Belfast Telegraph

Europe dims lamp and puts padlock on its golden door

By Eamonn McCann

I was standing outside Sainsbury's on Derry quay on Saturday, gazing as if for the first time at Yammin Doherty's sculpture Emigration (nobody ever called him by his proper name, Eamonn). The reason I was seeing it anew had to do with news in the morning of another tragedy in the Mediterranean.

Around 40 Afghans perished when their boat, which was crossing to Greece, sank. About 4,000 migrants/refugees have drowned in first two months of 2016.

In Afghanistan the war with the Taliban is intensifying, Islamic State cutthroats are gaining ground and the government is steeped in corruption and presides over a collapsing economy. Peace seems far away. More civilians were killed or wounded there last year than in any year since the invasion in 2001. Why would any parent choose to raise children into such hopelessness? Or why would anyone not strive to escape in search of an ordinary life?

We had gathered on the Quay to hear Hilda Orr and Peter Fox describe the exhausted arrivals on Europe's shore, dependent on the kindness of people who don't see them as strangers.

Hilda talked of families carrying everything they owned in bin-bags. Peter spoke of the difference thermal imaging equipment could make in locating migrants at sea.

Not many places want to take migrants/refugees anymore. Afghans are particularly unwelcome. Afghanistan isn't now seen as a war-torn country. The major powers have decided the mission there has been accomplished.

Rescue isn't the priority anymore. Not long ago an airhead columnist on a low-life tabloid wrote that she wasn't emotionally swayed by pictures of children's bodies on beaches. She wouldn't send in rescue boats, but gunboats. There was outrage - even from conservative commentators.

But David Cameron declared last month that the Royal Navy was deploying destroyers - to tackle people-smugglers, he insisted. They have orders that anybody plucked from the sea should be deposited back where they'd come from.

The EU has asked Nato, a military alliance created as a Cold War counterweight to the Soviet Union, to take the lead role in controlling its borders. The fences are going up all over Europe.

On Monday Macedonian police fired tear gas at migrants trapped in Greece, trying to force a way through. The Greek government had already recalled its ambassador from Austria, protesting that Austria's refusal to admit refugees/migrants was upping pressure on its near-bankrupt economy. There are checks between Germany and The Netherlands. Gendarmes demand travel documents on the French-Italian border.

It's hard to see this as anything other than the beginning of the break-up of the European Union.

It's just as hard to imagine the compression of people at the gates of Europe being driven back or dispersed without more serious violence than we've seen so far.

The stretch of the riverside outside Sainsbury's on Saturday was an appropriate spot for pondering Yammin's sculpture and discussing how to respond to the flood of misery across the Continent.

Not all critics are enthusiastic about Yammin's work. It is figurative and frequently sentimental. This is certainly true of the piece on the Quay, with its sturdily dignified family saying goodbye at the water's edge and a winsome child nearby. But sentimentality isn't always negative. There are times when a willed compassion is all the feeling it's possible to muster to alleviate anger at injustice.

In the aftermath of the Famine huge numbers, mainly from Derry, Donegal, Leitrim and Tyrone, embarked from this spot for America. Thousands perished en route. Those who survived, who made it through the golden door that opened onto a new life, at first faced fear and rejection, were seen as threatening jobs, undercutting wages, lowering the cultural level.

But most survived, found acceptance and prospered. No one would now deny their positive role in the making of America. Along the harbour where they landed the Statue of Liberty was built, on which was inscribed a passage from a poem by Emma Lazarus:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

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