Fading sense of hope: How re-watching “Children of Men” helps us see immigration control from the other end

A still from the 2006 film Children of Men

A still from the 2006 film Children of Men

It is a dull, drab and dingy world in which Children of Men unfolds. 2027 London presents itself in fading colours, public spaces are dominated by brutal security infrastructure and the city itself shouts its deep unease in xenophobic warning signs and radical graffiti. Outside the city, the English countryside breathes a worn-out air of spent resources, and torched animal carcasses crumble in a wasted landscape.

The central condition of life and society in this vision of 2027 is the unexplained infertility of all humans, along with global disintegration through wars, epidemics and disasters. Britain has shut itself off from the rest in a struggle to maintain order and prosperity. Its repressive regime is at once the result of orchestrated fear used as a tool of governance and the citizens’ own choice in the prevailing global chaos. Scarcity of resources is used to justify harsh measures against illegal immigrants, who are rounded up and caged while waiting to be deported. In the absence of children, citizens have turned to obsessively rearing pets that are dressed up like babies and pushed around in prams.

Theo, a government clerk, is approached by an underground resistance movement to help Kee, a young immigrant woman, to leave the country. Kee is pregnant – a fact of great significance but also a source of danger for her. Theo’s attempt to get Kee and her baby safely to the coast, where rogue scientists from the “Human Project” are to pick her up, draws them into a crescendo of violence. Theo and Kee end up in a refugee camp by the sea that is really a lawless slum and carries the looks of current news footage from Homs or Gaza. As horse-drawn carriages pass through the rubble and people duck and run, random images of other destroyed cities in past wars spring to mind – Sarajevo, Saigon, Warsaw. The victims’ field of vision narrows to the concrete rubble in hectic, haphazard, and pointless escapes. The despair of those under attack in their own prison becomes almost unbearable.

Children of Men is not a work of science fiction. It is director Alfonso Cuarón’s gaze into the fog of the 21st century after its loss of innocence in the autumn of 2001. It comments as much on present tendencies as it shows how our framework of reference, derived from the past, will fail us. We see our own scared perplexity mirrored in the faces of soldiers pointing their heavy guns at a building full of empty-handed foreigners. We are as much bystanders of tragedy as we are responsible for the forceful action taken in the name of our own security. The towering theme of the film is a helpless sense of fading hope.

Children of Men has a lot to say about Europe in particular, in this time when fear seems to drive conversations about migration – both at the dinner table and in government offices. We think governments should probably confiscate the passports of terror suspects so they can’t go to Syria to get training and experience. We don’t really care about the way high-tech surveillance mixes up counter-terrorism and immigration control because both seem necessary to maintain security. We decide that military action is our best answer to a growing number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. While everyone seems to feel a little uneasy about those measures, necessity still ends up the strongest argument. What we don’t talk about are the effects of hostile immigration policies on those they concern. What does it feel like to climb a barbed wire fence at night, hide in the back of a truck or get into a rusty old boat with hundreds of others? Our fear translates into restriction, and restriction translates into risks for people trying to cross borders.

The supporting character Jasper, played by Michael Caine, is just about the only smiling face in Children of Men. Caine looks like an aged John Lennon, complete with round specs and long grey hair. John/Jasper is a funny old man who lives in the woods far away from everything that the world has become, smoking pot and asking people to pull his finger when he farts. The reference to that icon of peace and harmony shows the amount of hope that is still possible in the world of 2027. Even in John Lennon’s time, a “brotherhood of man” was utopian. But in 2027, the anxious status quo leads British citizens to abolish most of their own rights and make life impossible for foreigners in their country.

The international humanitarian organization MSF has launched a medical rescue ship to assist migrants stranded in the Mediterranean.

Sea Watch is a private initiative providing patrol and rescue operations for migrants stranded in the Mediterranean.

Having looked into Cuarón’s smoky mirror, our next conversation about current “refugee problems” should be a different one. Luckily, some rogue humanists have figured it out already. The Human Project is real and if we want, we can just get aboard.

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