Dubliner Phil Lang, working in the City, wanted to show how close the migrant crisis is to our own families’ pasts
In July last year, David Cameron referred to the migrants camped in the Calais ‘Jungle’ as a “swarm”, writes Adam Shaw. The former Prime Minister was widely criticised for his choice of wording, but it was, and still is, a sentiment voiced with real verve by many across Europe.
The sheer numbers of people fleeing Syria, Iraq and other war-torn countries has caused them to be defined by statistics. More than 40,000 migrants had arrived in Greece in the first five months of 2015, while Italian shores had taken close to 50,000.
This year, between 1 January and 29 May, an estimated 204,000 migrants crossed into Southern Europe. The graphic images of the three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless, face down on a Turkish beach highlighted the tragic nature of this crisis and brought it to a distinctly human level.
But only for a moment.
The next day there were more pictures of thousands of desperate migrants cramped into camps. Scale became the most striking feature, negativity set in. The fleeing were once more a flock, a flood, a pack. They were dehumanised.
It was this concept which inspired Dubliner Phil Lang to create a data project based on migration in the hope of getting people to think differently about the issue. He took something that was close to his heart, Ireland, his field of expertise, data management, and a modern platform for exposure, twitter.
The result was a periodic listing on social media of every single person who arrived in the port of New York during the height of the Great Famine.
Every 30 minutes, the name of the next recorded person into the port is tweeted, along with their age, the date they arrived, and where they had left from. At its current rate, the project will take 35 years to complete.
“It was a response to the negative stories surrounding migration, I wanted to humanise those who had been forced to leave their homes and go to different countries,” Phil said.
“I wanted to break apart the sheer numbers and subvert the rhetoric of the politicians at the time – it was about creating a human message.”
To achieve this, Phil hoped to create the basis of a story, for his audience to see 19th century Irish migrants not as another figure to be recorded but as people with backgrounds.
“People have found it quite sweet, they realise that it’s something that will make you stop and think,” he explained.
People just called ‘U’ for unknown
“At times you get whole families coming through who have all been processed at the same time.
“Then there are those who were born at sea during the crossing over, and there is a whole load of other people just called ‘U’ as in ‘unknown’ because they were so unintelligible and didn’t know their own names.
“There’s also been interest from places like Liverpool, because that’s where a lot of people will have arrived from, having embarked there from Ireland. And there’s been an engagement from people who have noticed their own surname on the list and have decided to do a bit of extra research.”
Phil is pleased that his project has received a mostly positive response; that people are taking it for exactly what it is and for what he intended it to be seen as. But he also admitted that some people have latched onto the programme and have exploited it as a way of voicing their own political views.
“Some people have taken it and used it for their own gains,” he said. “For example, a lot of people blame the British for the famine and these people have aligned what I’ve made with this opinion.
“But in the main it’s been good, and framing something in a negative context can happen with anything, really, we saw that with Brexit and the manipulation of figures.”
It could be argued that in promoting the human aspects of mass migration and the positivity it can bring, Phil is airing his own political views.
“People don’t really realise what it’s like for a Syrian to leave their home, and Europe has massively struggled to deal with the situation,” he said. “As a result there are a lot of people who view migration as a negative thing but it can be positive if it’s managed correctly. Migrants can contribute to society and share their culture with others while at the same time embracing another.
“It’s getting a message across of thinking of them as human beings, rather than a scary, mass gathering that should be met with walls.”
He also believes that we can gain a greater appreciation of the plight of modern migrants if we learn more about the reasons for exoduses in the past. He explained how even in Irish schools, at least when he was growing up, the Famine wasn’t covered in enough detail and that he needed to regularly refer to Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger to bridge the gaps in his understanding.
“It’s a huge moment, not only in Irish history but in global history, because there’s a massive Irish diaspora all over the world,” he said. “There should be more of a general awareness because a lot of people don’t realise that the population of Ireland was quite large at the time, and it’s never really fully recovered.”
While he wants people to discover more about the Great Famine, the whole point of his project is that it isn’t brushed over as merely a sizeable number of people leaving Ireland and travelling to new lands.
There were 604,596 recorded arrivals to the port of New York between 1846 and 1851, and the overwhelming majority of these were Irish. The arrival of so many foreign, mainly Catholic migrants in a short space of time – by 1850, New York had more Irishborn citizens than Dublin – created widespread anti-Irish sentiment.
Fast forward 165 years and the number of hate crimes recorded is on the up in many European countries, including Ireland and the UK, while right-wing populist groups are gaining more and more support. Phil realises that getting people to focus on the individual stories rather than the movements as a whole isn’t an all-encompassing practical solution.
He is under no illusions that, for the benefit of all parties, the migration crisis needs to be properly managed. He hopes, however, that through things like his twitter project, people will learn to take a step back, look at migration in a different light and, ultimately, stem the negativity.
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