Speeches from conference Journeying Together: Challenges Facing the Migrant Today
Today the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Councils for Immigrants and Emigrants jointly hosted a conference in Jury’s Inn, Custom House Quay, Dublin, entitled Journeying Together: Challenges Facing the Migrant Today. Please see below the speeches from:
– Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin and Vice President of the Irish Bishops’ Conference;
– Mr Stefan Kessler, Policy and Advocacy Officer for the Jesuit Refugee Service, Europe;
– Ms Cecilia Taylor-Camara, Senior Policy Adviser, Office for Migration Policy of the Catholic Church in England & Wales.
Address by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
Click below for audio version of address
10th anniversary of Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi Journeying Together Challenges: Facing the Migrant Today
Just two weeks ago the population of Switzerland voted, in a referendum, by a narrow margin to place a cap on overall immigration into the country, including the immigration of citizens of the European Union, with which Switzerland has agreements on the freedom of movement of each other’s citizens.
The vote went against the indications given by the Swiss government and the opinion of Swiss business and industry interests, who felt that their country needed workers, especially highly qualified workers in order for its modern economy to flourish in today’s global context.
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.
It will not have escaped anyone that Pope Francis after his election decided to make his first journey outside Rome to the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is in many ways a symbol of how the aspirations of those who seek a better chance for themselves and for their children have been exploited. Hundreds have died on their journey across the Mediterranean, many of them women and children. People have been forced to spend their entire savings and those of their families to exploitative ship owners, if ship is the appropriate term. Great credit is due to the people of that small island who have done much to provide an initial welcome to immigrants and whose own tourist based economy has genuinely suffered.
Migration is an intrinsic part of the DNA of a globalised economy and a globalised world, yet negative reaction to the Swiss vote on capping immigration was at best mooted and in many cases the results were taken up with discreet approval. Leaders in France and in Britain and in other European countries – especially those where there are to be local elections in the near future – showed even a veiled satisfaction as they looked at the Swiss initiative. Britain wishes to renegotiate part of the European treaties focusing in particular on the question of immigration; yet freedom of movement is a fundamental and untouchable part of a package of treaties on freedom of movement of goods and services, of people, and information at the centre of the very idea of the European Union.
Immigration is an election issue in this year of European elections. People are fearful about loss of jobs and loss of national identity. Those who wish to limit immigration speak not in terms of opening borders to immigrants, but of floodgates and massive movement of the unemployable, of welfare seekers, of the culturally un-integrate-able, and of criminals and terrorists.
These discussions constitute welcome ammunition for those who espouse anti-European sentiment in some countries. We are fortunate in Ireland that we have never had a strong anti-European or anti-immigrant political current. This does mean that anti-immigration thought could never, and indeed does not ever, arise. We should be carrying on a constant on-going examination of conscience to look more clearly at our attitude to immigration and to immigrants. We have to be alert to the first signs of racism or xenophobia. We have to be aware of the areas where there is subtle discrimination against immigrants. We have to enhance democratic and transparent judicial control of processes. We have to identify and speak out at signs of polices which place immigrants and their children at disadvantage.
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”.
Irish immigration policy is inevitably linked with that of the United Kingdom and at times one has the feeling that Ireland goes out of its way to avoid giving any impression that we are “wetter” than Britain on immigration. This is a not a totally unrealistic position. We do not want the freedom of movement between Britain and Ireland to be exploited by elements of organised crime or terrorism. Ireland and Britain have a different policy concerning the Schengen Agreement, but Ireland could not enter the Schengen Agreement on its own without reconstructing the border between North and South – something that is politically a no-go thought. Britain and Ireland are linked, but Ireland should not be just following along trends in Britain. Both today and especially tomorrow if anti-immigration policies became more vocal in Britain, Ireland should been seen to take a lead in matters of constructive managed immigration which is good for both countries.
I welcome this Conference because it is a forum in which part of that examination of conscience of which I spoke can take place and where we can look calmly and rationally at all dimensions of the theme of migration, placing at its centre the fact that immigrants are men and women with their rights and dignity. For the Catholic Church, immigration must be guided by that Caritas Christi which is in the title of the document of the Pontifical Council for Migration and Tourism whose anniversary we celebrate today. Reflecting the charity of Christ means that we build a global culture marked by a genuine and caring encounter with the other.
