Earlier this month I co–led a team of young men on a trip to Sicily and Lampedusa. It was organised by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, under its Focus on Refugees project and followed a similar trip last year when a group of women visited Greece.
The purpose of the trip was to gain an understanding of the situation faced by people whose circumstances are so desperate that they decide to leave home to seek a better life in Europe. The journey is dangerous and risky in the extreme as it entails travelling through Libya, which is essentially lawless, before attempting the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.
We visited several projects run by Mediterranean HOPE, an initiative of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy (FCEI). They provide for the needs of the refugees and also work with the local communities. We sought to encourage them in their work, as well as to offer a listening ear to the refugees themselves, who are often keen that their individual story be heard as the journey and the processes of reception and asylum application are so dehumanising. We also aim to bring our learning home to raise awareness amongst churches and seek to facilitate their engagement with these issues here.
The firsthand accounts we heard were shocking. In particular the experiences of sub–Saharans passing through Libya were appalling, reminiscent of a dystopian end–of–times novel. I personally spoke to 6 people who had been kidnapped and sold into forced (construction or sexual) labour in order to repay their “owner”. The situation at the moment in Western Libya is completely lawless – I spoke to one young man whose friend had been summarily executed for sport, in a “William Tell” game, by a Libyan child. It seems that no value is placed on human life there.
European governments, and therefore we, as citizens, bear a great deal of responsibility here. The overthrow of Gaddafi was not followed up with efforts necessary to create the conditions required for a functioning state. Subsequently agreements have been made with the EU–backed “government” (which only controls a small part of Libyan territory) that effectively facilitate the arbitrary detention of migrants and do nothing to hold the authorities accountable. Competing governing authorities are supported by Russian and other foreign governments. In other words, substantial responsibility for this chaos and suffering lies uncomfortably close to home.
Hearing all of this could lead one to despair, but we also witnessed much that gives cause for great hope during our trip. The Mediterranean HOPE team, though small, has a huge impact. Their work is innovative and well targeted, the result of careful and prayerful analysis of need and capacity. I highlight just one of their projects here, as it has a potentially widespread impact. It represents a creative approach to addressing the extreme danger faced by people fleeing poverty and oppression: Humanitarian Corridors.
The humanitarian corridors initiative is the result of an ecumenical collaboration between Catholics and Protestants: the Community of Sant’Egidio, FCEI, the Waldensian and Methodist Churches in Italy. In December 2015 they signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and the Interior to receive 1000 of the most vulnerable refugees in Lebanon (mainly from Syria), Morocco (from sub–Saharan Africa) and Ethiopia (mainly from Eritrea).
It addresses many of the problems currently evident in Mediterranean migration:
- the most vulnerable (not just the best–resourced) people are enabled to travel
- they travel legally on a humanitarian visa
- they are safely transported
- they do not face the dehumanisation of arriving with nothing as they can take their belongings with them
- all of the participating people are vetted by the state authorities
- it combats human trafficking and smuggling
- they are welcomed and provided with legal assistance, hospitality, economic support (provided by the churches), integration assistance and training for one year after arrival
It is a pilot project, designed to be replicated in other countries. Recently France has undertaken to run a similar project. So far, over 700 refugees have been received in Italy.
So I believe we can be encouraged and grow in hope as not only did we witness how much our individual contacts meant to the migrants we met, but we also saw that a small number of committed people, prepared to follow Christ wholeheartedly, can make a potentially transformative difference to the most intractable of problems.