The recent footage of a family: man, woman and children, with their donkey and cart, making their way out of Syria in search of a safe haven reminded me of an old Egyptian image, from a Coptic church, of Joseph leading the donkey with Mary and Jesus. Apart from the similarity of the transport, there is the gait of the occupants telling us that they are on the move with no destination in mind. They have no relationship to their surroundings as they have lost the security of primary relationships to people and place which define being at home. Both pictures give a sense of movement from somewhere, but no sense of where they are going to.
The images of people on the move from war and want have increased dramatically in recent decades. The global economic system that promised a tide that would raise all boats has failed to reach those stuck on distant shores. It kept afloat those boats that were well positioned adjacent to safe havens. Free trade and the free movement of capital forgot about people. The architects of the global system created a reality as fragile as the ill-fated Tower of Babel, and detached from the reality that human beings are central to any system. Migration is not a crime.
Wealth became concentrated in a few global enclaves, ignoring the fact that historically the movement of people is an indication of the destination of investment. Today’s global exodus reaching Europe, North America and the Asian Basin is no different except that it is able to get there quicker and in greater numbers. Media pictures show people ending up in deserts, at walls, fences and moats or drowned at sea.
A third of the wealth stashed away in off-shore havens is from poor countries whose citizens are drowning in the Mediterranean. Worse still, in political campaigns immigrants are scapegoats, agents of fear, disorder and chaos. Immigrants are the new enemy. Should we allow ourselves to be defined by who we are told we should dislike?
Our Christian tradition tells us to welcome the stranger. Last year 3,000 immigrants visited the Migrant Rights Centre in Dublin from 80 different destinations. They were all seeking a welcoming beacon like the woman and her children from Libya, Mohammed from Pakistan, Dominica from Poland. They were, like all immigrants, on a journey of hope. They are challenging us as individuals and as a society to match the hope in their eyes, a hope similar to that in the anxious eyes of Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus all those years ago.
A welcoming community must always be asking: who is being excluded? Hopefully the recent United Nations conference on migration is a new dawn that will formally put people at the centre of any global system, even if it is a bit late.
By Fr Bobby Gilmore