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Column: What's more important – borders or people?

Hundreds are feared dead after a ship carrying asylum-seekers sank in the Mediterranean – yet many Europeans, who have endured histories of emigration, have simply hardened their hearts to the tragedy, writes Fr Bobby Gilmore.

Fr Bobby Gilmore

WHAT IS DISTINCT about today’s global tyranny is that it is faceless. Consequently, people lose their selfhood, their sense of identity, and so find an enemy in order to define themselves. The enemy -whatever their ethnic or religious nomination – is always found among the poor. (John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook).

In the middle of the eighteenth century a ship was sinking off Treasure Beach in the south coast of Jamaica. The ships occupants were Irish, Scots, English and Welsh. The locals, slaves, rescued them and gave them a home. Their descendants are still there.

Indifference to the poor

European slavery to the Americas, conducted out of East Africa by European states, is one of the most horrible events of European history. The depravity of slavery still is a pockmark of horror on the European soul. It has left a legacy of indifference to the poor and the beggar in the European mind.

In the 1830s as the Abolition of Slavery became obvious in British territories, the plantation owners began to worry about the loss of their property-people. They sent agents to Europe to try and get poor white Europeans to settle in the highlands of Jamaica in order to force the freed slaves to populate the plains adjacent to the sugar plantations.

The agents lured poor Germans to Jamaica in the belief that they were going to America. Twelve hundred poor Germans signed up. They were abandoned at Rio Bueno in the north coast of Jamaica by the agents. A member of the plantocracy rescued them by offering them five hundred acres of mountainside land. They struggled to survive. Some died of hunger and disease. A young girl wrote back to her local newspaper in Germany about their plight. There were no more German emigrants.

One of my former professors, a New Zealander, recounted his family’s history. His family of nine set out from Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century. Two died at sea during the voyage. They lived in the memory of those who survived. When a senior member of the family passed away years later in New Zealand they printed the names of the two who were buried at sea on their graves.

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Coffins of the dead migrants are lined up inside a hangar of Lampedusa’s airport, Italy, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

The search for a better life

Annually, over the past decade many people – like the Europeans of the past trying to get to America – have died trying to cross the Mediterranean from the North Africa coast in a bid to reach Europe. They are a reminder to Europeans of their plight in past centuries as they scampered for a better life in the Americas trying to escape hunger and the wars of the last century.

Just imagine that there were 90 million destitute people in Europe in 1947 and, like the Africans today, were scampering to get out of their destitution. They were taken in by a myriad of countries and given an opportunity for a better life. International Conventions were put in place to prevent what happened in Europe happening again.

Yet, Europeans and the European Union has, with few exceptions, turned its back on history and in doing so turns its back on people like themselves. Over the past decade thousands of Africans, like Europeans in the past, have perished trying to cross from Africa to Europe for the precise reason that Europeans in the past crossed the seas for a better life.

It is pointless for European institutions to plead ignorance of maritime movement in the Mediterranean because there are surveillance systems in place that not only watches the movement in the Mediterranean but watches you driving down the road. Imagine, ships and indeed military shipping in the Mediterranean turning their backs on people struggling in makeshift boats to just survive.

The European Union member states are doing to those who are poor today the opposite of what happened to them as they tried to escape deprivation and war in the past.

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Teddy bears and flowers sit on coffins of the children who died while trying to reach European shores. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

What is the heart of Europe?

Politicians continually say that they want to be at the heart of Europe. One is left wondering at a time like this if Europe has a heart, and if it has, is the European leadership unable to make a distinction between a heart and a border. Or are these people from Africa ignored because they are Africans?

The death of so many African emigrants in the Mediterranean over the past decade and particularly off Lampedusa in the past few days is a another scar on the European soul. How can Europeans show up on foreign shores as emigrants, businessmen or tourists today and not feel ashamed of what is happening in the Mediterranean? Have Europeans become so culturally bleached that they don’t see people as people anymore, just as commodities?

Most Europeans have a memory of their own homelessness and are welcoming. However, there has been and still is a hardening of a deep-seated anti-immigrant attitude in many European minds that has to be confronted. The erosion of tolerance and respect within Europe challenges European institutions to lead and promote the ideals of the European Union. How European institutions respond this this tragedy off Lampedusa will determine European attitudes to the destitute at home and abroad now and in the future.

The emigrants drowned off Lampedusa are robbed of their stories.

Fr Bobby Gilmore, SSC was a founding member of Migrant Rights Centre Ireland and is lifelong President of the MRCI.

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Fr Bobby Gilmore

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