The Churches have a special role in welcoming and integrating immigrants. Immigrants are people with their own culture and religious traditions. People have a right to be able to worship in their own traditions. Here in Dublin we have Mass on most Sundays in wide variety of languages, and we have a lively presence of other Christian Churches, especially of the Orthodox Tradition. We learn from each other and we enrich one another. Here in Dublin in the Roman Catholic Church we have celebrated an annual Festival of Peoples for some years now and the Church of Ireland has a strong outreach to immigrants of various backgrounds. Relations with the Islamic leaders and communities are warm and open.
In speaking of immigration the term integration is one which must be understood correctly. Integration does not mean that immigrants must immediately become “more Irish then the Irish themselves”, to use the phrase of my old school books. Migrants retain their own culture and identity and they have every right to share the richness of their culture with their children. However the experience of other countries has also shown the limits of the policy of “multi-culturalism”. Multi-culturalism can over stress the specific identity of immigrant cultures and thus generate a sort of parallelism of cultures, which can then – especially in the midst of poor social and housing policy – create a ghettosim, either physical or cultural. Ghettos will only build up walls of division, rather than break down barriers of misunderstanding. Integration of immigrants involves both respect for cultural difference as well as a sharing of common values within the culture of the receiving country.
Emigrants represent an injection of fervour and renewal in our Churches. Often in Dublin if you see a group of young people at Mass they may well turn out to be a group of immigrants. The Church in Ireland has benefitted from such an injection of enthusiasm and hope.
The argument is very often used that the different ethnic mix in modern Ireland means that our system of denominational schools is no longer appropriate. I am very much in favour of greater diversity in the patronage of schools, but the fact is also that most immigrants to Ireland are very religious and would wish their children to have an education with a strong religious rather than a secular ethos.
Those of us who have memories wave of the Irish emigration to Britain in the 1950’s will know just how much those emigrants were supported by the presence of Irish chaplaincies and centres in Britain, which offered them pastoral support and the warmth of a home from home. Many of the more vulnerable immigrants to Ireland today – especially men who are separated from their families – need that same kind of support, especially if their language skills in English are limited.
At a Church-sponsored conference like this, I feel that I can particularly stress the challenge of the pastoral care and the on-going faith formation of immigrant Catholic communities. Immigrants, when they are far from home, can very quickly – also because of the complex and long hours they work and the different religious culture – lose contact with their religious roots. This is a special responsibility of the Church of the receiving country, but requires contact with the authorities of the sending Church and the help of specialised emigrant chaplaincies, which are not just social welfare agencies but part of the Gospel outreach of the Church.
Emigration has a long history in Irish culture. I remember in particular the emigration of the 1950’s and ‘60’s. My own father emigrated for some years in the 1950’s. In the 1960’s I remember how the numbers of vulnerable Irish emigrants to Britain was high. As a seminarian I followed the path of many young men who had left Artane or other Industrial Schools at 16 and within a short time were off to Britain with little or no money or qualification or personal anchor in life. The numbers of Irish in British prisons was very high. Many drifted from menial job to menial job or simply lost employment. Many today still find themselves alone and lonely with little or no community support. They must not be allowed to become forgotten or worse abandoned Irish.
At other times emigration became a sort of safety valve within the Irish economy as employment became scarce. Today we have once again a situation of high emigration and a very high proportion of Irish emigrants is composed of third level graduates. It is sad to watch at Christmas the toing and froing of young Irish emigrants who come home to their families and a few days later must sadly go away once again from the country which had educated them but has not been able to provide them with sustainable employment. At the same time there was many an empty chair last Christmas in homes right across Ireland.
One of the major challenges for our government is that of addressing the challenge of high youth unemployment in Ireland. Our figures are lower than those of many countries in continental Europe, but if one builds into the statistics the level of recent youth emigration then the instance of real youth joblessness is higher. Jobs are created not by governments but by entrepreneurship and business. But government has to ensure a favourable environment for the creation of youth employment.
