A great cant of my father’s was “You wouldn’t know anyone anymore”. I remember him saying this ironically while on a train when he came to visit me in Madrid. Amidst all the different races and languages travelling beside us, his comment was meant to express the feeling of being lost in a sea of strangers. In the context of the phrase’s usual deployment — small-town Ireland — “You wouldn’t know anyone anymore” imparts a whole other diversity of meanings.
I first heard the phrase sometime in the late nineties, when the Celtic Tiger was in full roar and Ireland was just beginning to open up to immigration (in retrospect, a mere momentary reversal of a centuries-old pattern). Small towns like my own were seeing for the first time significant numbers of blow-ins, both Irish and foreign. Seemingly overnight, housing estates sprung up on the outskirts of town, the names of which locals couldn’t keep up with, not to mind the identities of those who lived there. A trip up town became an exercise in trying to pick a local face out of the throngs of new arrivals. My father would often come home from shopping expeditions with his first words being “You wouldn’t know anyone anymore”.
Those words captured the puzzlement and disorientation of an older generation of rural dwellers used to time moving slowly, of things changing very little from decade to decade. For these people, during the Celtic Tiger, that word progress was everywhere and it was shooting through the streets of their towns and villages at breakneck speed, practically knocking people out of its way. Almost everything seemed new and different — food, drink, technology, pubs, shops, streets, the geography of the town itself — but the biggest change was the influx of strangers.
One of the greatest comforts of living in a small community is that everybody is known to you. Or if you don’t exactly know the person, you’ll know their face, or that they’re related to so-and-so or come from a certain area. If a large segment of your community are people who have seemingly arrived overnight, you lose your reference points. For certain people steeped in the life of their town or village or parish or townland, this knowledge is a vital part of day-to-day business, how they function and, indeed, who they are. To go from a point where you could stand at your front door, watching the world go by and name the seed, breed and generation of nearly everyone who passed by to not even recognising the language or race of your new neighbours can be a fraught or even frightening process. I can still picture the bafflement on my father’s face when he told me that he couldn’t “psyche” the new arrivals, that they didn’t look him in the eye or smile.
We live in a time of unprecedented travel and mobility. The movement of people, both within borders and between countries is as much a reality of modern life as the internet or GPS. A significant number of people never settle down in their home town or country. The pull of the bright lights, big city and a better life is now transnational, with immigration becoming a vital aspect of our modern, globalised economy. Skills and manpower follow shortfalls in the labour market, whether they be in the next city or in the opposite hemisphere. Economies on the up act like intercontinental magnets, while countries in crisis use the pressure valve of emigration to lower unemployment and social unrest. Far more than just a necessary evil of modern life, global migration solves more problems than it creates and brings incalculable benefits to the receiving countries. The aging North, with its low birth rates craves young people to paper over demographic cracks. Who will pay for the pensions of these top-heavy, grey societies if not young workers from developing countries? Of course the new arrivals also come out winners. A better life, where qualifications and initiative are rewarded and the option of a long, steady career path are realities that await those who take the plunge. The culture of the receiving country is enhanced by the new arrivals, while the return home of immigrants after a number of years can move forward backward countries.
In many ways, immigration is a win–win for everybody involved. I personally have benefited both from moving to the big city in a national context and immigrating to a foreign country. I have brought my particular skills to my host country and picked up some new ones here. My partner is from my host country and my kids are dual nationality — hence moving around has been good to me. But as someone who has witnessed the anxieties of an older generation of natives comprising the community into which a large number of immigrants arrive suddenly and someone who can see the concerned expressions of my Spanish neighbours as they witness the likes of me and my kids moving around their neighbourhood and speaking in a foreign tongue, I realise that immigration has to be carefully managed. A sensitivity for the other side’s feelings must operate both on the locals’ and newcomers’ parts. Locals must be welcoming and park their suspicions. They must treat the new arrivals as they would like their own children to be treated if they were to immigrate. For their part, immigrants must be respectful, observe local laws, rules and conventions. While not hiding their differences or cultures, they must not, on the other hand, shove them down the natives’ throats or claim special status or privileges. It should all be about give and take, patience and respect. Additionally, individual attitudes must be backed up by government policy, which must ensure a number of things: fair treatment for immigrants in terms of social welfare, housing, access to education et cetera — but not supra-fair or positive discrimination towards the new arrival (in order to avoid resentment or whispering campaigns on the part of put-out natives); no concentration of immigrants in poorer areas of cities, i.e. no creation of ghettos; a reasonably planned and strict policy to promote a steady trickle rather than sudden gluts; and the exclusion of those with criminal records.
We all live in a global village now. Population movements are only going to intensify as the twenty-first century progresses. Even the smallest, most isolated communities in the backest of the back of beyond has to expect both the outward and inward movement of people. The process doesn’t have to be difficult. Policy should be tweaked so that alarming situations don’t arise where the streets are flooded with new faces and old natives “don’t know anyone anymore”. Rapid change, where large in- or effluxes of people occur speaks of bad planning or failed economic policies and these should be avoided. Apart from this what is needed above all is a dash of R-E-S-P-E-C-T and a large twist of tolerance.