions are shared by those of many and no religion, but, for the record, I am a Christian and believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. ‘Gospel’ means good news. I do not believe the deportation of Yashika had anything to do with this Gospel, and noting to do with the ‘Christian values’ that some people claim they are defending. It is not ‘Good news’. How can it be? It has nothing to do with Love.