Europe 2018 – Same as it ever was?
The cry for walls rebounds against the hollow stones and before long we all find ourselves prisoners. Not much more than serfs, bonded to the lands of our births. Miserably gainful – working local jobs, for local workers. Surviving day-to-day, putting a bit away, treating ourselves now and again, but mostly servicing our debts and lining the pockets of the already rich.
It’s not their fault of course – the skimmers of the cream, the wearers of the crowns, the hedgers gambling on our future and hoarding the spoils offshore. Instead we have been hoaxed and coaxed into blaming the desperate fleers of war, the climate calamity kids, and the new strange family down the road who will wipe up our spills. In reality we don’t really trust anyone, certainly not those shysters in power, so we batten down the hatches, put on the telly and convince ourselves that Debt Bondage is just another vapid celebrity hosting the latest must-watch show – I’m thinking Cash in the Attic meets amateur porn. (Whatever happened to Eurotrash?)
And the Winners Are!
Meanwhile, out there beyond the walls of our own privatised enclosure, the ‘others’ gather. Hordes of them apparently, all wanting a piece of our unfulfilled dreams and faded gory-glory. And rather than recognise their potential contribution and invite them in; to combine skills and work together to create a viable future for us all. Instead we slash our own safety nets (in the form of austerity) and let loose the rabid hounds (fascists marching through our cities). Those refugees and migrants that sneak through are either stuck in limbo or rounded up, detained and deported. It is big business; in its budget for the period 2021-2027, the European Commission proposes to almost triple funding for migration and border management to €34.9 billion.
And the winners are…..the security firms, the arm manufacturers, the surveillance companies, the airlines used for deportations and the people traffickers. The formulae goes – Sell weapons to unstable areas of the world, help fuel chaos and mass migration of people from said areas, sell ‘security’ to police borders against the exodus of the desperate, criminalize migration and further profit from incarceration and return. It is a sick and bloody market profiting from death and despair and it is a key vertebra of the world economy.
The other winners are the shape-shifting ghouls of fascism that are playing on age-old fears across Europe and beyond. Ethnic Hungarians living in Kovaszna, the rural idyll in North West Romania from where I write, voted for Victor Orbán – in part because they believed his vitriol and feared ‘the Syrians are coming!‘ In reality Romania is the whitest, most demonstratively Christian and Orthodox place I have ever been. Scroll back up to the map of the Roman Empire and you will notice that what is now Hungary, lies outside the empire, and is labelled as the land of Iazyges. A Sarmatian tribe of Iranian lineage that travelled to Central Europe, via the Urals, settling on the Tisza plain around 44. Bc. Their fellow nomads from the East, the Hun of Atilla fame, are claimed to be the forefathers of the Szekley, another proud group of ethnic Hungarians living in Romania. To deny the ebb and flow of human movement freezes us into nationhoods and we all loose as a result.
Crossing Borders Of Our Own Making
What, might you ask, has this got to do with Hello Human. In the past 3 years Ioan and I have cycled in 10 countries. We have crossed borders mostly hassle free due to our privileged European status. Even the pending curtailment of easy movement that Brexit threatens, may in part be negotiable for those ‘expats’ savvy and financially stable enough to be one step ahead of the game. I am now the proud owner of a Certificat de Inregistrare a flimsy piece of paper that certifies my ‘registered right of residence on the Romanian territory’ for the next 5 years. We are still trying to work out how best to ensure that Ioan has similar rights to be in the UK, should we decide or need to return for any length of time.
This ability to cycle across borders, is privilege at work, on so many levels, and we felt it very acutely last summer on our jaunt over the Maritime Alps. As we cycled from Nice up into the foothills of the Alps we passed the Alpine Line, a line of fortifications built in the 1920s as part of the larger Maginot Line. The plan was to create a wall of defence 943 miles along the length of France’s border to deter German and Italian invasion. Only 280 miles was completed and it failed to stop the advancement of Hitler’s troops. Walls are not a new idea and not a very effective one at that!
On the road out of Sospel towards Italy we saw a handful of uniformed police ahead. They meandered in the sleepy mountain road and I stopped to scrabble in my front pannier for my passport. But it was not needed, they just looked at us, presumably saw our whiteness and our ‘leisure’ (as signified by our mode of transport) and waved us on. No comment, no hassle, no problem. The road wound its way up over the Col de Vescavo where an old unused border post was obscured from view by a bright blue European Union sign announcing we had made it to Italia. To the tribal lands of Liguria, which once stretched as far as Marseille.
