Wednesday 18 September 2019

Mary Fitzgerald: 'Europe needs to see lessons of past to quell voices of anti-immigration'

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Photo: AP
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Photo: AP

Mary Fitzgerald

France has never styled itself as a nation of immigrants. Instead, it has emphasised assimilation over the US model of multiculturalism.

So it is interesting then that Europe's sole museum dedicated to immigration is in Paris, where exhibitions detail how migrants have shaped French industry and culture over the past two centuries.

Located in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, constructed in eastern Paris for the 1931 colonial exposition.

The imposing Art Deco building was originally intended as a permanent museum dedicated to the French colonies. In 2007 it became home to the National Museum of the History of Immigration, when Nicolas Sarkozy was president after campaigning on promises to restrict immigration.

Eleven years on, with far-right populists making gains across Europe by tapping anxieties about immigration, the museum and its purpose have never seemed more relevant.

One area tells the story of the 500,000 who fled Spain after Franco took power while other displays detail post-war migration from France's former colonies, particularly Algeria.

In a section celebrating migrants who went on to make significant contributions to France, Samuel Beckett is there, noting the year - 1937 - he settled in France and that he joined the Resistance in WWII. It quotes him: "I prefer France at war than Ireland at peace."

The museum also explores the xenophobia and hostility experienced by migrants in France over the last two centuries, bringing to mind how similar dynamics are currently emerging in various corners of Europe as populists fuel anti-immigration sentiment.

Another display features personal effects belonging to undocumented workers who staged a protest against immigration policies by occupying the museum in 2010.

Five years later Europe experienced an influx of more than a million people, most fleeing wars in Syria and other parts of the Middle East and Africa.

While the number of migrants has plummeted, the debate over immigration continues to divide the continent's body politic - on a national and EU level - as the far-right exploits the issue.

These divisions have been seen in responses to the new UN migration pact, a non-binding agreement that lays out a common approach to international migration and seeks to improve the way migration flows are managed and better protect and integrate migrants.

The treaty is due to be debated at an international summit but the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Austria and Hungary have said they will not support it. Poland is also considering a similar position.

Very often the most virulent anti-immigration sentiment can be found in European countries - including those objecting to the new UN pact - that have experienced comparatively little migration.

Spain offers an interesting counter. It has become the main gateway to Europe, with almost 50,000 people crossing the Mediterranean to Spain since the beginning of the year - double the number of arrivals to Greece or Italy this year.

What Spain has not experienced is an uptick in anti-migrant rhetoric - political or public - despite having the second highest rate of unemployment in Europe.

According to a Pew survey, 86pc of Spaniards are in favour of taking in people fleeing war and persecution, making Spain the European country most supportive of refugees.

Its centre-left government has made a point of welcoming those turned away elsewhere in Europe. When the Aquarius rescue ship was refused permission to dock in Italy and Malta this summer, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez welcomed the 630 migrants on board.

Perhaps some of this can be explained by Spain's own experience of its people migrating or fleeing war. Perhaps many across Europe are forgetting the long history of immigration that has shaped the continent. Perhaps more national museums of immigration like the one is Paris are needed.

Irish Independent

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