Europe’s Ghost: the Immigrant, the Other

We are who we are because of migration. Migration has created the world we are part of today, writes Columban Missionary Fr Bobby Gilmore.

The immigrant has become a contemporary passion in Europe, the vacant point around which ideals clash. Easily available as a token, existing everywhere and nowhere, he is talked about constantly. But in the current public conversation, this figure has not only migrated from one country to another, he has migrated from reality to the collective imagination where he has been transformed into a terrible fiction.

..Whether he or she – I will call the immigrant he while being aware that he is stripped of colour, gender and character – the immigrant has been made into something of an alien. He is an example of the undead, who will invade, colonise and contaminate, a figure we can never quite digest or vomit.
Hanif Kureishi

Migration is an issue where you can win or lose elections in virtually every member state.
Lars Danielsson, Sweden ambassador to the European Union

Seldom a day passes in which there is not something related to the social, political, cultural or economic aspects of migration in the media. Over the past fifteen years in many member states of the European Union and internationally, migration is made a central issue of political platforms at election time.

The observation of Sweden’s ambassador is correct. And this in a time where one is made aware of the need for migrants in the economy by signs and adverts seeking staff. Daily, there is a reminder of shortages in health services already staffed by migrant personnel drawn from developing countries in which they are most needed.

A United Nations report of twenty years ago highlighted the demographic deficit of the European Union. According to the report there were just two people in the economy between sixteen and sixty-four for everyone over the age of sixty-four.

The report suggested Europe had an option of bringing in eleven million immigrants annually or raising the retirement ago to seventy. Many member states choose the former as France has done over the last few weeks raising the retirement age to sixty-four.

Significant numbers of migrants service all parts of the affluent economies of the North American Free Trade area, the European Union and the Asian Basin. They are part of the fabric of these societies. Yet, there is a constant drip feed of fear being fed to publics that migrants, particularly from the underdeveloped world, are as if an enemy and are treated as such at national borders.

Would political leaders in the developed world remain silent if their citizens were treated as such on arrival at borders in the underdeveloped post-colonial world as tourists?

First, European history from Columbus to modern globalisation has not been an era of European excellence in its relations with indigenous populations. Those who were different were treated as non-people to be dominated and in many instances be treated as savages and exterminated. Atlantic slavery is evidence of that.

Second, globalisation has given manufacturing industry the opportunity to migrate to cheaper climes leaving rust and dust belts in previously vibrant industrial regions of the affluent world. The grievance of those abandoned in these areas has not been addressed by the political directorate allowing the creation of a grievance culture using migrants as the scapegoats taking jobs. Opportunist populists and white supremacists using fear have exploited grievance for personal benefit.

The recent Brexit referendum has highlighted the demonisation of migrants and the need to control borders as if that was a solution. In other places migrants have been described as criminals, terrorists, disease carriers and drug pushers. A virus with neither body, soul or passport crashed borders exposing their porousness and the lack of understanding of a global unequal economic system of inclusion and exclusion. Those who set and control borders have a need to show others they have power.

The fear and hatred generated against migrants has reached new depths recently in the Mediterranean, English Channel and other European Union borders. Humanitarian volunteers who risk their lives rescuing migrants at sea from trafficking gangs are being criminalised by European Union Member States.

Imagine, a European Union founded as a result of genocide in the heart of Europe against a minority criminalising solidarity and compassion. Intemperate language has added fuel to an already flammable tense hostile environment. Is there no such thing as a European collective memory?

Few seem to be asking why migrants are making their way to Europe or the United from Central America? European empires occupied most of the world for centuries. People in those countries, for example the Commonwealth, have been socialised by European colonisation.

Their social DNA and the constructs adapted at independence was of that particular empire, British, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Danish, Belgian or other. So there is a tendency to gravitate towards that European colonising centre.

Why was there a tendency of the populations in the Caribbean to gravitate towards European centres in their migration? Irish people migrated to Britain after Irish independence where they felt unwelcome. Why not France? Their socialisation was British.

Of course, there are other factors pushing people to migrate. Apart from conflict, common violence, underdevelopment, there are the effects of climate change, heat, fire, droughts, floods and famine. As in the past, people in such situations take the risk of moving elsewhere to survive. Between 1890 and 1910 twenty million Europeans migrated to the United States.

The other factor in modern times drawing people to Europe, the Americas and the Asian Basin is their wealth has preceded them to those financial centres some of which is laundered into offshore havens. Economic colonialism drains the developing world, is benefitting the developed world where the raw materials are processed for affluent consumer markets.

We are who we are because of migration. Migration has created the world we are part of today.  International cooperation is the challenge for a peaceful future. Present migration flows in the face of hostility and exploitation are the alarm bells of a global migratory future. This is an issue that should be high on the agenda of the Davos tribal gathering of business and politics happening this week.

Europe would be committing a serious error if it did not recognise the challenge of modern migration. Inculturation rather than exclusion has to be the way forward if the ghosts of the past are to be put to rest.

When the world is divided so definitely into the Hollywood binaries of good and bad, no one can think clearly. Hate skews reality even more than love…If it could be, the stranger, with a mixture of naivety and knowing, might be in a position to tell us the truth about ourselves, since s/he sees more than we know.
Hanif Kureishi

Solidarity is helping someone to preserve their dignity.
Luigi Chiampo, Parish Priest, Bussoleno, Italy

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