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Syrian refugee crisis: What can sci-fi teach us?

It took a long time for the current refugee crisis to get the political response it deserves. Sci-fi can teach us a lot about the dangers of neglecting compassion
It took a long time for the current refugee crisis to get the political response it deserves. Sci-fi can teach us a lot about the dangers of neglecting compassion

As the Syrian refugee crisis finally receives the political response it deserves, we consider what science-fiction can teach us about the dangers of denying compassion and ignoring a humanitarian crisis.

In the end, it was delays to Eurostar services which marked the turning point in the media's approach to Europe's ongoing “migrant” crisis. However, when news of delays to the London-Paris train link first hit the headlines, coverage was dominated by passenger accounts of the unbearable conditions experienced on board the trains.

What was notably absent as the headlines broke was a focus on those most urgently in need of the media's spotlight: the refugees seeking to board the trains, who had suffered the trauma of fleeing their homeland, travelling thousands of miles to seek safety in Europe.

A change of tack

Rightly, the humanitarian angle has come to dominate in the days since, culminating this week in the Prime Minister's announcement that Britain would admit a modest number of Syrian refugees over the next five years.

But the safety and security of families from Syria and other countries affected by war is by no means guaranteed. Now is a time for compassion – and it is science fiction which can show us the international consequences of treating refugees as an inconvenience or a threat at times of humanitarian crisis.

Children of Men (novel and 2006 film)

Scene from the film Children of Men
Children of Men deals with a refugee crisis on our own shores, resonating uneasily with today's situation (Photo: Flickr, CC-BY-SA 2.0)
P.D. James's novel and the 2006 Clive Owen movie takes place in Britain 18 years after humanity becomes infertile. As the only stable nation left on earth, the UK is the destination for thousands of asylum seekers fleeing chaos elsewhere.

The film's harrowing final scenes take place at Bexhill refugee camp as the British military bombs the site in order to eliminate desperate migrants before they set foot on British soil.

The sequence recalls the horror of the wartorn Damascus and Aleppo – but, more worryingly, are also darkly reminiscent of scenes in Calais' refugee camp, the “Jungle”.

District 9 (2009 film)

District 9 tells the story of an extra-terrestrial spacecraft which comes to rest over Johannesburg. The passengers and crew are found to be sick and malnourished and are soon confined by the government to a substandard refugee camp known as District 9.

Sign banning non-humans, from the movie District 9
District 9 primarily satirises the South Africa's apartheid, but it also highlights the dangers of designating a second class of citizen (Photo: Flickr, CC-BY-SA 2.0)
While this approach begins as a convenient solution for the government, it results in decades of animosity and conflict. By the time the events of the film take place 28 years after the aircraft first arrives, the settlers are unequivocally treated as second-class citizens, allowing the police to subject them to brutal treatment with little or no compunction.

Primarily, District 9 is a satire on South African apartheid. However, it has a lot to teach us about the dangers inherent in choosing to view the unfamiliar as in some way inferior.

Usoni (Kenyan TV series)

Usoni is set in 2063, and turns real-life asylum patterns on their head, portraying refugees fleeing Europe in a world where the sun only shines in Africa. Lampedusa is no longer the gateway to a new life in Europe for African refugees, but the other way around.

Usoni gives Europeans real pause for thought. Today we may worry about making a smooth train ride from Paris to London, but what if instead we were forced to pack our lives into a backpack and make the life-or-death journey to a new continent? Wouldn't we expect compassion from those on whose mercy we threw ourselves?

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