Ireland has high quotas of talented young entrepreneurs, but I often hear of the difficulties they encounter, for example, in getting finance to start of business. It is vital for employment to ensure that entrepreneurship and creativity can flourish among the young. But we have also to ensure that job opportunity reaches out to the less advantaged in society. Our educational system has to foster creativity but also equity and inclusiveness for the marginalised. The creation of employment for young people will help stem emigration and will also, as was the case until the recent crisis, encourage the return of successful Irish talent to our economy.
Migration is an intrinsic part of the DNA of a globalised economy and a globalised world. Do we really accept this and what are the consequences? At the root of this affirmation is not just a reflection on the nature of a globalised economy. At the root of this affirmation is the fundamental principle of the interdependence of all of us as members of the one human family. When God created humankind he created us as a family, with obligations and responsibilities toward each other.
Pope Francis has continually stressed what happens when this interdependence in responsibility is rejected. He speaks of a “globalization of indifference” which can only be changed by a broad based change of attitude. He says that “a change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.”
This is not just a political appeal, but a real call to a change of hearts. A culture of encounter is never an armchair culture, where – maybe even with wisdom and perception – we observe realities from a safe distance, ensconced in our own comfort zone.
Pope Francis spoke very forcefully on this when he visited Lampedusa and recalled the numerous deaths that had taken place among migrants fleeing misery and poverty. You will allow me to quote at some length:
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 globalized world, we have fallen into globalized 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!
Pope Francis recalled a figure in the work of the Italian writer Manzoni. The figure’s name was “the Unnamed”. The Pope adds: “The globalization of indifference makes us all ‘unnamed’, responsible, yet nameless and faceless”.
My hope is that this Conference will arouse within the Church not just political concern, but a real change of attitude. The Church must be a space where real human concern reaches out from our hearts to the migrant or the refugee as a brother and sister and embraces the migrant really with that “Caritas Christi” which is the mark of the Christian life.
If we do not change attitude and heart then we will work on the calculations of narrow economic self-interest and the thought patterns behind the Swiss referendum will become a model that is approved and will spread.”
Address by Stefan Kessler, Jesuit Refugee Service Europe
Race for Stinginess or Competition for Hospitality?
The European experience
Europa, the patron of our continent, was a princess from what is today Turkey who came as a migrant to Greece.
The Apostle Saint Paul, on one of his many journeys, came to Malta as a castaway, as one of the very early ‘boat people’.
These stories remind us that 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.
The current policies in the European Union and its Member States are far away from reflecting these facts. This is illustrated by the story of Hadiyah and her family.
Hadiyah is from Iraq. 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.”
Such cases are reported not only from Ireland but from many other European Union Member States as well. You could get the impression that there is a race for stinginess among Member States, a contest on who is treating protection-seekers worst.
The examples are legion:
• indiscriminate ‘push backs’ at the external borders of the EU by, for instance, Greece, Italy, Malta;
• social exclusion resulting in destitution, for example the ‘Direct Provision’ system in Ireland, the refuse of social assistance to recognised refugees in Italy;
• detention of asylum-seekers and vulnerable migrants almost everywhere in Europe, even resulting in an increased vulnerability of these persons;
and so on and so forth …
In 2014 the European Union will set the agenda for the forthcoming years in the area of Freedom, Security and Justice, including asylum and migration policies. This next phase represents an opportunity for Europe to articulate a new vision in this area and act in the spirit of its founding values: respect for human dignity and human rights, pluralism, non-discrimination, solidarity and equality. To do so is essential for the creation of an open and inclusive Europe where migrants and refugees are protected.
You have been provided with copies of a statement that the ‘Christian Group’ has recently made in this context. The ‘Christian Group’ is a coalition of faith-based organisations working on European level on migration and asylum. We have called for concrete measures to be taken in order to ensure protection in Europe for those who need it.
Allow me to take three examples that are closely related to the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service:
Access to protection:
Procedures and mechanisms that ensure the proper identification of and rendering assistance to intercepted migrants in need of protection must be established. Over the past years, tens of thousands of people have tried to escape the human rights violations or other dangers for their life in their countries of origin and find protection in Europe. They often failed. Almost every week, we receive news about a boat with hundreds of refugees having foundered and its passengers barely rescued or even drowned. The European Union and its Member States are for years making every endeavour to close their common borders to “unwanted” immigrants.
