So here we are, with thousands and tens of thousands of migrants at the gates of Europe. Every news report, every television screen is filled with pictures of desperate people clamouring to get in to the safe haven of Europe. And the same news reports show police with batons and tear gas, barbed wire fences, dogs and barriers to keep them out. Some of the letters in sites such as Yahoo are frightening in their responses: they advocate sinking the boats, sending them all back, putting gas in the Channel Tunnel: genocide, racism and slaughter.
Now roll the clock back a bit. Just seventy years, less than a lifetime, and look at Europe. It was a continent filled with literally millions of migrants – or refugees as they were known then. Displaced, scared, hungry, fleeing war and oppression. Go back a further thirty years and see the boats filled with Europeans migrating in their hundreds of thousands to the United States and Canada. For what? For a better life, for a job, for hope.
Go further back: to Scotland, my country, in the 1850s and see the ships sailing for Australia jammed with hopeful emigrants. Or a few years before that to the rush round Cape Horn for Californian Gold, or the vast wagon trains that crossed the prairies of North America: migrants too but now lauded as people of ‘sturdy pioneer stock.’ Folk heroes to the United States, as the very similar Voortrekkers of South Africa were depicted as heroes, or the Overlanders of Australia who pioneered routes for cattle and people to follow. There are statues to these people and films about the wagon trains with the indigenous inhabitants of the land frequently seen as the opposition: the Other.
Think of the Irish emigration of the 1820s, 30s and 40s. It cost one penny to sail the Irish Sea to Liverpool or Glasgow and swap rural famine for urban squalor, to swap hopelessness imposed by a restrictive political, social and religious regime for some sort of hope. Oh there’s that word again: hope.
Now look again at Scotland, my very own small and imperfect country. There were forced emigrations here as well when people were herded to ships and forced abroad, when red-coated armies ravished the glens, when people had no choice but to leave their homes and chance the turbulent seas. They did not wish to go any more than the Syrians or Afghans or people from Iraq grew up wishing to leave their homes and country. Circumstances forced emigration on them, as it did to the Irish of the Famine, the Jews of the Pogroms, the unemployed of Europe and. . . probably most mass movements of humanity since time began.
Yes, some will be chancing their arm. It is easy to see fit and healthy young men with designer sun-glasses, I-pads and mobile phones that cost a year’s wages for a normal person, but look again. See the desperation in the eyes of mothers who have carried their children away from horror, in the faces of men who have shepherded their families across continents in the dream of work and safety. Not for riches like the 49-ers who sought gold, not even for Freedom, ‘which no man loses but with his life’ but for Hope.
Look at these people because that is what they are: PEOPLE. Just like our ancestors who came to this country in times past and our relatives who emigrated to Canada, Australia or the United States. The only difference is the time and the media coverage. They are scared, desperate, brave human beings that the world should be helping, not despising.
If they don’t come here, then where can they go? Back to Syria? Or Afghanistan? Would you want to bring up your family in the shadow of IS, that most evil of regimes since Nazi Germany? Or watch them live on the streets of Kabul or Kandahar knowing that the Taleban could swoop from the ragged heights any day.
This country of Scotland, this political union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, this continent of Europe, was founded and created through blood and trial and tribulation and horror. It took thousands of years to form but always since the vague notion of nation states, there has been a notion of Christianity, of helping the less fortunate, or alms houses and charity to those in need. Have we lost that? Has our acquired wealth and standard of living removed the basic Christianity and basic humanity that once was our strength and reason for existence.
Look again at the faces of these fellow sufferers and see, in the mirror of their eyes: ourselves.