The issue of immigration is an extremely complex one, involving a variety of factors such as economics, culture, religion, politics, education, and more. Lately, immigration has become a matter of life or death, such as with the Syrian refugees fleeing IS violence and/or death. Political instability in northern Africa has also contributed to huge numbers of people who must immigrate to other countries in order to have a relatively peaceful life. I have spent much time in Europe, with Europeans here in the US, and have also heard horror stories of what immigrants face in Europe, such as not being able to find housing, not receiving visas, outright discrimination, etc. A local’s reaction to foreigners is brilliantly illustrated in the German short film “Schwarzfahrer,” which deals with a sensitive subject in a realistic yet tongue-in-cheek way.
Sometimes art is the most effective way of communicating politics.
As an American, my immediate response when I hear of anti-immigration sentiment in Western Europe has been to dismiss many policies or individuals in Western Europeans as racist, to believe that they are wealthy countries that were often colonizers—-of course they should take in all the immigrants. Growing up in an immigration society such as the United States, or even Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, one is encouraged to develop a very tolerant, egalitarian view of people in which immigrants should not be viewed as “lesser,” “inferior,” or The Other. This is a very positive feature of our immigration societies, in which the concept of cultural hegemony is hotly debated. Granted, things are not always ideal, and there are outbursts of anti-immigrant sentiment and violence from time to time. Sometimes these flare up in highly politically charged periods, such as post-9/11. We foster a society of inclusion of different lifestyles and habits. For example, I could not understand the no-head covering rule in France. Again, as an American, my immediate response was to say everyone should cover their head in whatever manner they felt necessary: yarmulke, headscarf, baseball cap, or nothing at all (though for official identification purposes, I do strongly feel photographs should be with the head bare). My own personal views are much more complex than I am able to discuss here, hence, a rather simplistic portrayal of the situation.
However, after my most recent trip to Europe last summer, in northern Italy, I began to understand that immigration in Europe has become so much more than an issue of cultural clashes and racism. While for millions of Europeans immigrants and refugees feel like a “threat” to their culture, it is now a serious issue that involves rethinking the social structure and economy of many countries. One can see this especially in the southern Mediterranean as well as in major immigration centers such as Sangatte and Calais in France, where immigrants are held and housed, and London—-these individuals are considered an unwanted “problem” that is overloading a troubled social welfare system that is rife with unemployment. Italy is not faring well economically, nor is Spain, and certainly not Greece. Native citizens of those countries themselves are struggling with unemployment, retirement, reduced pensions, housing, and—-a growing global problem—-economic and class stratification. The European Union has not benefited a number of people, and those in border countries that are receiving thousands of immigrants feel the EU does not support them. In other words, their carrying capacity is exceeded; they cannot financially assist refugees and immigrants who may not be able to contribute much to society when they themselves are struggling. There are often times not enough places to live for the newcomers, and there are certainly not enough jobs. Ironically, northern Italy has become very diverse, with many young people of non-Italian origin who are born in Italy and live and identify with Italian culture. Milan is a multicultural city, and urban Italy is becoming a multicultural society, whether or not the Italians like it.
What, then, can be reasonably expected of Western Europeans who themselves are often suffering due to economic and political difficulties, who find themselves with a lack of assistance from the European Union and other governing bodies? What can be done to help millions of people who simply cannot remain in their homelands for fear of starvation or even death when rogue states like IS threaten day to day living? How can one help people who have a right to live in peace and to raise their families, to subsist at the most basic level? Surely, we must also remember that the villains are not just the racists in Europe, but the villains in the home countries who are creating the socio-political-economic conditions that drive their citizens away.
As a writer with training in international development as an undergraduate, I feel I can only contribute in my own limited manner by raising issues and making them public. There are no easy answers, but one individual who has been doing wonderful work is Dr. Maria Pisani. Dr. Pisani is a professor at the University of Malta. In addition to her academic work, she is an activist who cofounded the Integra Foundation
which is an NGO that helps to integrate migrants in Malta. Recently, the BBC quoted her in an article after a boatload of hundreds of Palestinians and Syrians were drowned and then the survivors treated horribly.
Dr. Pisani has both the academic clout as well as the practical experience in assisting migrants, and is aware of the complexity of factors involved in the current immigration situation. Her country is tiny, yet a key host to those who must flee their countries. The Integra Foundation’s work is not limited to Malta; they also focus on Guatemala and in helping disabled people. Their paradigm is a human rights one, and acknowledges the imbalance of power as a major root of social problems. The very fact that Integra Foundation exists is significant: a small country like Malta that is bearing a lot of burdens right now still has individuals who understand the importance of global interconnection and the country’s significance in the world. When we look at the scale of how just 1,000 people would affect an island nation of 423,000, the issue of integrating immigrants becomes not simply important, but vital.
What can we expect, reasonably, in this era of mass immigration to overloaded countries? At very least, we must expect compassion, dignity, and human rights. Individuals like Dr. Maria Pisani and the Integra Foundation deserve to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their brave work that is ultimately universal.