Death Away from Home

Written by Fr. Bobby Gilmore

The full-page report in The Guardian (18/4/20) of the death of 29 Filipino immigrants most of whom were working in Britain’s health care system from Covid-19 is shocking and sad. It highlights how health care systems depend on migrant labour not just in Britain but across Europe at a time of hostility to the presence of migrants and immigrants. It reminds me of a discussion I had with a class of high school students some twenty years ago on the subject of migration. In a general anti-immigrant atmosphere fed by tabloid sensationalism they were opposed and indifferent to the presence of immigrants and migrants from European Union member states. I put two questions to them.

One, how many of you crossed borders last year to holiday in another country? Many hands went up. I then asked if they had sought permission from those countries to have their holidays there? They responded in amazement with a why should they have to do that, implying some kind of inalienable right to walk across the border of another country without being invited. Such is the general response one would get from the well-off of the affluent world, which Ireland had become, who have used underdeveloped areas of the world, or third world, as their playground. This dominant attitude, a mild form of colonialism, recreates a form of dominance for the affluent, in itself in many instances resented by the residents as their resentment to migrants now.

Two, I then asked the class if there were some among them who had planned a career in the caring professions of nursing, care for the ill, elderly and disabled. No hands went up. Next question; how many had grandparents being cared for in nursing and retirement homes? Many hands went up. I then asked; who are taking care of your elderly and ill relatives? They responded; Filipinos. So, what do you propose is a solution to the need for care for your grandparents, the ill and disabled? Do we send granny to Manila or Accra or invite Filipinos and Africans to Ireland to care for granny and grandad? They all agreed that granny and grandad should be cared for in Ireland. I then asked; who are the carers if none of you plans to be in the caring profession? Silence.

Over the past weeks, media headlines in Britain and Ireland have been reporting the plight of the agriculture industry’s shortage of labour to harvest food and replant for the next crop. The agriculture industry was informed in the lead up to Brexit to recruit workers from indigenous populations that were unemployed. Having done so, there were few if any takers to work in the industry. So, the agriculture industry decided to seek workers from European Union Member states, and this in a time of Covid-19 pestilence with all kinds of restriction of movement in place. Ireland is experiencing in reverse the plight of many in Ireland’s past generations who were seasonal workers, welcome when needed, disposable when not, living and dying in inhospitable conditions.

Such is the situation of millions of migrant workers around the world at the onset of Covid-19. Governments announced shutdowns seemingly not realising that large sections of their workforces were migrants without wages, lodgings, food, healthcare, shelter and no transport to make their way home. Worse still, in a time of the pandemic, affluent states having closed their borders to outsiders, are deporting undocumented immigrants back to their home countries indifferent to possible further spread of the virus.

Why has the world lost its compassion, human respect and generosity? Is Covid-19 telling us something about ourselves that is uncomfortable? I hope so.

Fr. Bobby Gilmore was ordained in 1963 and assigned to the Philippines from 1964-78. From 1978-92, he was Director of the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy in Britain. He ministered in Jamaica from 1992-99. In 1999, he returned to Ireland and established the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland.