Pity the Poor Immigrant

The big issue for the world today appears to be migration. It’s seen as a problem but the real problem is the disagreement in the way it’s managed – migration has been a central activity of our species ever since the first humans dispersed into the rest of the globe from Africa’s Olduvai Gorge. There’s been migration across the Bering straits to colonize America with its original inhabitants. There’s the much later migration of Europeans to colonize those who had previously colonised America. The forced migration of African people to the ‘new continent’ was achieved by an ideology of slavery. The huge forced migrations of eastern European people when the frontiers were redrawn after World War two was biblical in its size. The government-encouraged migration to Australia and New Zealand was because of a lack of work-force in those countries. The more recent ‘ex-pat’ phenomenon from the UK to countries like Spain and Italy is yet another form of migration, this time individually motivated and in search, not so much of better working possibilities, but of that elusive ‘higher quality of life’. At present there is considerable migration in progress from ‘red’ US states to ‘blue’ ones thanks to recent political developments,

Italy has ever been a nation of emigrants. It wasn’t just the working classes who went abroad to find jobs, it was the professional ones too. Just to take Lucca and its fabulous composers: Luigi Boccherini sought his fortune in the Spanish court and Francesco Geminiani found fame with the English aristocracy.

In our own part of the world the Scottishness of Barga and the Gallicism of Lucchio point to those areas of the world which have provided improved possibilities for raising families without want and giving one’s children a future. The fact that many emigrants have returned to their roots only means that living conditions have improved in their birth-country and have deteriorated in their former new home. The migration process is ever in flux.

The terrible situation now where emigration is accentuated not just by the dream of a better life but by the fear of being killed in one’s own home is witnessed on a daily basis in Italy with the ‘gommoni’ – the rubber dinghies transporting thousands across from Africa and the Middle East – to land, if they are lucky, on the southern coasts of ‘lo stivale’.

It would be quite untrue to say that these immigrants are just taking advantage of Europe and, in particular, of Italy’s relative peacefulness. For many of them the choice is a simple one between life and death. Ironically, there was a time when emigration was the other way round: Italians would go to places like Libya and Eritrea for a better life in new colonies of agriculturalists and escape from the stifling poverty of many Italian regions. Indeed, one of my wife’s relatives was born and brought up in Eritrea when it was an Italian colony.

The fact that, of the 180,000 landing on Italian coasts in 2016, only 2,000 migrants have been offered relocation to other members of the European Union says much about both the difficulty of the situation here and the generosity of the Italian voluntary associations. At the same time, 5,000 of those were drowned in the Mediterranean graveyard. It doesn’t take long to work out that there’s a chance greater than one in a hundred of finishing up in a watery grave. The ultimate solution is, of course, to discourage and stop people-trafficking and this can only be done through ensuring that there’s no reason for escaping from anywhere in the world in the first place by improving political, social and economic conditions at source – sadly a tall order for so much of the world today!

That’s why it’s useful and educational to visit the Paolo Cresci museum of the history on Italian emigration in Lucca. It’s situated to the right of the ducal palace in Piazza Napoleone. Well set-out in a former chapel, the museum guides one through photographs and objects from the emigrants’ moment of departure through to the arrival in foreign lands and describes their difficulties and dangers.

The museum is part of the Paolo Cresci foundation which has a significant archive relating to emigration and also published a monthly bulletin. Full details are available at http://www.fondazionepaolocresci.it/. Here are some photos from it on one of my visits:

There are no sub-species in the human race, although some demagogues have tried to suggest that there are. I pride myself on the freedom of movement which I have been given both physically and, more importantly, politically. It seems that this right is in danger of being turned into a privilege to be gained by ticking the right boxes for entry into an exclusive club. (I do not need to remind you of two nations which have now started on a course of isolationism). Surely we’ve got past that stage by now?



2 thoughts on “Pity the Poor Immigrant

  1. That little museum is excellent. I looked at the faces on some of those who braved the unknown in search of a better life. How have people become so unkind to those who need help?

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