When you don’t exist is Amnesty International’s campaign that sought to raise awareness of the stigma, stereotype and shameful othering of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers arriving at European borders. The title film, shown here, pivots the crisis, making Europe the fled from destination, rather than one being fled to. Instead, Africa is now the continent offering safety and opportunity, and the skin of those appealing for sanctuary is white, their accents English, their points of reference all familiar to the target audience watching. Shrouded in dirty blankets, packed into lorries, forcefully ushered behind iron gates, the point the film makes: it’s us, you, me, ours – no longer them, those, others.
There is a dangerous detachment in the way in which the refugee crisis is discussed in Western media and politics. It’s all-around separation, from migrant camps to building walls, there’s a distinctive agenda on keeping ‘them’ out. And yet, for the sake of what? The narrative of reports and policies read as though people, displaced by war, persecution and poverty, are ambushing whole countries, as though a nation’s rich resources are under direct siege from those visibly unbearably weak from months spent on the move.
Of course, this false, protective patriotism is selfish and cruel, and it’s ironic too, omitting the difficult truth of European narrative. In the privileged West, on our continent, we’ve been spoilt by the stasis of our home nations. The steady culture that runs through us is largely of White, European-decent, the same as the one that ran through our ancestors. There isn’t an old language lost to the tongue of our conquerors, a forgotten religion overwritten by invasion. We have only ever expanded outwards, colonising countries with our own culture, never the other way round.
Perhaps it’s this guilty conscience that creates such a loaded agenda. Threatened by the premise that by letting others in, hometowns will suffer the same fate as those nations victimised by our colonialism. Maybe this inherent habit, a muscle memory that can’t be forgotten is why remote Greek islands or detentions centre are offered as solution, an assigned purgatory rather than integration? In fact, in the year ending June 2020, a total number of 19,128  individuals entered the detention estate and, despite a Government promise in 2010 to end the practice of detaining children, there were 41 occurrences of children entering such immigration detention.
For those who feel their culture threatened by those seeking refuge, perhaps it is only campaigns such as this one, that provide a lens through which they can grasp the sad epiphany. That it’s not about taking a share of something that doesn’t belong; it’s not about choice or options or decisions, it’s the total opposite. With all agency removed, the luxury of preference isn’t at all available. And for those who imagine it is, When you don’t exist examines the uncomfortable truth.
Choice is one of the many losses featured in our Lost and Found collection – stories that detail the complexity of the refugee experience, tracing the losses and finds that map the journey to safety. Yet perhaps one of the most difficult pairings is the one that combines the relief of finding safety, with hostility in a country considered harmonious and civil, compared with the chaos left behind. A report by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights found that violence, harassment, threats and xenophobic speech targeting asylum seekers, refugees and migrants remain pervasive and grave across the European Union, whether committed by state authorities, private companies or individuals, or vigilante groups. Inhumanity where there should be humanity, unwelcome where there should be welcome.
Ignorance is only changed with education, and whilst we already know that you, as Heady Mix readers, are here to feed your curiosity and expand your worldview with the narratives that reflect diverse human experiences, we know too that there’s much more to be done. Sharing, spreading and sending the stories that have the power to change stereotype and ultimately prevent discrimination is what really matters. So pass it on, raise your voice, it’s the greatest tool we have.
About the filmmaker
In 1961, the soon-to-be Amnesty International Founder, Peter Benenson, was working as a British lawyer when he was outraged by a story of two Portuguese students being jailed just for raising a toast to freedom. He wrote an article in The Observer newspaper and launched a campaign that provoked an incredible response. Reprinted in newspapers across the world, his call to action sparked the idea that people everywhere can unite in solidarity for justice and freedom. This inspiring moment didn’t just give birth to an extraordinary movement, it was the start of extraordinary social change.
Amnesty International is now a global movement of more than 7 million people who take injustice personally, campaigning for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all. Amnesty International are independent of any political ideology, economic interest or religion, stating ‘No government is beyond scrutiny. No situation is beyond hope’.