We call for a change:
• Referral mechanisms to protection and procedures for asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants must be established at the external borders;
• EU and national laws must de-criminalise rendering assistance by ship-masters.
Alternatives to detention:
We are strongly advocating for the creation and use of alternatives to immigration detention. In most cases immigration detention is mostly unnecessary because governments can instead use more humane and cost-effective alternatives. These alternatives are policies, practices or legislation that allows asylum-seekers and migrants to live in the community while having their fundamental rights to liberty upheld. Detention should become an abnormal and exceptional measure that should rarely be taken. Governments should presume that they can handle a migrant’s case in the community instead of locking them up, which leads to much pain and suffering for those who experience it.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to alternatives. The basis is a migrants right to liberty. Governments and NGOs should work together to develop alternatives that meet this condition while maintaining the efficiency of migration procedures.
The practice in some EU Member States shows that alternatives actually work: Belgium, for example, no longer detains undocumented migrant families, instead placing them in community housing. Families stay together and maintain their privacy while receiving individualised support from the state. The vast majority of families keep their commitments to the authorities without being coerced. Local NGOs hail it as a success.
Access to social rights:
Where a Member State does not respect its obligations under the international law instruments with regard to the respect and fulfillment of economic and social rights of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees, it violates the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights.
We urge the European institutions and the Member States to develop precise standards and policies that ensure
• that at least children have proper access to basic education;
• that every migrant irrespective of status is entitled to primary and secondary health care;
• that migrants, including undocumented migrants, have access to accommodation that respects their rights to private and family life, and that providers of emergency shelter are not criminalized for providing accommodation;
• that the public relief services at least cover the basic needs of migrants so that they can have a life in dignity. Most notably, they must cover the special needs of vulnerable migrants such as special food for the elderly or the ill, or aid for persons with disabilities.
We also call for asylum seekers to be given effective access to the national labour markets and migrants being provided the opportunity to ‘regularize’ their status through labour opportunities, i.e. if migrants have access to a job, then their residence permit should remain valid.
Every migrant, including those without residence status, should be able to use the mechanisms provided in national law to effectively claim outstanding payment for work. This includes access to counselling services and Labour Courts.
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.
Address Ms Cecilia Taylor-Camara
“Journeying Together: Challenges Facing the Migrant Today”
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.
The journey and experience of migrants like most human endeavours can be diverse. Similarly, the needs of migrants are varied. The response of the Church to the needs of migrants has always focused on their dignity and well-being, and it is commendable that the International Organisation for Migration, World Migration Report 2013: Migrant Well-being and Development, contributes to the global debate in three ways;
Firstly it focuses on the migrant, and how migration affects a person’s well-being. The approach examines how migration affects a person’s quality of life and their human development across a wide spectrum.
Secondly it draws on the findings of a unique source of data – the Gallup World Poll surveys, conducted in over 150 countries, to assess the well-being of migrants for the first time.
Thirdly it sheds new light on how migrants rate their lives, whether they live in high income country in the North or low or middle income country in the South. The report considers four migration pathways from South to North, South to South, North to North and North to South.
The first point, focus on the migrant is compelling as it explores a different approach, away from the traditional focus on the impact of economic motives in particular remittances, and complements the Church’s position on migration, which as in other fields of human endeavour emphasis that the dignity of the person prevails over economic, social or political calculations. The well-being of the individual, the family and society continues to underpin the work of the Church.
In the document Mission of the Church to Migrants in England and Wales, the Bishops of England and Wales acknowledge that:
“Over the last few years, there has been a transformation of the social character of the dioceses in England and Wales. Across the country in all our dioceses, we have migrants from nearly every continent in the world, adding people and vibrancy to our parishes. We the Bishops of England and Wales have been considering this new social reality with a view to issuing a statement calling for a more visible culture of welcome, hospitality and solidarity with our migrant sisters and brothers in God’s family. We recognise and celebrate their rich cultural and spiritual patrimony and the ways in which they are enriching us as they join us in our parishes and dioceses. This statement, ‘Mission of the Church to Migrants in England and Wales’ is the result”.
