Harden not your Heartslampedusa
February, traditionally the first month of spring in ancient Ireland, still looks and feels like winter. And it still seems like a cold, inhospitable winter for so many impoverished asylum seekers and refugees in what is known as “fortress Europe”, of which Ireland is a notable member. Desperate people are still risking their lives to cross a treacherous Mediterranean sea, so as to grab a toe-hold in Greece or Italy before trying to move north. But it makes sense that anyone choosing to leave home and undertake such life- threatening journeys must be in a very bad way. Those of us living comfortably in our homes, even with more or less financial difficulty, have no conception of what life must be life for anyone fleeing for their lives, especially if there are children too. Yet we in Europe can tend to regard such people as, at very least, nuisances, welfare scroungers, opportunists, “economic migrants” and so on. Once a person or group of people is labelled like this it is very easy to dismiss them and push them out of our concerns.

 Pope Frances wasn't lofrancisng installed in the Papacy when he made clear his priorities. Like us he had heard about those Africans making the dangerous boat crossing to Lampedusa, that small island off the southern Italian coast. But he immediately showed his concern and love by visiting them, meeting some who had only just been rescued from shipwreck, and he continues to challenge our consciences by returning again and again to this topic, as on Sunday, January 19, 2014 when he expressed the hope that “refugees might be able to live in peace in the countries that welcome them and that they might be able to maintain the values of their culture of origin.” The theme of the Holy Father’s Message to mark the recurrence of World Day for Refugees in 2014 was Migrants and Refugees: toward a better world. In the Message, published in August of 2013, the Holy Father writes, “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.”

Perhaps during this year, if you haven't already done so, you might consider reaching out to some refugee living near you, and getting to know them. If you were to befriend them, you would both be greatly enriched.

How many hundreds or even thousands of Irish “undocumented” migrants are there in the United States alone? Perhaps one of your friends and relatives? Of course you want them to be secure and to have their status regularised so that they can access health care and come and go at will. But it's hypocritical of our Government to plead with the US authorities for special visas for them and at the same time retain one of the most restrictive and punitive regimes for asylum seekers who, not out of choice but desperation, find themselves here. There is simply no comparison between Ireland and, say, Syria, the Republic of South Sudan or The Central African Republic, all three featuring on our TV screens nightly. We must not allow ourselves to make an evening entertainment out of the news, or harden our hearts to the plight of so many children and adults in horrifying circumstances, just because such events are so common now. If we take our lead from what Pope Francis is saying and doing, we could end up with a humane asylum process, and live up to our ancient, but in recent years, sadly tarnished, reputation for hospitality.