By Sarah Holland.
On December 21 last year, this writer shared an article on social media from AP News about a migrant shipwreck in 2015. It was Europe’s deadliest, with nearly 1,100 people drowned. Italian authorities had spent years trying to identify the dead, to give their families some peace.
Forensic pathologist Cristina Cattaneo said when she arrived at the resurfaced vessel: “I found before me a carpet of human silhouettes that stretched out across the area of the hold… almost all face down, some in a fetal position, many swollen with putrefaction, made human by their hair, gloves, sweaters and the shoes they had on”.
These were human beings just like us, desperately trying to make their way to a better life.
The reaction to the article was interesting. Some people were sad about the human cost of inequality, and the desperate measures people take to survive.
But some reacted with a stunning lack of empathy. One man wrote: “Sure guess how many f**ks are given .. they don’t belong here so don’t come here and cost the tax payers money, money that should be spent on our own people sorting out our own social inequality not dealing with illegal immigrants who in turn will go on to brake our laws” [sic].
Another young man wrote: “they all head here while we cant even feed and house our own, charity begins at home, theyve had enough hand outs, you had a look at our streets nowadays ??????” [sic].
Thankfully, these reactions are not typical. A recent study on attitudes to immigration and refugees in Ireland found that most people thought of Ireland as welcoming, optimistic, tolerant and open.
Most people understand the distinction between migrants and refugees – that migrants make a positive contribution to our society and that refugees are fleeing war and persecution and deserve our support.
There are, however, a small cohort who believe the alt-right narrative that migrants and refugees are a threat. This group are encouraged and emboldened by the rhetoric of US President Donald Trump and his ilk, and some of these beliefs have taken hold. The study showed that the main concerns expressed were that immigrants might be a drain on public resources that could otherwise be spent within local communities.
This is nativism. This ‘what about our own’ mentality goes hand in hand with a fear of immigrants, and is sometimes rooted in a belief in ethnic superiority – racism. Nativism can also be religious or political. This is why we sometimes see (often anonymous) online racists waffling about Sharia law or ‘cultural erosion’. It’s becoming the bog standard dog whistle propagated by alt-right types.
Nativism, and racism, should be challenged at every level. Ireland today is still reeling from the centuries of oppression by a colonial power, when some citizens were treated as second class. The experiences of our diaspora during the ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ years should encourage us to embrace and celebrate diversity.
No-one knowing our history should ever think of trying to ground another person underfoot. Solidarity with oppressed communities and a céad míle fáilte to those who come here to work in our hospitals, schools and financial services should be the byword for us.
In other words, don’t forget where we came from and where we got to, and don’t pull the ladder up after ourselves.
The Auschwitz memorial said it best on Holocaust Remembrance Day: “When we look at Auschwitz we see the end of the process. It’s important to remember that the Holocaust actually did not start from gas chambers. This hatred gradually developed from words, stereotypes and prejudice through legal exclusion, dehumanisation and escalating violence.”
Nativism is the thin end of the wedge. White, Catholic Irish are no better than any other person. We are all only human.
Sarah Holland is a Sinn Féin councillor for South Dublin. Follow her on Twitter @VoteHollandSF.