Dear France, not all migrants can be 'Spiderman'

Dear France, not all migrants can be 'Spiderman'

Aid workers helping people like Gassama also view Macron's gesture as a PR stunt that does not address tens of thousands more like him, writes Adama Manu.
5 min read
06 Jun, 2018
Gassama arrived in France in 2017 after travelling from Mali [Getty]

A video that went viral last week showing a 33-year-old undocumented migrant rescue a four-year-old child dangling from a balcony beats a story on Trump any day of the week. 

In the 30 to 40 seconds it took him to scale four stories of a Paris apartment building, Malian migrant Mamoudou Gassama went from being a complete unknown to a national and international hero.

Two days after his daring rescue - viewed millions of times online - Gassama, nicknamed "Spiderman" by French media, met with French President Macron at the Elysee Palace. "You have become an example because millions of people have seen you," Macron told him. The president added it was only right that the nation be grateful and his immigration status would immediately be "put in order".

Gassama arrived in France in 2017 after crossing Libya, the Mediterranean Sea and Italy, and was presented by Macron with a medal for bravery, offered a job with the fire service and now has greater prospects of becoming a fully-fledged French citizen.

While I am over the moon for the fortune and rewards that have followed, it is only because this news confirms what many of us have always known - that migrants are not necessarily boogeymen. They are human beings who, under the most difficult circumstances, have left their home countries to seek a better life.

That's not to say all migrants and refugees come with the same intentions or level of deprivation. Saying that would be playing into the hands of media commentaries that make concerted efforts to provide a negative view of migrants - which is why the labelling of Gassama as "Spiderman" may offer a moment of levity in the potentially tragic situation, but is also something that I have a problem with.

We are left to assume that Gassama is a Muslim - there was no any mention or association of his heroism with his religious beliefs in the same way that terrorism has often been rationalised by religiosity. This narrative pushes "exceptionalism" to new heights - the inherent assumption is that Gassama is the "model migrant" around whom we can feel assured of "our" safety; the migrant who goes above and beyond to show us that migration is not necessarily a bad thing.

British MP David Lammy tweeted "I don't think that 'migrants' should have to behave like superheroes before they are treated like human beings. Being a human being should be the only prerequisite to being treated like a human being. And that applies in the UK just as much as France."

The idea that Gassama's heroic and "Spiderman tendencies" is what warrants the accolades that followed thereafter, speaks of an exceptionalism in the story that does not take into account France's arbitrary treatment of the very people that Gassama resembles the most - the thousands of migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to seek asylum, and the generations of Muslim citizens and residents who are heavily policed by the French state.

It may also lead others to believe that they may too have to climb buildings, although so many of them have already done the unimaginable by crossing the Mediterranean Sea at great risk to their own lives; people like Gassama's childhood friend, Sissako Mahmadou. He was reported by AFP saying: "What he [Gassama] did, I hope to do it someday, too… if I had the occasion to save someone's life like that… I would do it too because I'm in his situation, too." 

Aid workers helping people like Gassama also view Macron's gesture as a PR stunt that does not address tens of thousands more like him. "What's really questionable in our view is that this gesture of gratitude on behalf of France has been made into a symbol of political humanity towards foreigners in France," says Geneviève Jacques, president of the Cimade organisation to help migrants.

"Unfortunately, the reality is that policies are more and more repressive." 

This includes the eviction of around five hundred migrants from squatter camps in central Paris.

Of course, the issue of a more humane and constructive migration policy in France is compounded by problems within the EU's ability to resolve the refugee/migration crisis.

Just this weekend, more than 100 people died after a boat carrying migrants sank off the coast of Tunisia on Saturday night, the latest in a string of tragedies in the Mediterranean refugee and migrant crisis.

On Monday, the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that at least 112 of about around 180 migrants on the boat died in the sinking.

The rise of far-right political parties in Austria and Italy is particularly stark. And the stalemate in the EU's migration policy suggests that there is no long term vision by the bloc resolve the crisis.

So while Gassama is deserving of the praise he has so far received - to what extent can we not see Macron's actions as a symbolic gesture? All of this reminds me of a saying of the American author, H. Jackson Brown: "Luck marches with those who give their very best." 

The question is, are migrants and refugees not already doing do that in their pursuit to survive?

Adama Munu is a broadcast journalist focused on Afro-Arab relations. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Middle East politics at Birkbeck College.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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