Eliza Griswold, “Everyone Is an Immigrant”

Griswold visits Lampedusa, an Italian island receiving refugees while the civil war in Libya is raging (not to mention the Arab Spring generally). If you’re a refugee who survived the violence of others back home and the violence of the sea, you had this to look forward to:

As soon as they arrive on, or even near, the island, Italian coast guard ships approach most of the vessels, load the refugees up by the hundreds, ship them into port and deliver them to shore, where they are numbered before being run through a waiting line of police, Red Cross, and other emergency workers, and boarded onto repurposed tourist buses. The buses take them to “centers,” which are immigration prisons, surrounded by barbed wire. Filo spinato sounds less punative in Italian. The refugees arriving from Libya spend between a few days and a few weeks on the island until their numbers swell to two thousand. At that point, they are loaded onto a ferry and taken to the island of Sicily and to the Italian mainland to yet another center, and another, until eventually, they are granted asylum and allowed to stay in Italy or travel north to other European countries.

The refugees arriving from Tunisia are a different case. Because their lives aren’t at risk if they’re returned to their country, Tunisians are regularly sent home against their will. This is one reason why they’re generally more unruly than the newly arrived sub-Saharan Africans: they have nothing to gain by being cooperative. Two years ago on Lampedusa, someone set fire to the Tunisian immigration prison. I hear different things about who started the blaze. First, it was lit by very pissed-off Tunisians. Second, it was lit by very pissed-off locals, who didn’t want their island, which survives on tourism, to become a safe haven for African refugees, especially Tunisians. Four months later, hundreds escaped from a center and marched around calling for freedom.

On my mind is the quiet cruelty of the modern democratic state. The asylum seekers are handled very efficiently and there is money made. In the article, Berlusconi and a reporter call the situation a “crisis,” implying that only Italy and perhaps Europe are experiencing a crisis.

It’s the ability of the popular will to be so self-serving and in denial of what actually needs to be done that needs to be addressed. On the one hand, doing more for others always creates more trouble for self-governance. You get stuck with a bunch of obligations that involve sacrifice and more because of inefficiencies. On the other hand, if the asylum seekers are going to eventually be granted asylum, they need to be in a position where they can find support and eventually support themselves.

I’m not going to delude myself and argue that such problems are ever going to go away. I will say this. The more I think about American politics, the more I conclude that the feeling of a lack of equality of opportunity is the largest problem. We can simplify and say there’s just a lack of genuine opportunities and cite a number of causes. I wonder if one of those causes is that people don’t care to be aware of what’s happening to others, much less actually do something for them. Being generous in the abstract probably translates into being self-governing in the abstract.