The document is a public and profound statement of the Church’s pastoral care for migrants in England and Wales it has become a template for the Church’s work. The document highlights Britain’s long tradition of welcoming and showing hospitality to migrants during times of political and social upheaval in other parts of Europe. It extends the discussion to the recognition of the contribution of migrants from former colonies who were called upon to help the post Second World War reconstruction of the socio-economic and infrastructural foundation of the country. The key beneficiaries of this planned migration the Bishops identified were: construction, car and transport industries, as well as health and other social services of the country.
The document states that “The concern of the Catholic Church regarding the reception and treatment of migrants, and on the related question of community relations, dates as far back as the 19th century. From Cardinal Henry Manning (1865 – 1892) to Cardinal Basil Hume (1976 – 1999), the leaders of the Catholic Church have always spoken out in defence of migrants and founded Church based structures for their pastoral care. In 1968, Cardinal John Heenan joined Dr Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in condemning the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act aimed at preventing the entry of Asians expelled from Kenya; the Act was also meant to exclude migrants from other Asian and Black Commonwealth countries. In 1984, The Bishops’ Conference set up the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ) to empower and support Black and ethnic minority Catholics who migrated from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean”.
It was fitting therefore, that on the 22 June 2008, CARJ in partnership with London Baptist Association, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and Thurrock Council in Essex organised an event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the “Windrush” from the Caribbean. The event was a commemoration of that journey, the arrival of the first group of immigrants from the Caribbean answering the appeal by the British government to help to rebuild the UK in 1948 after the Second World War. The participation of the Catholic Church was a significant recognition of the contribution of people from the Caribbean to the Church and British Society.
A significant part of the work of the Bishops in England and Wales is about giving visibility to the needs of migrants, raising awareness and translating that awareness into action that strengthens the Church’s response to migrants. Much of this work, of which I am proud to be part of, is about reaching out to support vulnerable groups of migrants, enabling migrants to become fully part of the Church and the local community and to continue to nourish an attitude and spirituality of welcome in our dioceses, in our parishes and in our schools.
My journey as a migrant started in Africa during one of the world’s most brutal civil wars that was characterised by amputations, in a country historically referred to as the ‘Whiteman’s Grave’ and was known to be the home of freed slaves from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
On 25 May 1997, the civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa (my home country), reached its pinnacle when Freetown, the capital city, fell into the hands of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Freetown was under siege and its citizens were helpless. My family was housebound under the barrage of AK47 gun shots and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). We lived near the military ordinance, a prime target of the RUF. Bullets were fired indiscriminately from the military ordinance directly opposite our house. Two stray bullets landed in our living room as our house was within the area of military operation. I had just removed the cushion from the sofa when one of the bullets missed my head by a hair’s breath. It was a near death experience for me.
I reached out for my Bible, looked over the hills from behind the curtains and prayed the words of Psalm 121:1 with deep conviction:
“I will lift mine eyes unto the hills from whence comes my help,
My help comes from the Lord which made heaven and earth”.
A week later the British Government assessed the situation as ‘very serious’ and advised its nationals to leave the country. The British High Commission in Freetown organised the evacuation of non-essential staff, their dependents and other British nationals who wanted to leave. My husband advised that I leave the country and take the children to safety while we could. The family was forced to be separated and I embarked on a perilous journey by land, sea and air with my two children, then aged two and four years old.
Initially I was denied access to board the vessel to Conakry, the capital of neighbouring Guinea, because I had a Sierra Leonean passport. My children had EU passports so they could travel – but unaccompanied by their Sierra Leonean mother as the evacuation was for British nationals only. I was however assured that the children would be looked after on the journey I looked at my children, squeezed their palms into mine as if for the last time, and thought I could not be separated from them.
I pleaded with the British commanding officer not to be separated from my children who were already traumatised by the events of the previous week. Fortunately God touched his heart and he allowed me to travel with my children. The three of us were evacuated by a French Naval vessel to Conakry, and then to the UK on a special flight to Stansted airport. I arrived at Stanstead with the children on 2 June 1997.
