“Human life has no value there”

Damian Jackson is programme officer for the Irish Council of Churches and co-led the recent CTBI delegation to visit refugee projects in Italy. He wrote the lead article for this week’s Church of Ireland Gazette. An abbreviated version of his article is reproduced below.

“Human life has no value there.”

Emmanuel was telling me of his experiences in Libya. He had travelled thousands of miles, fleeing poverty, desperate to find a place where he can work to provide for his family. He described how he was abducted and sold as he made his way through the country. He was forced to work on a construction site, essentially as a slave, to repay his “owner”. He was regularly beaten, showing me his scars, and was missing several teeth. What really stunned me though, as if enslavement wasn’t bad enough, was his account of his friend’s death. He said that an Arab “boy” had a gun and, for sport, forced his friend to stand still, put an egg on his head and, like William Tell, shot at the egg.

But he missed.

I spoke to Emmanuel last month when he was being held in the migration “hotspot” in Lampedusa while the Italian interior ministry decided where to send him and whether he should be accepted as a refugee.

I am reminded of Jesus’ interaction with the “expert of the law” in Luke 10. He challenged the superior and judgemental disposition that asked “who is my neighbour”. Rejecting human-made categories of nationality and status, Jesus told a story that forced the expert, and forces us, to identify what a neighbour is: the one who has mercy. We are to show mercy to those who are need it, not to discriminate between those who do and don’t deserve help based on human categories.

I was on the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost part of Italy. We were there to visit a project set up by Mediterranean HOPE, an initiative of the Italian Federation of Evangelical Churches (FCEI) which seeks to respond to the situation of migrants who have made the dangerous crossing from Libya.

While I heard shocking stories and saw first hand the suffering that results from injustices in our global system, I was nevertheless hugely encouraged by the work that God can do when his people trust him and faithfully respond to his calling. Although they are small in number, the Italian churches did so and God is blessing their work and blessing the people in Lampedusa, established and temporary, through it.

Our public discourse here judges who deserves compassion based on whether they have crossed a line arbitrarily drawn on a map. From our lofty heights we discern their intent: if they were fleeing persecution then they are “genuine” refugees. But poverty or hunger? Then they are scrounging economic migrants and we may justifiably wash our hands of them. As if our economic wellbeing here has nothing to do with their poverty there.

In Lampedusa a small number of people refused to judge based on these human-made categories. Seeing how God worked through them encouraged me and challenged me, but also gave me great hope. They simply responded to the need before them, as a neighbour should.

You can read the full article in the paper or online (£) version of the Church of Ireland Gazette.

Photo: Damian Jackson