Judith Vonberg: Perceptions of Migrants: The Individual and the Group

GMT 09:58 Wednesday ,25 June 2014

 Migrant Voice - Judith Vonberg: Perceptions of Migrants: The Individual and the Group

Judith Vonberg

A statistic quoted at the annual Migrant Voice conference in London on the 6-7th of June got me thinking. According to an Ipsos Mori poll carried out in December 2013, 70% of Britons see immigration as a problem for the nation, while just 20% see it as a problem for their local area. This means that the majority of people who are concerned about immigration believe the problems exist only outside their local area. Their lack of concern about the issue in their own communities suggests that their local experiences with migrants have been positive, or at least neutral. Yet they still see immigration as a national problem. Why have their personal experiences failed to challenge this belief about migrants in general? History can help answer this. Throughout the past (and present), human beings’ perceptions of collective groups – whether migrants or homosexuals, Muslims or Jews – are often very different from their perception of individual members of those groups. The controversial German drama Generation War was recently shown on the BBC.  Following the fates of five young German friends during the Second World War, the show was heavily criticised for including a Jewish man in the group. German-Jewish friendships were highly improbable in a culture so rife with anti-Semitism, historians argued. Yet the drama perfectly demonstrates what so many personal accounts of Nazi Germany also reveal: that while “Jews” as a collective were widely accepted as responsible for Germany’s problems and subjected to hostile treatment, many Germans also had Jewish friends who were not perceived as part of that hated group. For the four non-Jews in Generation War, Viktor is just a friend, not a part of the supposed Jewish conspiracy against which they are fighting. Like the 50% who perceive no problem with migrants in their local area, many Germans saw no problem with Jews in their own community but believed, because they were taught to believe, that the problem did exist, just elsewhere. Britons were guilty of the same misjudgements during (and after) the war, but towards Germans. The Germans, Britons were told, are all aggressive, deceitful and subservient. “Germans are the most dangerous people in Europe”, claimed the Daily Mirror in 1949 and polls show that most Britons agreed. Yet there are countless examples of friendships between Britons and German refugees or prisoners of war. Agatha Christie sums up this discrepancy in her 1941 detective novel N or M? Musing on her own attitude towards the Germans, middle-aged heroine Tuppence Beresford says, “I hate the Germans myself. “The Germans”, I say, and feel waves of loathing. But when I think of individual Germans, mothers sitting anxiously waiting for news of their sons, and boys leaving home to fight, and peasants getting in the harvests, and little shop-keepers and some of the nice kindly German people I know, I feel quite different. I know then that they are just human beings and that we’re all feeling alike.” It seems that humans are incapable of perceiving the collective – Germans, Jews or migrants – in its reality. That is, as a very large number of unique individuals, all just those like Germans or migrants we happen to know ourselves, all, in fact, very much like us. While “migrants” as a collective noun may arouse fear and hostility, the individual and familiar Romanian employee or Nigerian neighbour is seen as distinct from that mass group and inspires warmth and empathy. A piece of research recently published by Migrant Voice exposes a disturbing lack of migrant faces and voices in stories about immigration in the British press. This is especially worrying in the light of the discussion here. For it seems that positive personal experiences alone are not enough to change an individual’s hostile views towards a group. It is therefore vital that discussions in the media about “migrants” as a collective involve a myriad of individual migrant voices. Only then can the collective be understood as it is – a bunch of individuals – and erroneous beliefs and fears shown to be groundless. Judith Vonberg is a PhD student studying the mutual perceptions of Brits and Germans after the Second World War. She has a strong interest in issues relating to migration and nationality. She has been a volunteer for Migrant Voice since January 2013.            


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