The recent tragedy in the Mediterranean, which cost the life of hundreds of African migrants, caught the attention of the media, at least for a brief moment. The European leaders were forced to pay attention to the rising problem, acknowledging that Italy should not carry the burden of dealing with illegal maritime migration alone. Many think of migration as a ‘problem’. Migrants, and especially the uninvited ones, are treated as a tolerable annoyance at best, and as criminal invaders as worst. In Britain, the Labour ‘immigration control’ mug stirred a little storm. In Israel, the constant attempts to jail or deport the illegal migrants who cross the southern border with Africa. In Italy, the fortunes of those who survive the perilous boat trip from North Africa to Lampedusa remain largely an untold story, that only starts to attract public attention.
Migration has been part of my life in the last decade. I arrived as a migrant to Italy, then to Britain. I walked through the complex bureaucratic routes providing documents, fingerprints, photos and certificates to comply with all the requirements to become a legal resident. My experience was in no way life endangering, but it was not calm or enjoyable. My ancestors were migrants, too. Some had to flee their homes and seek refuge in foreign lands. Penniless, without a profession or a required skill, they tried to live and survive in Tajikistan, and then in the newly founded Israel. Other ancestors were born in Palestine, but their family histories were also stories of migrations, certificates, permissions and visas. Migrant are also part of my work, where I explore 20th century thinkers concerned with world order. Many of them share a personal history of migration: David Mitrany, Antonio Borgese, Reinhold Niebuhr.
Perhaps it is, again, the usual syndrome of ‘not in my back yard’. We all know that there is a problem, but none of us wants to take the responsibility (and pay a possible price) for solving it. The problem is not only one of policy-making but also of social norms: most people don’t like migrants, and are not particularly interested in helping the weak. A visit at the immigration museum in Melbourne last week suggested a key strategy to dealing with migration beyond the official policies. What I liked at the museum was the focus on historical data along with personal stories. The idea of the ‘migrant’ finds a face and a life once you read about the knitting worker who came to Australia from poor Italy to seek a better life and worked hard to get it, or when you read about the German pastry chef who invented glorious cakes but was interned in a camp during the First World War.
To complicate the banal stories of national homogeneity that many like to tell, historians can revive the past of Western societies, weaved of migrations, colonisations and transfers of populations. Migrations have always been integral part of human search for a better life. Doubtlessly, not all refugees and migrants can easily integrate in society, and they should not be granted an automatic leave to stay. However, in view of the growing waves of migrants who flee a terrible life abroad, we should start by hearing their stories to understand their life choices and find the adequate solutions.