This is a list, three years old, of the 17306 human beings seeking refuge who up to that point had died as a result of Europe’s border militarisation, asylum laws, accommodation, detention policy and deportations. This is a form of the file made before the Lampedusa disaster, before the civilized powers stopped running rescue missions, before the human lives were transformed by doublespeak into “migrants”.
The immigrants into the Roman Empire did not have histories written in their honour. Rome had some virtues, but they had no Howard Zinns. No statues were cast of a blacksmith who arrived from what we now arbitrarily call Spain. No poet penned songs to immortalise the repeated labours of a woman who raised a gaggle of children before dying early of a disease we now would call cancer. The poor in Rome are mostly anonymous to us.
And yet these nameless dead speak nonetheless. Anthropologists and archaeologists can now study the grave sites that sometimes get turned up when a developer wants to build apartments in the suburbs of Rome or some other Italian city and from these skeletons (especially their teeth) we can gather that the immigrants to the Imperial City typically achieved a standard of living comparable to their more established neighbours. On average they died slightly younger, but they ate largely the same food and were buried in the same way and lived side by side with the people who were born in what was then the centre of the world.
The savage Roman Empire might have something to teach the civilised European Union.
Citizen. Student. Migrant.
Three seven-letter words accurately describe me.
I renewed my driving licence yesterday. My old Irish one is on a pink piece of paper, so easily counterfeited that it alone speaks to the profound complacency that comes with being part of the elite. The process of getting a British licence was simple. I filled in a form that was a front-and-back piece of A4 paper, attached one photo and dispatched them with my outgoing licence and my passport. My passport is maroon. It is the best passport to have because I can go anywhere with it. People smile when they see the harp on the front. Because I got born where I got born, I get credit where I was not born. Queuing to see a border guard, the most pressing thing on my mind is a range of small talk topics. I am a citizen of the Irish Republic, and for no good reason at all, that makes life easy.
I am more than that. I am a citizen who is a student. So I get a special council tax rate and discounts at the barbers and when I do have to talk to someone in officialdom here in the UK I never have to worry about small talk topics. My thesis will be their small talk. They will feign interest, or be interested, but no one ever asks me to account for myself. Why should I be here, in a foreign country, taking up a place that a Scot could have, with 44 books out on loan from one library and three from another and a GP and a dermatology consultant and tax-free allowance for the little job I got because I sent an email to a stranger and they thought, “Yeah he seems cool”.
But in this summer when Britain is all a flutter with a “migrant crisis” and the European sea is filled with human beings seeking refuge, the best word to describe me is certainly migrant.
There are Theology departments on my island. I could have studied at home. There is a real job waiting for me as a minister. I didn’t need to do a PhD. I am in Scotland because Scotland has something to offer me. Two bearded Texans, to be precise, who have agreed to be my supervisors. When I am done, I will leave. Wham, bam, thank you hen. I am going back to Ireland. Like a particularly unfortunate flightless swallow, I have come over here for a season before going back to sunnier climes.
That’s what a migrant is – someone who chooses to go to a place for a period of time without ever intending to put down roots there. A migrant is not someone whose psychopathic President uses chemical weapons against his people in the hope that he might knock out a few ISIS fighters in the process. Syrians aren’t migrants. A migrant is not someone who has trekked across half of Asia, boarded ship and boat and dinghy from Turkey to Cyprus and across Greece to try to find a place to live and work and earn enough to send some money home. Afghans aren’t migrants.
My American friends who come to Aberdeen and make friends and chat with the police when they want directions and have babies for free on the NHS – they are migrants. The Japanese guys in our programme who preach in local churches and buy cars without credit checks and get offered jobs when they go to visit sushi restaurants – they are migrants. The people who sit out in the sun (on the rare days it shines) on the lawn outside the King’s College and get photographed by a passing journalist and have their picture in the paper the next day – they are migrants. We are swarming all over the place. The government welcomes us in and we steal college places and medical attention and resources.
We get away with it because we are citizens and we are students.
The dead immigrants of Rome still tell their story. The truth unremembered by the powerful lay dormant in their gums. Our Dead will tell the story of our Empire. Those thousands upon thousands who need refuge and instead meet barbarity will have their voice heard. Future generations will find ingenious ways to expose our crimes in the Mediterranean and Calais and Irish “Direct Provision” centres. And God, who counts the hair on their head will not need to carbon test their teeth. He will turn to us and mimic our question back to us: “Who then is your neighbour?” And in our silence, the glory of our European Union Empire will be deafening.
Your Correspondent, He thought the highway loved him, but she beat him like a drum