Commissario (Inspector) Montalbano is enjoying a re-run on BBC4 – the detective who enjoys pasta and good food has been hard at work in the coastal town of Catania, not far from Lampedusa, long before the migrant boats hit the news. This troubling issue was a regular feature in Andrea Camilleri’s stories set in Sicily – the story of Francois, the Tunisian boy who is fostered by the Inspector’s sister is an example. Many episodes later, Francois, the twenty-year old falls into bad ways and meets his end, which was very sad.
The North African coastline has always been used in human trafficking – refugees I’ve spoken to have described convoluted journeys (some with their families) from Sri Lanka to Afghanistan and all the way to Libya and then crossing over by boat into Italy, moving overland at night, blindfolded through Eastern Europe. Unlucky ones have spent months in an Ukranian prison where the cells are knee deep in ice and prisoners are asked to remove their shoes. Eventually, these refugees find asylum in Germany, Switzerland, France, Belgium or the UK. They are made to seem huge in numbers, but they are really the lucky few. A miniscule fraction in those countries can afford the extortionate charges that need paying to the smugglers. Just to be able to take that giant leap to actually leave the country they knew to a strange and supposedly promised land cannot be an easy decision.
Refugees and asylum seekers are possibly the zombies in our western society. Many are fleeing persecution and are severely traumatised. They are haunted by nightmares and flashbacks and are shadows lurking in broad daylight, shifting about, collapsing on the bus from suffering panic attacks for that compulsory trip to the police station to sign, crippled by fear of being clapped in prison again. Many remain in limbo – to wait and wait for years for ‘status’ – ie leave to remain. GPs dealing with refugees prescribe them anti-depressants and sedatives – which numbs them to the pain of remembering but also creates more dissociation with regular life in this safe haven they’ve come to. Many live off the goodwill of acquaintances from back home and are malnourished.
The system being fluid and random seems to penalise the wrong people, while being castigated for allowing easy access to some. To me, it is not about the System, the strain on housing or the drain on welfare – it is about those under-funded bodies who help in putting together the crushed spirit of these escaped individuals to offer them a chance. The International Red Cross that keeps track of prisoners of war, Refugee Action who are overloaded, the few lawyers who don’t rip off the clients, and the therapists who alternate between being social workers and counsellors. Places like the Welcome Centre in Bristol (Bristol Refugee Rights) offer a place for refugees to socialise and be acknowledged for being fellow humans.
If any of the politicians scrambling for votes are listening – it actually isn’t that much of a strain in the greater scheme of things.