M.I.A. Asks: What’s Up With That?

Besides being an incredibly inspirational fashion icon,  M.I.A. is also respected for her fearlessness in discussing controversial social issues. She unashamedly purports her version of ethical human behaviour, and she is always incisive with her criticism of immoral social norms. Her topical new song Borders is no different, addressing the mounting global refugee crisis and confronting viewers with the painful question: “what’s up” with identities, privilege, power, and of course: borders. To be specific, she is talking about national borders, which was the topic of one of my recent posts where I similarly ask what’s up with nationalism and nationalistic practices, which have the ability to make migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, feel unwelcome or uninvited in their new country. Similarly, M.I.A. makes the argument that social practices linked to fierce nationalism make refugees feel unwelcome, and do little to advance a philanthropic reaction to the refugee crisis. Alongside lyrics that incite listeners to think about their privilege in occupying a safe space free of war-inflicted turmoil, the video emotively depicts various refugee modes of movement in attempts to cross national borders: running across dusty, nondescript landscapes; precariously climbing through barbed wire fences; and dangerously piling atop each other on rickety boats in open waters. I can’t speak on her behalf, but judging by such imagery and lyrics, she is using her medium – funky beats, characteristically edgy vocal delivery, and confronting imagery – to get people to know and care about the mounting refugee crisis that our world is facing.

According to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has not been as high as it is now since WWII, with numbers reaching about 60 million by the end of 2014 and continuing to rise daily. With millions and millions of vulnerable people fleeing their countries for safety, there are inevitably questions of national security for the countries receiving refugees through either illicit or regular legal processes. I think that security concerns stem from widespread xenophobia and islamophobia, visible and vocal or silent yet pervasive. Many people fear the unknown and are unwilling to believe that people from a foreign culture can be innocent, docile humans in desperate need of safety. I think that M.I.A.’s plea is related to many people’s apathy and unwillingness to accept and/or welcome refugees into their country because of such racist, unfounded, and often fictitious sentiments. For example, both the United States and Australia have all illustrated how xenophobia can masquerade under the guise of benevolent security concerns for citizens if refugees were allowed to cross the border into those countries. And following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in France, far-right political leader Marine Le Pen called for an “immediate halt” to accepting Syrian refugees.

However, despite that many people imagine that refugees pose imminent danger to their country, there are many people who are empathic towards those affected by the crisis and want to do their part to help refugees find safety and a new start. In addition, many influential politicians are putting in place policies and initiatives to accept or at least aid refugees. For example, Serbia has been “[offering] kindness and hope where others are offering xenophobia,” by extending temporary government housing, food, water and blankets to refugees passing across their borders. In addition, the newly elected Liberal Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, boldly stated at the beginning of his leadership that Canada would welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015, and will donate $100 million to the the UN High Commission for Refugees as it tackles “urgent humanitarian needs” abroad. These examples illustrate that M.I.A. is not alone in her desire to bolster an ethical and empathic response to the refugee crisis.

During my field placement in 2015 at The Community Place in Brisbane, I was able to engage one-on-one in an intimate setting with many migrants, including refugees who had fled war-inflicted areas of the Middle East. As a result, I became interested in current world events surrounding the refugee crisis, and by extension the related social issues and political tensions rising globally. I also gained a passion for developing meaningful relationships with people who, like me, were starting a new life in Australia. Hearing first-hand accounts of fleeing for safety and struggling to restart in a new country, during my placement I have gained a new understanding of the Australian Association of Social Workers’ values for practice: social justice and respect for persons. Now through my connections with the community members at The Community Place, I feel particularly impassioned and inspired when I see people like M.I.A. inciting humans everywhere to open their hearts and consider how they might effect a positive outcome for those experiencing abject hardship as a result of the refugee crisis. Whether it be releasing widely-spread, controversial music videos like M.I.A., or, like me, teaching English at a community centre and helping people with their visa applications, we all can do something to help abate the suffering caused by the refugee crisis. No matter what we each do individually, I think the main focus of our actions should be about empathy, understanding, acceptance, and social justice. 

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