CANTERBURY, England (Reuters) – Europe should greet migrants with compassion rather than barbed wire and the British government is “rather nasty” about those who seek asylum, said Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, who won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Gurnah, who explored the legacies of imperialism on uprooted individuals in his books, said he was so shocked when he was phoned by the Swedish Academy to tell him of the prize that he thought it was a cold caller.
He spoke poetically about the experience of migration – of leaving behind family and part of one’s life for a life in a new society where one would always feel partly foreign.
He said he felt the British government seemed nasty about those seeking asylum.
“Currently, it seems the government is rather nasty about people seeking asylum or people seeking admittance into this country,” Gurnah, 73, told Reuters in his garden beside an Acer tree in Canterbury, southern England.
“It seems such a surprise to them that people coming from difficult places would want to come to a country that is prosperous. Why would they be surprised? Who wouldn’t want to come to a country that is more prosperous? There is a kind of meanness in this response.”
Gurnah, who was born in Zanzibar, now Tanzania, said migrants were not coming with nothing – that they wanted to work.
He expressed amazement at the resolution and courage of those who travelled so far to escape their own countries for a new life.
“This somehow is constructed as if it immoral – you know they use this phrase ‘economic migrant’ – as if to be an economic migrant is some kind of crime. Why not?”
“Millions of Europeans over centuries left their homes for precisely that reason and invaded the world for precisely for that reason,” he said.
The other side of the equation, he said, was why people felt they had to embark on such perilous voyages for a new life.
“But you have to ask the question: what is so horrible about where they are that they will do such things, that they will take such risks?” he said.
Europe, he said, should rethink its approach to migration.
“With greater compassion rather than with barbed wire – rather than a kind of discourse that Europe is going to be destroyed,” he said.
Gurnah said he was not advocating free-for-all “open season” migration but that there should not be an antagonistic and abusive representation of migrants.
Brexit, he said, had revealed a “certain meanness” about Britain – and that lurking behind the vote was another narrative about migrants from far beyond Europe’s borders.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by Andy Bruce)