Lampedusa Day 3

graveyard lamp 2

Borders have been around for a long time. In the past they were predictable and defendable now they are appearing in the most surprising and unexpected places.

Talking to people who have worked with those who arrived in Lampedusa was a very humbling experience. The overall sense they had was one of their short-comings, of not doing enough no matter how much they did. One word I heard over and over again in Lampedusa was ‘occhi’. It is Italian word for ‘eyes’.  Looking into the eyes of those who had just arrived was personally challenging. I also heard deeply the frustration of those who tried to help. ‘Being among them I felt a pain driving though my heart…I could see fear in their eyes and they were so close to me… they were shaking from the cold weather and the fear…they seemed lost ..they were not demanding…they asked for nothing…some of them were just crying because they were split from the rest of the family…it was just about feeling with them…you are powerless…you are just a piece of a very big mechanism…bigger than you’.

Looking into the eyes of the person who arrived after a hazardous journey was difficult but not as difficult as trying to look into the eyes of the systems that have been created around those who are moving across our globe. There is no doubt that people who looked into the eyes of these migrants were transformed by their helplessness, their fear, their undemanding presence and the pain of women holding their children but they spoke of rings of military wrapped around migrants even on ferries. In these situations individuals were writhing in pain or just needed to use a bathroom but they weren’t allowed. No one judged the military because they have to do their job however the operation need not be an entirely military one. Sadly this is emerging as the primary emphasis today and maybe this is the way it has to be it has to be for many reasons that some of us many not understand fully. However, European decisions makers do not necessarily have to compromise on the humanitarian dimensions of the crisis and the basic needs of those who arrive.

Sadly, the borders we are creating now are not just on extreme geographical locations but between people. Welcoming the stranger and loving your neighbour now needs a permit, a permit which disempowers you because you are not allowed to say unsavoury things or make comments on human rights infringements. We heard of the United States Military embedding journalists during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have got to the stage now that those who want to offer a cup of water are facing borders that vary in their penetrability. Isn’t it strange that looking into the eyes of another is so counter cultural and a threat to prevailing systems? Its not that strange really. Ed Ayers who was nominated for Pulitzer Prize for History once said that in order to cope with the issues emerging in our world today the general pattern of behaviour is that we will be encouraged to become a more blinkered people and less focused on the heart of the crisis at hand.

There are ongoing changes in the management of the whole migration system that a place like Lampedusa witnesses over the years. From the perspective of the locals many have seen a gradual shift from the tender welcome of a local fisherman to the emergence of a vast military operation. Migration and specifically the management of migrants has become a vast industry. We often hear about the outrageous sums of money that traffickers make from migrants but there are now enormous businesses involved in security and detention whose budgets and profits are increasing at the expense of the public purse. We are all too aware of this in Ireland following various investigations into Direct Provision Centres whose owners now do not have to file accounts.

In Ireland today little is known about the plan for the resettlement of refugees. There is no evidence that the larger community is welcome to assist with the task. This goes against the principle of integration which states that all integration is a two way process between the long term settled and those who are newly arrived and the less interaction between both groups the more damage is done to the integration process thus damaging the overall cohesion of society. We have many people who are willing to help and support those who are arriving. Their energy needs direction; it will be good for everyone.

Lampedusa Church red 2

One of the people we met in Lampedusa told us of how she understood the mission. Relating to a story of Jesus in the Gospels she said that when the crowds came to see him it was often the disciples that rebuked him. Those who came from the surrounding areas knew his power and they longed for him to look into their eyes and make them whole again. This is not unlike today where those who have been given authority are often becoming a barrier or constructing borders between those in need and those who have something to offer. Another person described one particular occasion when she was bending down to give water to many who were seated on the harbour side. It was a particularly hot day in mid-July. The water they were giving out was warm and not very refreshing. When this person bent down to help people drink from the bottles a cross that she was wearing was hanging from her neck. Despite their great physical thirst many of the migrants reached past the water to touch the cross. This moment underlined for her that the people who made the journey across desert and water hunger for something deeper.

Those who integrate the perspective of others into their own lives learn more about themselves as well as about others. Beck, U and Edgar Grande, (2004, reprinted 2008) Cosmopolitan Europe, Cambridge, UK Polity Press pg. 14

Alan Hilliard, 27th October 2015

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