GERARD HOWLIN: Our double-think on immigration needs to be urgently re-examined

Coffins of migrants at Lampesuda Airport, Italy, October 5, 2013.

TWO THINGS I pleasurably waste a lot of time on are property supplements and travel websites.

Having sat out the entire cycle of boom-and-bust in one modest abode, I perversely have an abiding interest in what is behind other people’s hall door. Nosiness, inadequacy, snobbery — all of the aforementioned and more I am sure, apply to me, and maybe you.

There is vicarious pleasure in looking through the peephole into another’s abode. And there is the fascination with prices. A house down the street is for sale and I am only itching to find out what it will go for. But I won’t have to scratch that itch for long before a good neighbour passes the number along.

I am more active in the travel department, than the housing market, which couldn’t be difficult. Part of the pleasure of travel is a languid process of preparation. Various destinations are considered, hotels looked at online, reviews read forensically — especially for signs that they are written by the establishment itself. Modes of transport are considered; this airline or that? If we go to A, can we take in B? Then fine detail, like restaurants, beaches, museums and finally we are off.

Not very often you understand, but occasionally, and only after vast haystacks of information have been sifted through looking for that perfect destination.

In fairness research does pay, if Nirvana has yet to be arrived at, disasters have been avoided. Oh there was one once, to Magaluf. But it wasn’t my fault, I was packaged in by a ... em... friend. It was Hell, it was years ago and I escaped.

One of those lovely places examined at leisure was Lampedusa, a tiny island off Sicily. It didn’t happen. Too difficult to get to I think. But it is in the news a lot now. Boat loads of African migrants, washing up on its beaches, overwhelming its limited services and doubtless putting the tourists off too.

The boatloads who actually arrive are the lucky ones. Several over-full of people among the most miserable on earth, sank to the bottom of the sea; victims of poverty, trafficking and human desperation. Mare Nostrum, ‘our sea’ as the Romans called it, is no more — literally. ‘Operation Mare Nostrum’ has been called off by the Italian navy, and is being replaced by ‘Operation Triton’. Right so.

Emigrants and tourists are a curious conundrum. People who migrate to the ends of the earth are, if they are very lucky, likely to end up working in service industries for the benefit of people who have travelled, from the ends of the earth. Odd that, almost the same then, but totally different — migrants and tourists that is.

Migrants who end up in crisp linen aprons, serving cocktails to tourists are a very lucky few indeed.

Most are hidden, illegal, or certainly exploited. Low wages, farm labourers, sweat shops are more likely. But then somebody has to make the knick-knacks and flip-flops we need to holiday.

The abandonment by the Italians of ‘Operation Mare Nostrum’ is an historic shrivelling of European pretension, both in terms of power and morality. Once Mare Nostrum — ‘our sea’ was a single lake all the shores of which were encompassed by the Roman Empire.

Holiday in Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt and see the magnificent Roman mosaics of a so-called civilisation that ruled continents. The next great era of empire in the 19th century saw the Italians ape their betters and grab first Libya and Ethiopia.

The wave of migrants, now literally turning back the waves of European conquest, are profoundly disconcerting — unsettling of the natural order — of conquest and settlement.

The lack of capacity, or at least the will to patrol ‘our sea’ — the abandonment of the more expensive but proactive ‘Operation Mare Nostrum’ in searching for migrants in danger on the water, is now replaced by the much more limited and less expensive ‘Operation Triton’.

Obviously many more migrants will die in transit, and that is the point. Saving so many people has become a pull point. We can’t have their bodies on our beaches.

The obvious moral collapse mirrors an economic one. Just 58% of working age Italians are employed, compared to an average of 65% in the developed world. But it’s strange what resources can be found for.

In Sicily where those migrants wash ashore, there are 28,000 forestry police — more than Canada. Though the half-dead cannot be picked out of the water, there are more than 900 ambulance drivers, with no ambulances to drive. Sicily, like Ireland, has long been a place of people permanently moving in, and moving out. A place where nothing is as it seems.

Manor Street on Waterford mirrored Lampedusa last weekend. Two hundred people surrounded a house occupied by Roma; windows were smashed; people were terrorised; and the rule of law was abandoned.

Looking at social media sites, there are differing accounts about what prompted this outburst, but outburst it was. It was not only inappropriate, it was indefensible.

It is strange how as colonialists, missionaries, and tourists we traipse the world, but so bitterly resent when the world finds us. The power of going out, even the empowerment of a package holiday, is illusionary.

Back on Manor Street, reading holiday brochures and property supplements we eerily know we ourselves are only economic flotsam, barely kept afloat. The threat of the migrant, once arrived, is not to our job nor to our country; is it to our peace of mind. We are threatened and unsettled by the newcomer, the alien in our midst. Their apparent up-rootedness is our nightmare. We are only one month’s rent, one redundancy, a missed mortgage away from their predicament. So the pleasure of the property supplement, of the travel brochure is a comfort blanket, an illusionary warmth against a knowing fear. Vicarious status, is better than having no status all.

Our double-think on migration has now reached the heights where we have a Minister for the Diaspora. I was an undocumented emigrant once — a long time ago. It was harmless, I was young, but there was in no sense any ‘community’.

It was every young man and woman for themselves. Fake social security numbers, hoping not to get caught out, but if you were, so what. It certainly wasn’t a game of life and death. It is off the coast of Africa. But we don’t want Africa here.

We wallow in saccharin self-indulgence, mass-mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela. But in Dublin there is another Manor Street. It rises up off the Liffey at the old fording point of Stoneybatter. It was once the royal road to Tara. Now it is the route of the numbers 37, 39 and 70 buses running out of the city to Dublin 15. That is where Africa has found Ireland. It is where our notions of ourselves, meets their reality — on Manor Street.

It wasn’t a game of life and death. It is off the coast of Africa. But we don’t want Africa here


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