Yesterday I had lunch with a senior Italian businessman based in London. He was born and has lived here for many years, though still spends large chunks of time in Turin and Milan. I’d never discussed his background much before, but yesterday we talked about his heritage in some detail. His family had originally come from Parma, but his grandfather came over in the 1930s when Mussolini coming to power saw things take a turn for the worse back home.
His grandfather was making a success of a business in catering in London when WWII broke out and he was interned as a hostile alien. He was shipped off with thousands of other Italians and Germans to the Isle of Man.
Then the UK Government decided it would be best, with the Battle of Britain in full flow and things looking very much in the balance, that all these potential fifth columnists should be shipped off to Canada. Their boat was the SS Arandora Star. She sailed unescorted, early on the morning of 2 July 1940 from Liverpool, and was about 75 miles west of Bloody Foreland in Donegal when U-47, commanded by U-Boat ace Günther Prien, struck her with a single torpedo. The ship had 479 German and 734 Italian internees, 86 German prisoners-of-war and 200 military guards on board. The master, 12 officers, 42 crewmen, 37 guards, 470 Italians and 243 Germans were lost. My friend’s dad never saw his father again.
This story of migration across oceans, bodies being washed up and Brit attitudes towards hostile foreigners inevitably made me think about what’s going on in Calais and the Mediterranean today. And, thus, made me question what we think about Syrians who have endured their own government dropping barrel bombs onto their homes in Aleppo ought to do. Would we say they should stay put and just stick it out until something gets better? It made me think what I’d do with my family faced with such an intolerable fear.
I am not advocating bringing down the fences in Calais and welcoming the thousands of economic migrants from countries like Senegal and The Gambia into the UK. Nonetheless, the ghoulish images on the nightly news from France have us all feeling scared. But scared of what, precisely?
Amid the likes of Farage talking about bringing in the army - to achieve what, exactly? - we should never forget what being a refugee means. And why it is a matter of common decency, humanity and international law that we should consider offering security, comfort and maybe even a great future in our midst to those who are fleeing appalling circumstances at home.
In her ‘they shall not pass’ resolute stand Theresa May has forgotten her other obligations. The last time I looked we had accepted 187 refugees from Syria. In Lebanon there are now over 1.5 million. At least the Italians over here now aren’t likely to be shipped out any time soon. Are they, Nigel?