My husband arrived after a week and we were reunited as a family. However, that week long separation seemed like the longest week in my life. My husband brought with him just one holdall after living and working in Sierra Leone for fifteen years. He was unable to retrieve the only suitcase we had packed for the emergency (containing our valuables and important documents) as the rebels had invaded and taken over the area where we hid the suitcase.
My family never expected to be away from home (Sierra Leone) for more than a few months – hoping the situation would calm down and normalise. This year marks seventeen years since that lucky escape and I am pleased to be here to share our story, in particular our faith experiences and the role the Church has played in the life of my family.
Like most people fleeing war, we were instantly divorced from our possessions. We also had no money. Everything we had earned we had to leave behind. As victims of war, for the first time in our lives we began to experience life as refugees. Stripped of all material acquisitions and documentation, we acknowledged our new status and identity. My husband and our children were British, I was a foreigner, but we all had the same experience of being strangers.
As believers, we did what one does in such situations – we sought to focus on our faith as the certainty of life faded on the horizon. We had total dependence on God for His provision and I had no misgivings that God was in control of our circumstances. After all, God had spared my life, gave me the opportunity to flee impending danger with my children despite the obstacles that were put in my way. I knew He would not fail me.
For two years we moved from temporary accommodation to temporary accommodation. It was quite unsettling. Finally, in 1999, we were placed in permanent accommodation in North London.
While in temporary accommodation we looked for a church, searching for a space where we could find succour. As a Catholic, the hope was that the church would be the conduit through which our hopes and aspirations would be kept alive. The church would be a life-support system for me. We found two churches nearby, a Roman Catholic Church and a Baptist Church. I have been closely associated with both churches for the past sixteen years.
Our first visit to the Catholic Church, was typically in keeping with our Catholic tradition. The closest sign of welcome was a cool, impersonal hand shake when we shared the Lord’s Peace. At the end of Mass nobody spoke to us. We felt like strangers, alone and unwelcome. There was nothing in place to make us feel at home.
In contrast, our first visit to the Baptist church, my family felt very welcome. We were greeted with the evangelical tradition of being asked to stand up in the congregation and shake hands with the people around us. My children enjoyed the welcome and attention they received. We were invited to enter our names and addresses in the welcome book. We were invited to stay after the service for tea and coffee to meet with other members of the congregation. We were given a welcome pack detailing service times and some of the activities they provided. I was invited to take my two year old son to the play group on Tuesday mornings. Within a short while, we were written to by the church. It was a splendid environment to be in.
I made friends from other groups in the Baptist church. I spent Tuesday mornings at the Baptist church play group with my two year old son. It was free. I became a regular visitor to the Monday evening prayer group and I enjoyed the bible study and faith-sharing experiences. It was relaxing, inspirational and I really felt like a member of this church.
One of the earliest hurdles we faced as migrants was in the field of education. As parents who had benefitted from Catholic education in boarding schools in Sierra Leone, we wanted a Catholic education for our children. The local parish school would only admit our children if we could prove they were baptised Catholics. Due to the way we left Sierra Leone, we were unable to provide this. We were told that in the absence of the baptismal certificates, a priest’s testimony would suffice that we were practising Catholics. We thought this was an impossible and unreasonable request given our circumstances. I wondered whether we would be given the opportunity to explain a situation that was considered implausible or inconsistent. Whilst I knew a number of priests who had returned to England and Ireland, I had no contact addresses for any of them, coupled with the fact that we had arrived without the children’s baptismal certificates in a war situation.
Fortunately I learnt that the late Cannon Herbert Veale was a former parish priest at a Church in Enfield, North London. I knew Fr Veale very well in Freetown. I had worked with him in Sierra Leone. He was Spiritual Director of the Young Christian Student Movement (YCS) in Sierra Leone, when I was National co-ordinator of the organisation. He was chief celebrant at my wedding and I had my wedding certificate to prove it (one of the few documents I did have, and held on to tightly). Was this divine providence? Needless to say we were able to provide credible evidence of our being Catholics. Our daughter started school at St Edmund’s RC school.
The impact of the welcome at the Baptist church was tremendous – made all the more appealing when compared to that of the Catholic Church. My husband and the children were won over and preferred to go to the Baptist church and I was quite fearful of losing them to this ‘new’ Christian community.
