Fr Bobby Gilmore writes about the drowning of Oscar Martinez and his baby daughter Angie Valeria crossing the Rio Grande, which the US bishops have described as the “unspeakable consequence of a failed immigration system”.
“To you who know the tragedy of emigration, let me suggest you not close your eyes, your heart and your hand to those who knock at your doors.” (Pope Francis)
According to medical experts one of the effects of electroconvulsive therapy formerly known as shock therapy is memory loss.
Pictures of the Turkish soldier tenderly carrying the dead body of Alan Kurdi from the sea in 2015 shocked the world. People were left asking – how can such a horror be allowed to happen in a world which likes to think is civilised underpinned by international humanitarian declarations put in place to protect rights and human decency?
Sadly, such horror was eroded from the collective memory as other sorrowful incidents became all too common, until yesterday.
Looking at the picture of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter Valerie with her arm wrapped around his neck washed up dead on the bank of the Rio Grande is as if a new burst of shock therapy was needed to reawaken the global memory that something is terribly wrong.
According to their mother they “went for the American dream.” The incident has caused much discomfort not just to members of the public but in the corridors of governments who seem to unable to respond with immigration policies, regulations and processes that would make immigration a planned and safe experience.
However, it seems this cannot happen until those in power, at origins and destinations, begin to ask the question-why this is happening from areas that are not strictly war zones. Why is there such a level of unplanned migration from what are recognised as democratic states in Central America to the United States and Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe?
These states are members of the United Nations. Listening to political leaders blaming others, presenting solutions of walls, moats and fences, criminalising those who offer humanitarian care gives the impression of deep memory loss, poverty of imagination and empathy.
Surely, in many cases institutional leaders remember their own roots and in doing so recognise that if the Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern oceans were not barriers for European immigrants in the past, walls, moats and fences will not stem the flow of desperate people on a journey of hope today.
People are leaving homes in Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia today for the same reasons that people fled Europe in past centuries-hope of a better life free from fear and violence.
There is a false acceptance of states with periodic visits to polling booths that democracy is alive and well with the normal protections in place offering safety, health, education and access to the local economy.
People do not flee such states, leave home for the unknown. They flee because they are desperate. The democratic process has failed to enforce the rule of law, administration of justice and property, guarantee safety. That was the situation that drove people out of Europe in centuries past.
It wasn’t just poverty of itself, anymore than it is now, that forced people to flee and seek a better life. There is an assumption that poverty is equated with hunger, disease, homelessness, lack of water, sanitation, homelessness and lack of work opportunity. Poverty is the absence of a choice.
There is a reality that outsiders are seldom are aware of-raw day-to-day violence, no protection from the law, no due process, no police protection, kidnapping and terrorising fear. Justice and the law is for the protection of those in power not the general public. Why would parents send their beloved children to borders other than in the hope they will be free from molestation and exploitation?
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union Europeans who formerly welcomed people fleeing those areas became alarmed by media reports that Eastern Europeans would flood into the European Union.
The then EU Commissioner, Jacques Delors, advised EU Member States that if they didn’t want immigrants, a solution was to invest where they originated. His advice would be useful now if the United States and Europe do not want immigrants-instead of building wall, moats and fences-invest in law and order, due process and security in those countries from which people are fleeing.
The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other international institutions need to relate to the leaders of those failing states the need to confront the raw daily violence of cartels, gangs and thugs.
Only then, will these horrible, heart-breaking images of a drowned father, daughter and others not be needed to remind us of our need for generosity not the mean pettiness of the present.