Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

When normal feels far from normal


by Gareth Mulvey*


And then things carried on as normal. But it was very far from normal. We’d done nothing. We sat on the train, staring out of the window. The beauty of the Bavarian countryside did little to dispel the previous images that just stuck in my mind like indelible ink. This experience followed a workshop on minority political involvement in politics in the beautiful town of Bolzano. The conference discussed sub-national and independence movements, particularly those in Europe and the place of migrants and minorities within those movements. The concern was primarily about creating or maintaining such involvement based on progressive and liberal principles, with a particular interest in the recent Scottish referendum and the developments in Catalonia. It was very interesting and indeed in many ways hopeful and optimistic.

Fast forward three hours and we sat on the train winding its way through Italian, Austrian and German snow-capped mountains. Through small idyllic hamlets and fairytale forests the train trundled on as the sound of chatter in German and Italian provided a melodic background hum. We sat talking of research plans, but mostly life beyond work. Then, at least for us, things changed. The first thing that suggested something going on was a couple of young looking blokes (aged 19 or 20) walking through the train in plain clothes with guns in holsters. ‘That’s strange’ we thought. Initially it didn’t appear that any of the other passengers had noticed. Either that or this was a fairly regular occurrence on this train. From then on, however, events did start to attract our fellow passengers attention. How they felt about it I wouldn’t be able to guess, so I’ll just explain what I saw and how it made me feel.

What appeared to be happening on this train was that all ethnic minorities were being approached and asked for their travel documents (the term that later kept coming to mind was an ‘immigrant swoop’). I assume, although do not know, that some ethnic minority passengers will have presented documents to the burly guards and remained in other carriages on the train. But bearing in mind that we were traveling in the Schengen area, many of our fellow travellers will not have had any travel documents and the vast majority, us included, were not asked. Nevertheless, families and single travellers were brought through our carriage and taken out onto the platform, where they stood right next to our window. One young girl (maybe about 10 years old) quietly sobbed as they passed our seats. The rest bore expressions of resigned acceptance as if being black meant that being stopped was their normal, or else their long, arduous and dangerous trip from whatever lives they had fled from had almost inevitably led to this. By this time the carriage was silent. Myself and my mate sat and whispered our feelings to one another (anger, sadness, despondency), but apart from that there was only the sound of the sobbing ten year old and the chatter of the border guards, some of whom laughed uproariously as these targeted people shuffled about in the cold on the platform waiting to be told their immediate fate. Finally the train rumbled on and the chatter appeared to resume as if nothing had happened. My friend and I continued to whisper, getting increasingly depressed as we did so. The image of children no older than mine (5 and 3) whose lives were undoubtedly already filled with more drama than mine could ever imagine remained burned into my conscious. While my son that very evening was attending his first ever school disco, with all of the excitement and wonder that would hopefully bring, who knows what the future held for these equally deserving young people who had done nothing ‘wrong’ except be born in the wrong continent and/or with the wrong skin colour.

And we sat without questioning what had just happened, except in our own heads and to each other. Should we have said anything? If so what? Did our lack of language abilities prevent us speaking out, or is that now my excuse for saying nothing. I don’t know. Part of me wishes I had spoken up, the other knows my doing so would have achieved nothing, except perhaps getting me removed from the train. But the other outcome could maybe have been letting those on the platform know that somebody else cared, someone without the misfortune of having been born with the ‘wrong’ skin colour or in the ‘wrong’ continent. Now that I think about it that should have been reason enough to speak out, to question this immediate manifestation of the creation of fortress Europe. And yet I said nothing, did nothing and the train trundled on through the forests to destinations that only comparatively rich, preferably white, Europeans appear to be able to legitimately call home.

This article inaugurates a new series of posts, where contributors offer short reflections on their personal, day-to-day interactions with migration issues. If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch using the contact form below. We welcome all contributions, whether sharing positive or negative experiences!


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This entry was posted on November 25, 2014 by in Personal reflections series and tagged , .
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