The mainstream media saw that stars could wield a lot of power – so they monster people like Lily Allen to put them off getting involved.
Two weeks ago I was talking to a 13-year-old boy in the Calais migrant camp. He told me he had left Afghanistan, escaping the threat of IS and the Taliban, travelling alone for six months to try and get to his father, who was living in Birmingham.For weeks Shamsher had been trying to jump on the back of lorries to enter the UK, an incredibly dangerous way into Britain that has claimed many lives. When he was caught, he said he was kicked and slapped by French police, who forced him to return to the camp. This is a child. If he was in British school he’d be in year 8.
His story was, of course, upsetting, but it was also infuriating. Shamsher has family in the UK and, under the Dublin amendment, that means he has a legal right to be here. The only thing that’s stopping him is the bureaucracy of the British government, which wasn’t processing him fast enough.
In January we promised to take thousands of child refugees – children like Shamsher, with family and somewhere to go in the UK, as well as 3,000 unaccompanied children – under the Dubs amendment. On Sunday, it was revealed that the Home Office ignored a plan agreed by local councils to ensure vulnerable child refugees had a place to stay when they arrived in Britain and instead did nothing to prepare for when the Calais camp closed. They are now said to be panicking.
Heartbreakingly, Shamsher told me he had a better chance of getting into the UK on the back of a lorry than waiting for the government to let him in. “I apologise on behalf of my country,” I said. “I’m sorry for what we put you through.”
I suppose I could have said, “I feel guilty about the part that my country has played in your situation,” or, “We just had a vote, and 52 percent of people voted to leave to the European Union because of immigration, and I really can’t speak for them, but let me apologise on behalf of the other 48 percent who, I think, roughly feel the same as me.” But I was speaking to him through an interpreter in a tiny room with a camera crew. I was trying to get a point across in as few words as possible; there wasn’t much time for clarifications.
I went to Calais because I wanted to do what I can to help. I wanted to try to remind people of the humanity at the heart of the crisis, at a time when refugees were being demonised in the press.
But after the film of my trip aired I found myself caught in a familiar constellation of tabloid and social media aggressors. It began on Twitter, with near-universal negative comments, from people like Andre Walker, who said: “I think Lily Allen ought to apologise to the country for backing an Islamist terrorist,” or another, who said, “I wonder who would Lily Allen would feel sorry for if there was a war, would she care for a English kid soldiers or Muslim Isis.”
By the following day Jan Moir was writing in the Mail that I was “another indulged idiot”. I was on the front page of the Star, a “sobbing luvvie”. There was a real hate in the things people wrote, as if me going to Calais was a vindictive attack on our country.
Things escalated throughout last week, Gary Lineker supported me on Twitter and called on people to be more compassionate. The Sun ran a front page calling for him to be fired for “peddling migrant lies”.
I didn’t think going to Calais was particularly controversial, but it turns out that saying we need to help vulnerable children is now dodgy territory.
Some of the anger felt familiar. People thought it was wrong for someone who has money to moralise on behalf of everyone else. In The Sun, they ran the headline, “Maybe they could stay in your lovely £2m pad, Lily?” – “they” presumably being thousands of child refugees in Calais and tens of thousands more in Greece.
It’s true: I live in a bubble. I have a lovely house, my kids go to a good school and I sort of have an idea of what I’m working towards in terms of my future. But that’s what I was struck by in Calais – people are in a holding pen. They have no idea what comes next. There is no life plan. There is nothing to work towards except for getting across the channel. If you’re a 13-year-old boy jumping on top of a lorry moving at 60mph every night – if that’s your goal – then what further proof could there be that people like me, with the chances life has afforded me, have a responsibility to help in any way we can?
I don’t really believe the tabloid journalists are worried about 14 refugees coming to the country. I don’t think it’s conspiratorial to say there are other motives at play. Refugees have become a representation of a lot of other factors. They’re being used to push several other agendas.
Some are obvious: The Sun isn’t really calling for Gary Lineker to be fired because of a tweet; he’s being attacked because Murdoch hates the BBC. It’s using refugees to have a proxy war with the most successful sports presenter who isn’t on Sky.
Others are more subtle: the furore about whether or not some refugees may have lied about their ages is not really about whether these refugees can enter the country; it’s about creating the narrative that people trying to come here aren’t asking for our help, but trying to dupe us, take advantage of the system. The hope is that this will make us less trusting of them next time round.
The tabloids have been aided by the Home Office. There are much younger unaccompanied adults who still haven’t been processed – so why did the UK take in a tiny group of older male teenagers first? Doing that doesn’t really help the plight of the refugees, but it does push the agenda of the tabloids.
The press are willing to slur the reputation of refugees, to “monster” celebrities who disagree with them by bringing up negative stories from their past until they back down. The Sun sent a message this week: if another public figure was thinking about becoming more involved in the migrant crisis they might take a look at what happened to me and Gary and think it’s not worth it.
All of this has a corrosive effect on the way we think about vulnerable people. If you’re worried about becoming homeless, if you’re having to wait three weeks to get an appointment with a doctor, if you’re at food banks and you see migrant families in the queue ahead of you, it plays into the idea that your problems are caused by migrants.
That distrust is misplaced. It’s not the fault of refugees, it’s about the lack of services available in this country. The government have found a group of vulnerable people they can blame their own failures on, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the problems in this country are the fault of a self-interested Conservative party and people and companies who aren’t paying their share of tax. They’re the ones cheating the system, not a child trying to come here because they have been driven away from everywhere else.
Even I’ve found myself thinking like this. After the interview with Shamsher I said to Catryn, who made the documentary: “Did you believe him, that his dad was in Birmingham?” I was wondering why his dad didn’t go to Calais to be with him. I found myself being suspicious of him, because of the sorts of stuff I was reading in the press. Then I caught myself asking these questions. And I thought: ‘Who gives a fuck where his dad is? Why am I even asking that question? Whatever his age is, wherever his parents live, it shouldn’t matter. I can see the environment he’s living in. He’s someone who has found himself, as a young person, alone. I, as a human being, can’t stand by and say that’s his problem. Nobody chooses to live there; they have been forced there by what they’re running from.’
From a very early age we were taught about the Second World War and how evil Hitler was. You always wonder how he managed to get the whole country to go along with that. Now we’re seeing it. But I don’t want to be a good German. I want to be on the right side of history.
Some people will say, “You’re just a pop star – you should just make music.” But 40 years ago, even 25 years ago, you couldn’t really be taken seriously as a musician unless you had a political stance. The mainstream media saw that threat coming – that stars could wield a lot of power – so they monster people like me to put them off getting involved.
Here’s what I know: last week the UK government took in the first 14 kids from the camp, including Shamsher. Over the weekend they started to take children in much bigger numbers. I’m absolutely not taking credit, but who knows – if the backlash against me and Gary Lineker hadn’t been all over the front pages last week, would the government have taken those first 14 kids in, and all those who followed? The government has been dragging its feet for months, and now it’s finally started to act.
Whether that’s because it was announced that the Calais jungle was going to be demolished or because I pushed the issue back up the news agenda, I don’t know. But I’d like to think that what I did will help in some small way. That was the purpose of me going. There was a bill passed. Three-thousand children have a right to be here. But they’re there. They’re waiting.