IN THE winter of 1962, or there- abouts, my father and his friend Remo boarded a train at Pisa station and set off on a trip across Europe in search of a better life. I never got the chance to ask him how it felt to say goodbye to his homeland. All the same, I can imagine them: two gallus lads – fond of the ciggies and with an eye for the girls – fending off the embraces of a dozen laughing/crying relatives and waving from an open window as the train moved slowly away from the platform.
My dad and Remo were migrants at a time when the word was a mark of personal enterprise, not a source of contempt. Like many others, they looked at the limited opportunities on offer in Tuscany and headed for Scotland’s west coast. Remo eventually moved on to Canada, as per their original plan, while my dad met my mum and stayed put. Though he continued to trumpet Italy’s cultural superiority, there was never any suggestion he’d made the wrong decision.
No longer are they plucky underdogs, but parasites feeding off good fortune
My father died when I was ten; very little that is tangible of his has survived, but I do have a battered old exercise book, where, in an attempt to improve his English, he wrote a handful of compositions. One of these charts the journey “Remo and I had waited so long (for)”. Though I have scrutinised every word for hidden meaning, it’s fairly prosaic. He describes the “nicely-heated compartment”, the “good and ample dinner”, the falling snow and the efficiency of the French police and customs officers. The only thing that seems to have bothered him was the “cunning” taxi driver who took longer than necessary to drive them across Paris. “We went to a bar and sent postcards to our families, reassuring them all was well,” is how the essay ends.
Reading his upbeat account, 50-odd years on as the crisis in Calais intensifies, is depressing. Those fleeing Syria, Sudan and other conflict zones may be driven by the same human impulse – to escape a troubled past, to forge a more stable future – but, as they risk their lives to storm the Channel Tunnel, there is no guarantee they will ever reach the UK, never mind write reassuring missives home.
Their situations are not entirely comparable (my dad was escaping prospective poverty, not persecution, and Italians can still move freely within the EU). But the perception of migrants, European or otherwise, has changed dramatically since he swapped the red roofs of Lucca for the seaside town of Largs. No longer are they pioneers in search of new worlds to conquer, or plucky underdogs making the best of the hand they’ve been dealt, but parasites feeding off others’ good fortune. Many politicians cannot utter the word “migrant” without a tone of disgust and have lost all sense of what’s important. How dare these refugees – who sleep in scrubland and shanty towns, and would rather die than go home – interfere with the work of British lorry drivers or the plans of British holidaymakers?
That’s what our prime minister is most concerned about. David Cameron has described the migrants as a “swarm”, a great, featureless mass threatening the great British getaway. I suppose you could consider the population shift from Tuscany to the west coast as a “swarm”; ditto the tens of thousands of Scots who crossed the Atlantic as a result of the Clearances, but history treats those migrants with respect. Today, to be under-privileged, to be without shelter, to be driven out, is something to be ashamed of; and to try to change your fate is pushy and self-entitled. These migrants’ dispossession is our inconvenience, and the government believes they should be swatted away like flies.
Even more brutal was Cameron’s insistence that Britain will not be “a safe haven”. This wasn’t merely an expression of exasperation over the impact of immigration, it was an articulation of his conceit of the UK as a place that looks after its own and turns its back on outsiders. Compare his words to those of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour. “Screw your poor, your tired, your huddled masses,” he might as well have said. “And as for your homeless and your tempest-tost…”
The Calais crisis is complex and challenging and there are no easy answers. Cameron’s emphasis has been on more dogs and fences; fellow Conservative MP David Davies wants to send in the Army. Other politicians are taking a more measured approach. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood has called for a “humanitarian response”, increasing refugee quotas for the UK and setting specific quotas for each of its nations. Realistically, the only long-term solution is greater stability in the countries these people are leaving, and good luck with that.
While we grapple with an intractable problem, though, the one thing we can do is to control our language. It is possible to discuss migration without stripping those involved of their individuality and to vent our frustration with the impact of the crisis on British lives without demonising those less fortunate than ourselves.
Whether you’re an antsy young waiter on the streets of Lucca or a war-weary Syrian, it is natural to want to improve your lot. There may be a limit to how many migrants the UK can reasonably accommodate, but that shouldn’t stop us recognising their humanity or acknowledging that, in the same situation, most of us would do the same thing. Though our capacity to alleviate their misery may be constrained, let’s at least aspire to be the beacon of civilisation these refugees hope for as they fight against all odds to reach our shores. «