The Christmas myth has been recast to fit every era, rebranded and adapted for an array of cultures, and despite mainstream popular culture’s efforts to ensconce the holiday in commercialism and kitsch, occasionally there’s a true story that infuses the legend with the gravity of contemporary reality.
And so a nativity took place this year not in a storied manger, not in the chintzy peaches-and-cream installation in a suburban church’s front yard, but in one of the most forsaken places on earth — on the mercilessly violent waves of the Mediterranean Sea. According to reports from the Italian coastline, the Italian navy “rescued” about 1300 migrants in several missions on Christmas day: 1300 souls adrift at sea in a phalanx of desperation. On the day when people are expected to celebrate the spirit of giving, they arrived after being deprived of virtually everything, and every day they teem in droves at the jagged shoreline of Fortress Europe.
Thousands have perished at sea on that same route. Those who have been rescued face hellish risks ahead as they begin to resettle and struggle to recover from the trauma they brought with them.
But there was a tiny reminder of the spirit of Christmas at the scene too. A Nigerian woman reportedly gave birth on one of the rescue boats. So there was a miraculous birth to a mother in exile. It was a strange reprisal of an age old tale of the migrant mother who had been turned away by others. Both then and now, mother and child faced a world of uncertainty, one that would likely rain cruelty on the infant for years to come. One that punishes the migrant by heaping blame all the world’s sins onto her back. It’s no wonder that the story of Jesus of Nazareth is often invoked when people cite their faith as a reason to give migrants sanctuary. The meaning of the gospel seems to be lost on most, though.
Every body dragged from the Mediterranean by the overstretched patrol forces at sea bears the cross of all the borders imposed on “aliens,” part of a system bent on imprisoning and expelling migrants for the sake of “security.”
The Christmas Day salvation off the Italian Coast was a tiny respite amid the throngs of misery that keep arriving in the moat of the Global North. Amnesty International declared this year one of the most tragic on record in terms of migrant deaths — more than 3400 people have died at sea trying to flee to Europe since January 2014. The humanitarian crisis has escalated due to the conflict and raging poverty that has driven people from Northern Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
But the tragedies are also a deliberate product of European Union policymakers’ severe immigration restrictions and oppressive border-enforcement measures, which, as in the United States, have brutalized countless migrants, even asylum seekers fleeing persecution and war. Not only are there frighteningly few legal channels available for people to migrate to Europe, but even those who manage to enter EU territory face arbitrary detention, impoverishment, police crackdowns and a growing current of xenophobic and racist public sentiment.
In response to the growing anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, which has intensified amid economic anxieties and frothing right-wing rhetoric that vilifies African and Asian immigrants as parasites, Amnesty International recently declared: “Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees make the dangerous sea journey to Europe each year. The fact that thousands of them die along the way should be a wake up call for EU member states that they need to prioritize saving lives over closing borders.”
But as the New Year dawns over the Mediterranean and Fortress Europe looks out over the watery graveyard it has laid out between its southern lip and the Global South, there seems to be neither justice nor mercy on the horizon.
The fate of the Nigerian miracle baby remains in flux, it seems, its immigration status unknown. The circumstances of the child’s birth perhaps accords some kind of global citizenship — an infant who belongs nowhere while belonging to all of us, abandoned and saved at once. In a rescue mission seeking humanity on a sea of injustice, there’s still room a bit of grace.