Migrants – Talk by Peter Sutherland
(Peter Sutherland is the UN special representative for International migration. Recently appointed by Pope Francis as President of the Catholic International Migration Commission. This talk formed part of the National Novena to our Lady of Knock on Monday August 17th.)
The gospel asks the question “Who is thy neighbour”. Well there is no room for ambiguity, let alone opposition amongst Christians and Catholics in particular to the phenomenon of migration. The mass movement of people is a challenge to all of us in our faith.
Our Catholic teaching is of course rooted in the Biblical account of the Jewish people’s movements including those of the holy family in the face of persecution. Indeed the earliest Christians described themselves from a Greek word meaning “resident alien”. In the first five books of the Bible the principle of “loving thy neighbour” is mentioned over 30 times. But far more importantly the principle of “the equality of man” and the “dignity of man” underpin the essential Christian belief in the human family as opposed to distinguishing between nationalities or tribes in terms of their qualities as persons. The universality of the Church, which has just been mentioned, is a key to this.
In over 130 yrs of formalised Catholic Social Teaching the Church’s message has been constant and clear. That clarity has its roots in the Bible. People are to be unified not divided on the basis of their shared values and not on the basis of national identities such as those which some have thought of in the past, as a basis for dividing humanity, nor through the promotion of ethnic loyalties calculated to engender xenophobia or racism or hatred of ones neighbour.
His holiness Pope Francis, in his encyclical letter Lumen Fidei has made the point that Faith should help us to understand our relationship to one another as God’s people. There are no frontiers or barriers political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalisation of indifference. So we must not in these times reject in particular those who are escaping from persecution, from war or from climatic disasters. As we know this rejection has been a feature of recent history in different parts of Europe. Some appear to wish to see it again in our times. Although it must be said, that this sentiment has not thank God, has not been evident in our own county.
Apart from our obligations under international law to grant asylum to the persecuted , our responsibilities as members of the human family and the Catholic Church oblige us to offer sanctuary and welcome to those in need. But beyond refugees and our obligations to them, the desperate plight of many economic migrants seeking a better life at grave risk to their own, as we have seen, should drive us to seek to open up new avenues to legal migration. Instead we hear a constant refrain for more border controls and for the erection of fences and walls.
Audio break ….
At a more mundane political level the European commissions proposals calls for a positive contribution from countries by sharing out their responsibilities rather than leaving it to the Italians and Greeks and those who are close to the disaster to handle, has brought favourable response from some quarters including here. But also people themselves have responded eg In June 230 churches in the Archdiocese ofCologne rang their bells 100 times. The resultant total of 23,000 peels were in fact death peels to remind people of the 23,000 people who had by then drowned in the Mediterranean since the year 2000 while trying to cross it. . These migrants were fleeing dreadful events. Many more have died since.
It is worth noting that Germany has been one of the best exemplars with Sweden, in the relative number of refugees, relative to population, that it has taken. Also various navies are rescuing the refugees and then brought to Italy and left there. This is less satisfactory. Why should the can be carried so to speak, by countries merely defined by their proximity to North Africa rather than by a sharing and a solidarity which would reflect the real Europe that we should be part of. Not every European state is prepared to offer those entitled to asylum the opportunity to avail of it.
So we have to reflect on this. And surely we here in Ireland should reflect on some of the worst moments of our own history. eg The Famine and the escape from Ireland and from this county indeed, of those fortunate to make it to North America and elsewhere and the fate of those who did not. There are also more dramatic stories that exemplify the failures of the past. One such story is the story of the ship the St. Louis which left Hamburg in May 1939 packed with Jewish refugees. Having been turned away by Cuba, the USA, Canada, it came back across the Atlantic and some countries volunteered to take some of the 900 who were on the boat: the UK, the Netherlands, and France. Historian have estimated that after their return to Europe, approximately a quarter of the ships passengers subsequently perished in the Holocoust .
Pope Francis has also spoken about the responsibility of Catholics to be politically active. And in the light of this current crisis the subject of our response to the plight of migrants must surely be a priority in that activism right across Europe and elsewhere. It absolutely would conform to the obligations imposed upon us by the faith in which we believe.
NB: The talk on Utube had a few audio breaks which lead to a few disruptions in the flow to this text. I have substituted my interpretation of some of the blanks audio spots by typing in italics. You can watch the talk itself (18 minutes into the video) by clicking on the following link: Peter Sutherland Talk
Songs of Praise from Calais
The migrants in Calais featured in the BBC’s longest running religious programme Songs of Praise which was broadcast from the French port last Sunday. The Guardian reported that the programme showed presenter Sally Magnusson visibly affected when walking through the middle of the migrant camp which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the past weeks.
Camp authorities reported that when the migrants arrived the first thing they want to do was to build a church. The makeshift church built by Christians including Ethiopian Orthodox in the camp is named St Michael’s. Makers of the BBC programme had been criticised for going to Calais but went with a view to showing the real people and churchgoers that are present in the notorious camp which has been named ‘The Jungle’ and is home to some 3,000 people.
Many Church leaders in the UK supported the decision to film in Calais. Their support is ongoing and collections of food, clothing and other necessities are underway in parishes throughout the country, but especially in the South East which is closest to Calais. In Kent, a Catholic group is taking donations from churches and faith communities and through the Seeking Sanctuary charity taking them to the Secours Catholique warehouse.
Ten days ago the Bishop for Migrants said he was “deeply concerned over the deepening humanitarian crisis in Calais.” In a statement, Bishop Patrick Lynch said, “The crisis has developed over a decade and challenges us all, both as Christians and as Europeans. We must face up to this reality at various levels.” He recognised the local pastoral, humanitarian, and compassionate response from the French Church and called on the French authorities to redouble their efforts in providing adequate reception facilities for migrants. He also acknowledged the work done by faith organisations in France and the UK together with charities, agencies and the great generosity of families and individuals to the relief efforts. “The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales will be making a material contribution to those efforts,” he said. He added that that the answer to the current migrant crisis lies beyond Calais.
The UNCHR indicate that in the first six months of this year, 137,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea, while 2014 estimates for the same period was 75,000. He concluded that while there is no easy solution “governments, charities and humanitarian aid agencies should be encouraged to work together for a collaborative international response”, together with the countries of origin.