We were all mesmerised by the sight of Malian migrant Mamoudou Gassama powerfully scaling the side of a building in Paris to rescue a child dangling off a balcony. It was like something from a film. In every sense. Before you could say “Spider-Man’s looking good” he was whisked off to see President Macron at the Elysée Palace, awarded citizenship and offered a job in the fire service, but I reckon modelling and film agents will come a calling soon.
Gassama’s story gripped the world because it had a happy ending, it’s a wonderful feelgood moment and it makes us feel better about migrants. See… we CAN be nice to them… when they do the right thing — such as rescue a child or save hostages, like another young Malian man, Lassana Bathily, did in 2015 during an extremist attack in a Jewish supermarket in Paris. The state can reward migrants as long as they are prepared to die in an act of bravery. Simples!
I have no problem with celebrating this brave young man but we shouldn’t let this lull us into a false sense of security that migrants feel welcome in France or indeed the UK. France is still pretty brutal towards its migrants, particularly those from Africa.
Race relations have been strained since back in 2005 when the then President, Nicolas Sarkozy, called young (mainly black) male rioters “scum”, more than 10 million people voted for Marine Le Pen at the last election, and President Macron has just proposed tough new measures to crack down on immigration and asylum amid complaints from human rights campaigners.
And the Spider-Man story also sets a false test that requires migrants to be “superheroes before they are treated like human beings”, as David Lammy MP tweeted. We talked about this story on CNN Talk on Monday and the question was “What do migrants contribute to your society?” It’s a fair and positive question but why are migrants still having to justify their right to exist in this way?
Because as any immigrant — or their child — knows, there has been a cold, hostile climate for a long time. The Windrush scandal exploded the myth that race and immigration were all kumbaya in the UK. The rhetoric used by politicians and Right-wing newspapers has been relentlessly horrible. “Migrants are here to STEAL your jobs, SPONGE OFF your services, ATTACK your women” screamed headlines for decades using language normally associated with pest control.
Funnily enough, all this has not made people feel welcome. “I am 100 per cent a victim of a hostile environment,” said a promising student on Channel 4 News this week, whose Jamaican-born family have been fighting to remain in the UK for more than a decade and who live in fear of being deported.
Spider-Man getting his citizenship is wonderful but a canny PR moment doesn’t erase the harsh reality many migrants face. So, here’s a thought — instead of expecting migrants to be heroes, how about we try and not treat them as villains?
By Ayesha Haraki