At heart I am Catholic. ‘If only this model could be replicated in my parish,’ was what I truly wished for. Alas the church as it was then – steeped in tradition. Notwithstanding this, the proximity of St Edmund’s Church to our home, being about five minutes away, made it easy for me to resist the temptation of the Baptist church. All I did was go to Mass every morning after dropping the kids off at school. Starting my day with the celebration of the Eucharist was essential for my spiritual growth.
Despite its shortcomings, I desired to be an active participant in parish life in St Edmunds. I had worked for the Catholic Church in Sierra Leone, and wanted to get involved with my local church in my new country – but without proof of my credentials how would anyone believe my unsupported testimony? I did not feel comfortable to approach any priest and tell them what skills or experiences I had to offer.
One morning I was asked to do the First Reading at Mass. Shortly afterwards, I responded to a call for volunteers to staple the booklets for Holy Week. I began to feel a sense of purpose and belonging in the parish community. A few weeks later the parish priest asked to see me in the sacristy after Mass. It was the first day I entered the sacristy and he asked if I would like to become a Catechist for the Saturday class. The course was especially designed for Catholic children who attend non Catholic schools. This was a breakthrough. My reply was an emphatic “Yes Father”.
I served my parish as a Catechist for twelve years. It was a very rewarding experience and I believe that I received as much as I gave to the children over the period of 12 years. Our children became Altar Servers and, my daughter was also a catechist for confirmation class. On some Sundays my entire family serves our parish in various capacities contributing to the liturgy and other roles of service.
As a Catechist I gradually became actively involved in my church with a wider circle of friends within and outside the church. I welcomed every opportunity to participate in every event I could. I also took much interest in sharing my faith experiences within my parish community, when given the opportunity. The experience of co-ordinating the Westminster Diocesan Renewal Programme ‘At Your Word Lord’ in my parish gave me an opportunity to meet other parishioners and make friends and helped me recover my sense of self-worth. Later, I was introduced to a number of other Sierra Leoneans in church. I found out which Mass they attended and what parish events they were involved in. Their children became friends of mine and we the mothers helped each other with childcare. I was building a very vital social network and gravitating towards other migrants many of them settled migrants in the UK for many years.
Nearly seventeen years on and my experiences at Saint Edmund’s have changed a great deal for the better. I now share peace with much warmth and affection partly from being more involved in parish life and its activities and from knowing many more people. I can now put names to faces and that makes a huge difference. I am a fully-fledged member of the church. But this took much much longer than I had ever anticipated.
My current involvement in parish life may have been fortuitous and may have happened by accident or destiny. I am aware however, that my experiences may not be shared by other migrant families in our, or other parishes. I am even more acutely aware that God has indeed blessed me and my family. My husband and I are gainfully employed. We live in our own house. Our daughter graduated in Psychology from Sussex University in July 2013 and our son started reading Law at Nottingham University in October 2013 – all of this in over 16 years.
Unfortunately not all migrants can share a similar story.
Currently I work as senior policy adviser in the Office for Migration Policy of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. I use as a template the recommendations of Bishops’ document to be a truly welcoming Church. To assess ways in which the Catholic Church can help communities connect with, belong to and participate in social, cultural, religious and economic networks in Britain today. The Bishops are committed to ensuring protection for the most vulnerable migrants and facilitate their integration into British society. With the support of a network of Ethnic Chaplains the Church is able to reach out to marginalised communities.
The celebration of the Migrants Mass at Westminster Cathedral in London on feast of Saint Joseph the worker is a yet another public statement of Pastoral support for migrants in England and Wales. These models of good practice can be replicated in other parts of the world.
A significant part of my brief is to work in the area of combating human trafficking – raising awareness of this heinous crime through training days and conferences on a local, national and international level, I have helped in the development of a play on trafficking and co-ordinated an international Day of Prayer on the Feast Day of Saint Josephine Bakhita (8 February) for all victims and survivors of human trafficking and those involved in anti-trafficking work. I also monitor and prepare briefs on migration to enable the Bishops to develop policy and respond to timely issues.
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.
