Ellis Island Blues

Mark O’Connell | 14 Feb 2022 | General

Another week, another tragedy of desperate refugees seeking a better life in the UK perishing beneath the waves in the English Channel in flimsy craft at the hands of evil people trafficking gangs. In spite of the promise to take back control of borders and cut ties with the European Union, the UK remains one of the most attractive nations in Europe for immigrants fleeing oppression and untenable conditions in their own countries. The illegal arrival numbers are up on pre Brexit baselines, and undermine the promise on Brexit campaign buses and hoardings, that leaving the single market would stem the tide of immigration give UK back control of its borders.

I take no comfort in any of this narrative. In fact herein I see an opportunity. Since Brexit, and compounded by pandemic, Britain has an acute skills shortage in key manufacturing, hospitality and logistics sectors that is curbing it’s recovery so the benefits of its new found economic and regulatory liberation may never be realised. So here’s an idea inspired by mass people migration movements rooted in my own country’s history.

No one leaves their country, community and family out of choice. Things need to be pretty desperate, and only those with resources, skills and the ambition to make a better life will embark on a journey that risks their lives, isolates them from those who they love, and one that is fraught uncertainly, often with the hopes and finances of their family and community riding on them.

Looking at the faces of these young men and women from war zones in the Middle East (that we had a hand in creating), I see resolve, determination and self-selection. Could we not marry the ambition of these hard bitten souls with the focus and purpose of a better life with the acute labour force needs of Post Britain Brexit and create a ‘R’ class of refugee visa. This would entitle them to accommodation, safety and a social safety net in exchange for a commitment to productive employment or a revocation of visas after 12-18 months if they are still welfare dependent. All of the great global cities today like New York, Shanghai, and Sydney were built on successive immigrant waves and without them who will drive the Uber’s and work the restaurants, hotels coffee shops?

Perhaps a more compassionate embrace of these new arrivals could be a Win-Win and a great expression of global Britain, like the American Dream project that my forefathers bought into in the processing centre on Ellis Island. That experiment created global companies, Irish American presidents, economic heft and moral authority within 100 years, a vision that every surely nation aspires to. A missed opportunity? Answers on a postcard.