Journeying Together: Challenges Facing the Migrant Today

Irish Catholic Bishops Councils for Immigrants and Emigrants Migrant ConferenceBack in February 2014, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Councils for Immigrants and Emigrants hosted a conference in Dublin looking at Journeying Together: Challenges Facing the Migrant Today. The full speeches are available on the Irish Council of Churches / Irish Inter-Church Meeting website.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin and Vice President of the Irish Bishops’ Conference addressed the conference. Amongst his remarks, he said:

Migration is an intrinsic part of the DNA of a globalised economy and a globalised world. People have a right to emigrate – though not a right to immigrate into any specific country. People who find that there is no hope for them within their own country will inevitably try to move to a country which offers promise – and may indeed even need them as part of the labour force. For many, however, that promise may end up in exploitation both regarding the manner in which they get to another country and regarding the welcome that they receive. In the long run, however, a global economy based on freedom of movement of goods and services will unavoidably require a level of freedom of movement of people. The question is how such movement can be healthily managed, rather than be left to the invisible hand of economic need or an equally hidden hand of the exploitation of people.

He spoke of the local context:

Irish immigration laws are complex and the culture of Irish immigration policy is often ambivalent. Ireland needs foreign direct investment, and as part of that need there is openness to welcoming highly qualified immigrants, in areas like information technology, research and health care. But Ireland is less friendly to the less skilled; we have in part an ambivalent “green card” immigration culture. Our processes for recognition of asylum are too long and restrictive. Trafficking of vulnerable people into Ireland is a significant problem and it is vital that the underlying organisations behind trafficking be tackled and be successfully prosecuted. Ireland should be in the forefront in international cooperation for the prevention of trafficking.

Ireland is a country with a long tradition of emigration and we must be grateful for the manner in which other countries, at times of greatest difficulty in our history, welcomed Irish immigrants. Ireland with such a history and indeed a live memory of welcome and protection by other countries should have a clear policy on welcoming refugees from particularly dramatic situations, such as Syria. Our Asylum policy in such emergencies should not just be calculatingly politically correct but “Flathúlach”.

He finished by recalling the words of Pope Francis visiting Lampedusa where numerous deaths had taken place among migrants fleeing misery and poverty:

Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours? Nobody! That is our answer: It isn’t me; I don’t have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me.

Yet God is asking each of us: “Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?” Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: “poor soul…!”, and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged.

The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalised world, we have fallen into globalised indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!

Stefan Kessler is the Policy and Advocacy Officer for the Jesuit Refugee Service Europe began by suggesting that when “the Apostle Saint Paul, on one of his many journeys came to Malta as a castaway” he was “one of the very early ‘boat people’”.

Civilisation in Europe has always been dependent on immigration, on the influence from outside, on people bringing their culture and knowledge to this continent. In times of rising xenophobia, of attempts to close the European borders against migrants, we should remind ourselves and everybody else about these facts.

He told the story of an Iraqi woman Hadiyah.

One day armed men invaded her village and kidnapped her two sons, aged 16 and 18, along with the other young men in the region. A week later the boys were brought back and killed in front of their parents. Hadiyah’s outspoken condemnation of this atrocity led to numerous death threats, forcing her husband and two daughters to another village and Hadiyah out of Iraq with their 12-year-old son.

They arrived to Ireland in the hope of finding protection. Instead Hadiyah was arrested and imprisoned for not having the right documents. Her son was taken by social workers and put in the care of the social service.

“Why are they doing this to me, to us?” Hadiyah cried to a JRS worker. “I was told my son and I would be safe, that my husband and two daughters would come later. But instead I am in prison. I do not know where my son is being kept. My other two sons are in a grave in Iraq. I do not know where my husband and daughters are. I just want to die.”

He concluded:

What we and other organisations are calling for is, in effect, that European states replace the race for stinginess by a competition for hospitality, based on the respect for human dignity. For sure, not only migrants themselves but also our societies in Europe would benefit in terms of social cohesion and solidarity.

Cecilia Taylor-Camara is the Senior Policy Adviser for the Office for Migration Policy of the Catholic Church in England & Wales. She told conference delegates:

Migration is a fundamental part of our human history that can be either voluntary or involuntary and presents benefits as well as challenges. In voluntary migration, people choose and gravitate towards opportunities, sometimes for survival, employment, education, health, tourism, or a safe and secure environment. Involuntary migration on the other hand, is often marked by spontaneous, unplanned and perilously agonising journeys. Many migrants are forced to leave their homes due to poverty, war, persecution or natural disasters. For example the tragic conflict in Syria or the ferocious, unrelenting floods that devastated some parts of the UK, particularly in the South West forced many people out of their homes to other parts of the country, on a journey they did not foresee when the ushered in the year 2014.

She spoke at length of her own journey from Sierra Leonne to the UK, and her experience within the faith communities she encountered.

Our Christian faith is shaped by the story of migration. In the Old Testament we read of the Exodus when “the Lord brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt” (Exod 12:51). In the New Testament we have the account of the Holy Family seeking sanctuary in Egypt. The question is whether we as a church will act as the Innkeeper and turn the stranger away or relegate them to the stable, or as the Three Kings did, welcoming the stranger and offer them gifts? I am positive that Saint Joseph did not have a work permit, nor was the donkey in quarantine. Even the scripture is silent on whether the Blessed Virgin had the baby Jesus’ Birth Certificate.

Today, we live in a world with frontiers that some of us find increasingly difficult to cross, with or without the right documents. The frontiers of our own minds that guard socially unacceptable prejudices are even more difficult to cross. Some of us work and live in hostile environments where a demonstrable commitment to being a Christian is in itself a challenge.

She added:

We fail to realise that we could learn a lot from the migrant communities that will enrich our churches, if we deepen our knowledge on migration, especially on integration through the Church.

Many migrants come here, not out of choice, but due to circumstances beyond their control. My family was settled in Sierra Leone. My husband was a lawyer and I a manager with ActionAid. We lived a moderate but contented lifestyle. It was not within our immediate plan to uproot ourselves and our children, be rid of all our belongings, our families, friends and lifestyle, to come and live in a Council flat in London, relying on welfare benefits and milk tokens to make ends meet.

Migrants bring with them many skills and talents. If welcomed and given a chance they have a lot to contribute to the development of British and other EU countries. As my story shows, we as migrants are also have very deep devotions and religious convictions and want to contribute to the development of our churches or mosques or temples.

In conclusion, she posed questions to the delegates:

As a Church with experience in dealing with the global phenomenon of migration, how can we truly welcome newcomers as new neighbours?

How will my response to the need of migrants be measured?

What measures will my diocese take to facilitate the process of integration within our parishes?

How can migrants be positioned to serve the Catholic Church and community?

What examples of good practice can we share with each other?

How can the church create the space for migrants to experience and share the word of God in our lives?

What can we learn from other denominations?