Fences

Don't hear much about this in the US media ...
Don’t hear much about this in the US media

“There is no end. There are no jobs here for Italians, much less for immigrants.” Our Goritzia hotel clerk is visibly agitated as she quizzed us about the United States and tells us how she wants to move to America but can’t find a job even though she travels there twice a year.

She speculated that the biggest influence on Italy’s liberal immigration policy was the Pope – especially this Pope who is so inclusive of everyone. But she says the people are angry.

Then she asks us about Donald Trump – whose anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance and promises to build a wall between the US and Mexico has gotten the world’s attention. We tell her we hope he does not become our President. We don’t believe he will win. But I am not so sure she sees Trump as the same extremist we do.

She has been living under a government that she blames for the immigration policies that she believes threaten her – and her country. She believes Italy has operated with the completely opposite philosophy and immigration policies that Trump touts, though my limited research into the asylum rules seems to indicate that asylum is dictated by European Union rules rather than Italian policies … Though I’m sure the reality is more complicated. But regardless of the policies that actually govern asylum and immigration, it’s clear that this woman finds them threatening to her way of life and she fears the consequences of more migrant immigration as her country becomes the gateway.

It is also clear is that all of Europe is struggling under the weight of the exodus from North Africa of war and economic refugees that now fill their cities with different cultures and religions and dress and economic dependents. Immigrants come from Libya, Syria and other beleaguered countries seeking political asylum and economic help. Many have no recourse to return to their homes.

And some European countries are responding in a very Trump-like manner: Last year Hungary built a 175 kilometer fence along its border with Serbia to stem the migrants passing into their country seeking asylum and passage to the wealthier countries of Austria, German and the Scandinavian countries. And just this spring, Austria announced that they were building a 100 kilometer fence on the border with Hungary to stop migration. They already have a small fence on the border with Slovenia.   Or … perhaps Trump is merely repeating the de-defacto actions of Europe?

In Europe, the idea of building walls and fences to separate Communist from Western, to keep people in or out is not new. And the countries that are the gateway to the flight from North African chaos are justifiably frightened of the burden of hundreds of thousands of immigrants landing on the shores when their neighbors to the north literally build walls to keep them out.

The immigration flood made headlines in Europe last year as North African immigrants tried to make their way north from Greece – the favorite landing spot for the dangerous sea passage. But now the European Union has  passed a controversial rule the effectively limits migrants coming to Greece. So, they are coming to Italy now instead. Despite the fact that the sea passage is more perilous.

And this has sparked fear in Italy, and resentment that they must now absorb refugees. And it’s a justified fear. Italy has become the new migration route to Europe.  The US based think tank the Brookings Institution believes that Italy might receive up to 800,000 immigrants from Libya alone landing sick and hungry in boats on the shores of Sicily and Calabria after a dangerous sea journey.  They see a dire need for Italy to receive international help to manage the crisis.

Last year I biked the Czech Republic from Prague to Vienna when borders were closed in Hungary and Austria to train travel, preventing immigrants from entering. It impacted our travel, too.  We declined a ride to Budapest, Hungary fearing we could not catch a train back to Vienna, Austria in time for our flight.  And now more countries seem to be closing their doors and limiting entrance to these refugees altogether. Moving further away from open arms and charity and more towards the nationalists closed borders of fear and protecting their own.

The recent terrorist attacks certainly don’t help matters.

I listened to the hotel clerk, and simply told her, “America is no panacea. We have many homeless people – displaced people living on the streets and in tents. We exploit illegal immigrants for their cheap labor. It’s a difficult problem – what to do with these people that is both humane and helps people back into society and also respectful to the residents who have called an area home for years.”

I didn’t know what else to say to her. Basically, Italy is doing what all charitable and compassionate people hope their country will do … embrace those who need the help most. They are living what many liberal/progressives and strong Christians profess to support and profess to admire. And they are doing it at a time when the rest of the world is closing doors and building walls – not opening them. But clearly their openness is coming at a very high cost – a very real and perceived cost – to many Italians. I suspect citizens like our hotel clerk have become more angry and afraid as the rest of the world has backed away and built fences and left countries like Italy to bear more than their fair share of the immigration burden.

I don’t think this hotel clerk is some anti-immigrant racist as many of the US progressive righteous-minded, finger-pointers would stereotype her to be. Instead, I think she is a person reacting like many of us would in this situation … struggling with the high price that comes with true open-armed generosity when hundreds of thousands of starving, sick, needy people are landing on your country’s coast. And struggling with the real fear of what change these new residents might bring to her future and her country if abandoned to deal with this 800,000 needy immigrants with no help.

Regardless, it is alarming and disheartening that building fences is the solution to a human crisis – and a problem in acting with basic humane decency. And I wonder if fences – a millennial solution to the world’s problems – might ultimately be the final downfall of the European Union- the very institution which tore down many of the the remaining cold war fences of Europe.

2 thoughts on “Fences

  1. Very eloquent and thoughtful comment, Leigh, and it is more evidence that you’re a great ambassador for our complicated nation. Bonne route and take care!

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