We enjoyed our descent alongside the River Roya as far as Airole where we were met with the looming entrance to a 5km tunnel. Thankfully it was clearly signed as being illegal to enter by bike, so that avoided any potential argument! But now we were faced with a quandary, how the hell to get to the sea which was so tantalizingly close. Google Maps informed us there was no way other than back up over another pass or through the tunnel, but we could see the old riverside road, so on we went (after a pit stop for our first Italian meal and some much needed respite from the scorching heat!) undeterred by NO ENTRY signs and a road that had been reduced to rubble we pushed the bikes to where the old road became cyclable again. I love these spots, where nature and intrepid humans have reclaimed stillness from the car and lorries. All the time the River Roya was calling to me with its blue green coolth, but it was too big a drop. Until…. there, down there….we found a perfect secluded siesta and skinny dip spot of pure cool water. How far this felt from the Rivieras we had left behind and were soon to rejoin.
Refreshed and keen to rendezvous with my family we got back on our bikes and whizzed down to Ventimiglia. The human modern world pushed its tentacles up the river valley in the form of flower farms and factories. On the outskirts of town, at a confusing intersection, we asked a Middle Eastern guy on a bicycle how to get to the centre and he nodded and encouraged us to follow him. We merrily glided into town behind our escort but our smiles and nature-charged euphoria subsided as we were met with the commotion of life that is the Italian Rivieria. Cars, trucks, scooters, bikes, and humans filling up the spaces. Under the bridge that crossed the Roya River to France, men from Africa, the Middle East, the ‘Stans and elsewhere stood chatting and dreaming. Amongst them were some females but the sad fact is that many migrant women quickly disappear from the streets, subsumed by a dark underbelly of prostitution and slavery that should be the shame of Modern Europe.
Ventimiglia is known as the ‘Calais of Italy’. Between January and May 2018 French authorities claim to have sent back to Italy 10,524 people who tried to cross by train, by walking along the motorway or via a treacherous mountain path. Since autumn 2016 at least 16 migrants have died while trying to make the crossing, either by falling off the mountain path or being hit by cars. A migrant was recently electrocuted after climbing on top of a train. According to an Oxfam report, entitled Nowhere But Out (published June 2018), around 16,500 people, a quarter of them children, had passed through Ventimiglia in the nine months to April 2018. About 500 are currently staying in a Red Cross camp on the outskirts of the town and around 200 others are estimated to be sleeping rough.
Far from the grasping and threatening gangs often depicted in tabloid papers, these are vulnerable humans caught in a living limbo. The majority of whom have come from war ravaged countries and who are entitled to refugee status in Europe. According to the Oxfam report 44% of the people they work with in Ventimiglia come from Sudan and 11 percent from Eritrea – both countries are host to serious human rights violations. The other 45% of the charities beneficiaries come from a range of countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Morocco and Nigeria. All countries blighted by European colonialism, wars and the impact of industrial globalisation. We take the spoils, run then raise the drawbridges to Fortress Europe.
It was market day in Ventimiglia and we weaved our bikes between the stalls and people. Migrants worked on the stalls helping local tradespeople to haul boxes of fruit and hang rails of cheap fashion, picked and sewn thousands of miles away in the lands that they had left. All along the 7km stretch of coast to Bordighera, holiday makers and locals enjoyed themselves on the pebble beach. Hawkers, many of them Muslim men, laden down with sarongs and trinkets, moved from lounger to lounger trying to earn their keep. Their daily bread provided at the mercy of sun-wrinkled hands that either shooed away or proffered euros, out of kindness and guilt.
It was blissful to lie on those loungers and swim in that sea; to relax and laugh with my family, but it was all tinged with a sense of unease. An acute awareness that just up the road and over the horizon people risked their lives to get away, to reunite with their families and friends, to be free. And that no matter how contentious it might be, to accept that their suffering is directly linked to my comfort.
The refugee crisis is not about refugees, rather, it is about us. Our prioritization of financial gain over people’s struggle for the necessities of life is the primary cause of much of this crisis.
Featured Image: Liz Horn. Ai WeiWei, Fan Tan Exhibtion at Mucem, Marseille.