Slacktivism to Activism: Human Displacement and the Refugee Crisis

Jessie Dolliver explores the disconnect today between taking action and pledging online support to a cause.

FEATURESThis event, coordinated by the Graduates Student Union, focussed on the disconnect between activism – “simply taking action to affect social change”- and the growing phenomenon of slacktivism- “actions performed via the internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement.” Dr. Fintan Sheerin and  Professor Gillian Wiley, both of Trinity, were the guest speakers.

Wiley, whose primary research interest, lies in the area of “human trafficking for sexual and labour exploitation in the context of globalisation”, spoke first on the nature of, and response to, the European refugee crisis. She explored the “the securitization of migration” both worldwide and in the European context, and lamented openness of European borders for money, trade, capitalism, and information with globalization but the tightened borders for migration of actual human beings “especially from the global South the global North”. She dissected the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s use of trafficking theory to “condemn migrants and criminalise them”. Continuing this train of forced association between migration to terrorism, Wiley also mentioned the media’s portrayal of the New Year’s events in Cologne, and the terrorism in Paris as migration’s direct “threat to society in Europe”. She explained that governments use the masculinisation of migration to inspire fear to avoid taking responsibility for the crisis. The case of Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki justifying the use of tear gas on migrants as “What we have seen is some 400 young males trying forcibly to enter Macedonian territory from Greece,” was given as an example of this. Wiley criticised the Irish government’s “paltry response” to the crisis and pondered on the dehumanization of individual migrants. She gave the example of a young Syrian woman who had made it to Ireland, the displacement having damaged “all her hopes in life”. She had wanted to be a pharmacist but her studies had been disrupted and she now has no resources to continue her education.

Dr. Fintan Sheerin is an assistant professor in Trinity nursing, who has led health teams, both in a voluntary capacity and as part of his civic engagement role to refugee camps in Calais and Lesbos. He referenced Professor Kathleen Lynch’s statement that morning that “there is always a cost” to activism, and that “if you stand with people who are oppressed, if you stand with people who are marginalised, you will be treated differently”. He underlined the importance of “waking up to the world that you live in”, humanizing the migrant crisis, despite government’s building “borders, barriers, and keeping people apart to stop us from engaging with each other.” According to Sheerin, we must all accept that one’s privilege “exists only because of the disprivilege of others”, and that we must stop “actively oppressing and passively accepting” in our lives. He brought with him an orange life jacket, taken from the beaches of Greece. Emotively he held it in the air, saying “when I touch this… I feel the pain of others.. I know someone travelled across the water in this.. and if they fell they would die”. On that beach he saw young people, older people, women giving birth, women miscarrying, and governments doing nothing. He told of activists moving to help because “they believe in humanity”. He raged that “all that France put into Calais was a ring of police”, that they used “tools of control and tools of violence” to control the suffering masses. He reported on the illness and contamination of the camps, the images of police laughing as shanty buildings burned and took pictures because somehow “these people aren’t human beings in their eyes- they’re something less.” He returned to humanizing the crisis: “When we see the mass, the crisis, the refugees, we lose sight of the person.”

This event was extremely inclusive, and took on a workshop format later on, as participants were asked to deliberate on what they could do on an individual and community basis. Many of the attendees put forward questions such as how can one engage in activism from home and how can one fight social issues without being present. The honest and frank response given by Dr. Sheerin seemed to be that simply you can’t. Slacktivism, he said, is fine- “But the real sense of humanity is in the being where the people who are suffering are… then you can never do anything different. Because everything changes.”