Saturday, 29 August 2015

The end of summer?

Holidays for me this summer have been just a week away in London - so I shall be planning something for the autumn. But you can pack a lot into one week in the capital, if you can cope with not having the most relaxing of times. The weather is quite different too: while in our area we seem to have had whatever has been blown in from the Atlantic, in London the weather systems were coming in from the continent - some very heavy rain, but significantly warmer rain!

The people are quite different too - in their mix of colours, cultures and languages. By comparison the North-East is quite monochrome, certainly in our corner of County Durham. Just this morning there was a news item that the population of Britain now includes more than eight million people who were born overseas. You wouldn’t know that from looking around here - but it doesn’t stop folk being fearful of still more people arriving from abroad.

 “Migrant” is probably going to be one of the terms most heavily-used in the media this year. From TV and the press you’d think that our country was under siege from millions of people seeking to come in and grab all the benefits they can and ruin our way of life. In fact there are a couple of thousand in the makeshift camps near Calais, trying to cross the Channel. It’s a significant number and testing for lorry drivers and holiday-makers, but we don’t think much about the local people for whom they are a fact of life. Nor about the hundreds of thousands of refugees elsewhere in Italy and Greece - and pushing further north. Germany gave asylum to about 80,000 last year. Turkey has over a million who have fled the horrors of Syria - many trying to cross the Aegean to Europe (and it’s not far from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands). There are a million more in the Lebanon, against a local population of only about four million.

Our response as a nation has been to send more police to Calais and build a better fence. We can keep the “problem” at bay in ways which other nations can’t. But we need to remember that these are not merely “migrants,” still less a “swarm” as they have been described. They are people. Visiting the Imperial War Museum in London, I got less than half way round the World War I section. Its displays describe life in this country before that war when average life expectancy was only 54 for women and 50 for men - and only 30 in the East End. 1% controlled 70% of the wealth. And one in every 20 people emigrated in search of “a better life.” We were a migrant people in those days. Can we at least recognise the common humanity of those whose plight is so desperate now?           

Martin Jackson

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