“As I approached one of the drowned corpses on the beach, that of a young lad, the mobile phone in his pocket began to ring; I guess it was his mother or girlfriend ringing to ask if he had arrived safely …”
The words of a Spanish Red Cross worker dealing with bodies washed up on a beach near Tarifa, southern Spain, well-known to windsurfers; the migrants’ flimsy inflatable boat had sunk a few hundred metres from the shore. I can’t remember his exact words, however the image still haunts me, just as many readers will remember with immense sadness the picture of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015.
My own ancestors came to the UK 150 years ago, walking half-way across Europe to escape from agricultural disaster; nowadays they would be branded ‘economic migrants’. In those days they were welcome, and their skills and talents enabled them to make a better life for their progeny. Their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have done well, and contributed much to UK society; seeking a better life for oneself or one’s family is not a crime, is it Ms Patel?
The tide of human migration continues to be fluid throughout the world, as it always has been. Refugees and migrants often cross deserts and seas, escaping from the poorest and most violent and war-torn places on our planet. The lives of many have been blighted by the effects of climate change, largely generated by ‘advanced’ nations in the West. Migrants from North Africa and the Middle East usually cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats or inflatables, referred to as ‘pateras’ in Spanish. In Spain, where we have spent a lot of time over the years, rarely a day goes by without local news reporting the latest arrivals on the southern coasts, or the latest tragedies. Guardia Civil boats are often to be seen patrolling a kilometre or so out from the holiday beaches.
Our favourite TV detective series, ‘Inspector Montalbano’, often has stories involving clandestini, illegal immigrants, arriving on the coasts of Sicily. A couple of years ago, one of my nephews did voluntary work on Lesbos for several months because ‘he wanted to do something worthwhile’. The migrant traffic across the Mediterranean and to the coastal countries of Southern Europe has been considerable for decades, some of it generated by ‘our’ wars in Syria and Libya. Other migrants cross the Sahara from Sub-Saharan Africa and West Africa before reaching the Mediterranean. What is certain is that, by comparison, migration heading across the English Channel is a fraction of the migrant traffic having to be dealt with by the countries of Southern Europe.
Another route has been in the news yet again in the last few days: from West Africa to the Canary Islands, in what the Spanish call ‘cayucos’, the traditional West African fishing boats. Many miss the Canaries completely, and are lost in the Atlantic, like Aicha’s boat, in which 56 out of 59 passengers died of dehydration and starvation. The survivors were, in the last days, too weak to throw the victims’ bodies into the sea. Aicha and her two surviving companions were fortunate in being found by a Spanish Air Force helicopter at the extreme of its range, 280 nautical miles south west of El Hierro, the small island in the south west of the Canaries. Do watch the video report if you have not yet seen it – the story is horrific, yet with a hopeful ending.
One of the most moving – and humbling – experiences I have ever had was a visit to the basilica and tomb of St Francis of Assisi. Many people will be familiar with the prayer of St Francis, even though its use by certain politicians seems to be a desecration of the sentiments it expresses. It was not just the feeling of supreme peace when visiting the saint’s tomb in the crypt. When we visited, a family was about to go into the main basilica, but the mother decided to stay outside rather than taking in one of the two teenage sons, who was severely mentally disabled, for fear that his incessant noise would disturb visitors and worshippers. One of the attendants insisted that the whole family should go into the church together because: “he is a child of God”. That’s inclusiveness, true humanity.
In the words of St Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
In the piazza in front of the upper church, there is a beaten-up old boat, in which nine migrants had landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, on a day when hundreds of other migrants had perished in the Mediterranean and other seas when trying to reach a better, safer life. The boat was originally placed there as the focus of a nativity scene during Christmas 2015, with the images of that other family of refugees, the Holy Family. Next to the boat was an explanation of its origins which is very moving, and can be read in full in a blogspot, but here are a few very poignant lines:
“Fear blinds and pushes for closing the borders, where perhaps some terrorists have passed, but where certainly one finds thousands of victims of the horrors some profess to define as “religious”, that slaughter every day and cause thousands of people to flee. And to abandon everything and to accept the notion of a likely death at sea to escape certain death in the country where they were born.”
“It’s a boat without a name on which only nine travelled, but it represents all of the thousands of persons who ask for help and have a need and a right to have international protection.”
Contrast that with the way Patel’s ‘hostile environment’ is treating refugees, and even the way her Border Force is treating some EU citizens arriving in the UK. In just the last week there have been several reports describing cases of young Europeans being sent to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre and other similar ‘prisons’ around the country before being deported, for what seem to be over-zealous interpretations of the rules regarding those seeking work in the UK. María and Eugenia (two young women from Spain), others from various EU countries, all having their possessions and mobile phones taken away from them and having to endure prison-like conditions for several days. Even as I write, 18 May, yet another horrific case of anti-EU policy is reported in an article in the Guardian; all this makes it impossible to feel patriotic. Not a good look for the UK, being widely reported in newspapers in their home countries.
One of the most notorious cases is that of an Italian girl, Marta, travelling to be au-pair to her cousin’s children in London, and apparently with all the correct supportive documentation. Her cousin, an Italian doctor and microbiologist working at a London hospital, and his British wife, a nurse, are horrified: we can read of their perspective on the matter in the London Economic. Dr Giuseppe Pichierri concludes his statement saying: “A lot of people are actually wondering if this is a place that actually wants EU citizens”. I think we all know the answer to that.
Even long-standing British citizens with a European background are now subject to the excesses of the Home Office, judging by this post I saw on Facebook, just one of many similar cases being reported in the media. I have removed personal details to preserve the anonymity of the people concerned:
Yet there are millions of decent citizens in the UK for whom the Government does not speak, and who did not vote for these disastrous and disgraceful policies. A few days ago in Glasgow, a large crowd rallied to support a couple of asylum seekers who were being taken away in a Home Office van. As a result of the peaceful protest the local police decided to free the two men, to the cheers of the crowd.
Such a contrast between the horrendous manifestations of the ‘hostile environment’ being imposed ‘in our name’ on people arriving from countries which were once our partners, and which are still our nearest neighbours, and the actions of so many people with a real human conscience like those in Glasgow.
To end on another positive note, which really illustrates the message from Assisi well: Aicha, the Ivorian girl who was one of the only three survivors rescued from the cayuco near the Canary island of Hierro, was overwhelmed by the love, care and hospitality afforded to her by one of the helicopter crew who rescued her:
Aicha: “It feels like I have a family”
Interviewer to Corporal Serrano: “Do you consider yourself a hero?”
Corporal Serrano: “No, I see myself as a public servant. Heroes belong to comic books.”