Longoio’s tiny population (under twenty without the week-enders and holiday-makers) has been enlivened by a new family, father, mother and three children, all hailing originally from Cameroon. Tango and Rachel have moved here from Conegliano, which is in the supposedly more affluent northern part of Italy and the hub of Italy’s electro domestic industry (washing, machines etc.). I asked them what prompted their move and Tango answered “we just needed a change”. Fluent not only in their African language but also in Italian, English and French they seem to be a really personable group and I hope their stay in Longoio will be a long and successful one.
People from Africa are certainly not unknown in our part of the world. They have tended, however, to be of two main categories: the sellers of trinkets such as gas-lighters outside our local Penny supermarket and priests who have been assigned to parishes deserted by the lack of local recruitment into the clergy. There are not that many African families here.
Incidentally, we had relatives on my wife’s side at the week-end from near Conegliano and they knew one of Tango’s friends. What a small world! Even more surprising was when one of the relatives, white in complexion, said to Tango, “I’m an African too.” How could that be I thought? “I was born in Asmara, Eritrea,” she stated.
As those with any historical knowledge will know, Eritrea formed part of Italian East Africa from the end of the nineteenth century to the defeat of Italy’s fascist government in World War two. In 1936 it became part of the newly founded “Impero Africano Orientale”. “L’Italia ha finalmente il suo impero” boasted Mussolini in his 1936 speech from palazzo Venezia.” That part of Africa also included Ethiopia and Somalia. (Incidentally, Italy was given a mandate over Somalia, even after her defeat, until that country’s independence in 1960.)
Italy also had Libya as part of her new Roman Empire, gained from the Turks in 1911 but not finally pacified until the 1930’s. It was then that emigration started. Thousands of Italians, largely from the southern impoverished parts of Italy, moved across the Mediterranean to settle in newly-founded cities and farms. The infrastructure was vastly improved with irrigation canals, new roads, railways, imposing public buildings, schools, hospitals and many churches, as befitted a catholic imperial power.
Libya is still in the news as regards immigration but tragically it’s in the other direction now. Tragically, because one thousand plus people in search of a better life have drowned in the Mediterranean in less than one week, a situation which has finally given a wake-up call to Europe as a whole.
Italy has, of course, had to endure illegal immigration across the seas for over a quarter of a century. Any appeal to the EU was met by general indifference and the statement that it was an Italian problem that Italy alone should cope with.
The proposed summit conference, as a direct result of the loss of lives of innocent victims of people-traffikers and false dreams, should hopefully change this attitude.
At the moment that I write there are over a million people waiting, in inhuman conditions on the chaos-ridden Libyan coast, to flee to the promised lands across the seas north of them. Statistic show that there’s a five in an hundred chance that they won’t make it.
One wonders, what with the money these refugees are paying to the “scafisti” (boat owners), that they don’t fly by world airlines at a much cheaper price. After all, holidays for us in Africa are easily bookable through local travel agents or on the net.
The fact is that those risking their lives have to be seen to be in need of refugee or political asylum status according to international rules. Flying economy class on an international airline (especially if one doesn’t have any documents) is impossible for these people.
It’s understandable that refugees from places like Syria and Iraq are suffering from real persecution and the horrors of civil war but what if they come from Senegal or even Bangla Desh?
Are the hundreds of thousands now waiting desperately on the confused North African shore truly fleeing from impossible living conditions from countries which appear to be without serious political problems?
The fact is that our friends from across the ocean are all victims of one of the most ruthless rackets ever in the world – more devastating than hard drug dealing and certainly on a par with illicit arms marketing (actually, all arms dealing is illicit): people-trafficking. Humans have now become objects like bits of scrap metal to be traded for vast profits. A scafista can make up to euro 100,000 on one single voyage. It doesn’t even matter to the scafista if their human cargo doesn’t reach its destination. They’ve got the money and to hell with the rest – to the bottom of the ocean if needs be.
It’s got to the stage where the scafista wants his boat back after the transport of victims and the Italian coastguard patrols have been threatened with Kalashnikovs if they don’t hand the boat back. Fortunately, this week several of these bastards have been caught and arrested by Italian police and charged with mass murder.
There will be no end to the miserable tide of doomed humans disappearing beneath the waves unless there are serious discussions as to the causes of the tide. The fact is that every country these wretches are fleeing from was once under the authority of an imperial power. Each country has not been built up through centuries of history but merely artificially drawn up by European powers in fixed peace treaties with little regard to cultural or ethnographic boundaries. Iraq and Syria never existed before 1918 (and then became part of British and French mandates) and Senegal was part of French West Africa, for example.
I am not suggesting that we should continue to beat our breasts in penitence at our imperial past, both in the UK and here in Italy, but we have to admit that every western intervention in these countries has opened up a Pandora’s box of schism, fanaticism, terrorism, and nihilism because there are essentially dubious hidden interests involved.
Are we destined to repeat history because we have not learnt from it? Will the time ever come when ex-pats will gladly settle for a better life in Somalia, Eritrea, Bangla Desh, India – all countries with incredible beauties within their boundaries, some of which I can fully vouchsafe for?
In the meanwhile, what will the toll be that that great civilizing and unifying sea of the past, the Mediterranean, will take tonight? We can only stand and wait and pray.