It is increasingly apparent that many people are immune to the plight of refugees. Television pictures hold the attention of people as scenes in the troubled spots of the world unfold, and after a couple of days they switch off as other situations take priority. Once the limelight dims, people in those troubled lands are left to fight their own battles against the elements or tyrannical governments.
Some politicians and the media portray migrants as intruders and exploiters who come to exploit the health and welfare services of the EU, not as people fleeing persecution or natural disasters. No wonder then the host communities believe the spin and treat or respond to migrants in similar manner to that which the biblical people treated lepers or Samaritans.
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.
We look to the Church for solace and friendship. It is however very difficult when the Church appears not to live Our Lords commandment to “Love thy Neighbour” – when the Church fails to receive us or appears to spurn us. The danger in such circumstances is that, as my family almost did, we look elsewhere to where we find a welcoming smile, a hot cup of tea and a pair of ears to listen to us. The Baptist church I mentioned understands this and so do many of the many evangelical churches we see springing up all over the place. As we know however, not all smiling and welcoming faces are sincere and we have all heard the stories of some of these new “churches” and mosques.
The Catholic Church has been around for thousands of years and has weathered many a storm and come out shining, but is it missing a trick here? Certainly there is recognition at the top of the Church hierarchy that there is much to be gained from migrants. That truly the Catholic Church is an engine for integration.
Bishop Patrick Lynch, Chair of the Office for Migration Policy said at a recent event;
“The Church especially in London, but also in many parts of the UK has been enormously enriched by the arrival of many immigrants who are very committed to their faith. Not only have immigrants increased the number of people attending Mass, but added to the vibrancy of the Liturgy. Many of our parish communities now reflect very visibly the universal character of the Church. Immigrant communities bring with them different cultural and religious gifts for example a strong devotion to Our Lady, a strong sense of belonging to a community or indeed an ability to truly celebrate and not just attend the Eucharist.”
The question is whether this recognition filters through to the grassroots level and if so, how is the Church hierarchy ensuring that its policies are translated to action in the parishes? It took me so long to feel part of my parish – and this is in cosmopolitan London. I dread to think what it would have been like had we landed in the Hampshire or Gloucestershire countryside.
It is my hope that through the Church, society will be more willing to look at migrants with a fresh pair of eyes recognising the benefits and challenges of migration and putting the welfare of the migrant at the centre of the migration debate. If God lavishes so much love on us can we in turn share it with others particularly those deprived and fearful members in our community and in so doing “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
The recognition of our contribution as a migrant family in our parish community has been empowering, and it is my hope other migrant families are positioned to serve, so that when opportunities arise they will be available to make their contribution to the parish community.
I hope that through my little story I have been able to paint a picture of the initial experiences of migrants. I hope these comments will help open a discussion as to how we as a church can make the experience of the migrants more meaningful in the EU.
As I leave you I throw out to you a few questions to consider and discuss:
• 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?
Let me conclude my thanking Helen Young and Irish Bishops’ Conference for Immigrants and Emigrants for the invitation to share my experience as a migrant and I acknowledge with thanks the role of the Catholic Church in support for vulnerable migrants.
Notes to Editors
• The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Council for Emigrants seeks to respond to the needs of Irish emigrants prior to and following departure. It is particularly committed to addressing the needs of our most vulnerable emigrants, especially the elderly Irish emigrant community, the undocumented Irish in the United States and Irish prisoners overseas. Working in conjunction with the host Church, our apostolates and sister organisations, the IECE seeks to respond to the needs of the Irish as an emigrant community. Bishop John Kirby is Chair of the Council. For more information see www.emigrants.ie
• The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Council for Immigrants develops and fosters initiatives for the pastoral care of immigrants among the dioceses and parishes of Ireland. The Council identifies immigrant communities within a local setting, recognises their needs and develops pastoral outreach strategies to engage with, support and integrate immigrant communities into dioceses and local parishes. Bishop Raymond Field is Chair of the Council. For more information see www.councilforimmigrants.ie.
• Photographs from this conference will be made available to media for publication. Please contact the Catholic Communications Office, Maynooth, on 00 353 (1) 505 3017 or Brenda Drumm on 00 353 (0) 87 310 4444.
• Audio recordings of the addresses from the three speakers will be made available on www.catholicbishops.ie.
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444