Lesbos and Australia: one pope, one people

Pope FrancisSince the end of the Second World War, global migration has become increasingly constrained through tougher immigration policies. This has seen long queues of applicants waiting for visas whilst fundamental human rights are increasingly disregarded, giving rise to increasing numbers of irregular and undocumented immigrants.

On Saturday 16 April, Pope Francis flew to the Greek island of Lesbos. In recent weeks, this island has become a place of confinement for thousands of people seeking refugee from what has now escalated into genocide in Syria and in other parts of the Middle East. For the international media, Lesbos and the island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily, represent how Europe deals with forced migration.

Pope Francis is no doubt a strategist of images and symbols. A visit of the Pope, though pastoral in nature and purpose, always carries a political impact, in the sense that it draws the attention of the whole world, and challenges it.

Since the beginning of his pontificate, through images and symbols, Pope Francis is bringing the world to see and touch the flesh of refugees who otherwise would fall into the cracks of institutionalised policies. It is worth following the Pope on the stops of his symbolic refugee pilgrimages: Pope Francis’ first visit outside the Vatican brought him to Lampedusa; not long after, he met with refugees at the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome. The powerfully symbolic images of the Mass celebrated at the border between Mexico and the USA showed the faces of people in a mixture of hope and fear.

Pope Francis began the Holy Triduum this year by washing the feet of a number of refugees at a centre of welcome in the outskirt of Rome, and now Lesbos and Moria. It is clear that the Pope does not underestimate the complexity of the refugee situation which requires multilateral solutions.

The Pope is saying that we are all human beings, children of God, and that no society or culture can call itself truly modern without fully embracing others, acknowledging his or her own dignity or without finding concrete ways of acceptance and welcome.

Speaking in Moria before thousands of refugees, Pope Francis made clear the reason of his visit: ‘We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution. As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf. We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragedy and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity’.

Indeed, we have seen people literally throwing themselves at the feet of the Pope and crying out their desperation. Had the Pope not visited Lesbos, the world would not have heard the excruciating waling of anguish, torment and desperation.

The Pope’s intentions were similarly echoed in the words of His Beatitude Hironymos Patriarch of Athens and of all Greece, who said: ‘We consider his [Pope Francis’] presence in the territory of the Church of Greece to be pivotal. Pivotal because together we bring forward before the whole world, Christian and beyond, the current tragedy of the refugee crisis’.

His Holiness Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, said: ‘We know that you have come from areas of war, hunger and suffering. We know that your hearts are full of anxiety about your families. We know that you are looking for a safer and brighter future’.

No doubt, Pope Francis knew his visit gave the people of Moria an opportunity to show their faces to the whole world and for the whole world to hear them: ‘I want to tell you that you are not alone. In these weeks and months, you have endured much suffering in your search for a better life.

Many of you felt forced to flee situations of conflict and persecution for the sake, above all, of your children, your little ones. You have made great sacrifices for your families.

You know the pain of having left behind everything that is dear to you and – what is perhaps most difficult – not knowing what the future will bring. Many others like you are also in camps or towns, waiting, hoping to build a new life on this continent’.

The people in Moria represent a significant reality that 50 per cent of refugees are children; 51.3 million people are displaced globally and it is estimated that 32,200 people are forced to flee every day. So far, over three million people have been displaced by the Syrian war:

  • It is estimated that 50 per cent of the Syrian population has been displaced. Many complex issues are involved including recent exposure to trauma;
  • 6 million refugees are being hosted in Lebanon; 1.9 million in Turkey and 250,000 in Iraq. Numbers change continually. There is much pressure in these countries as a result, and as such, neighbouring countries are closing their borders.

Allowing migration into a country is typically based on the premise that it is good for the economy and hence raises overall living standards. To this end, Australia pursues a highly skilled migration program.

Highly skilled migration is in most part demographically available to people from similarly advanced nations, due to the high education requirements and need for similar skills. For example, over 83 per cent of migrants living in high-income OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries come from other high-income OECD countries; barely 13 per cent of migrants living in high-income OECD countries come from developing countries. (World Bank, Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011, p12)

Australia has also maintained a highly skilled migration program because the majority of jobs in Australia require highly skilled workers. However, Australia also needs low skilled workers that potentially opens doors for people from poorer nations to dramatically increase their income just by migrating to a wealthy nation.

Our two major political parties have asylum policies which are largely incompatible with Catholic social teaching.

Catholic Social Teaching provides a blue print of what must be at the forefront in creating policies regarding refugees. These guiding principles are:

  • The sacredness of human life;
  • The dignity of the human person;
  • The common good of the community;
  • The principle of subsidiarity;
  • The universal destination of goods;
  • The principle of solidarity.

As Christians, in fact as members of the human family, we have a moral obligation to seek and propose alternative ways that would ensure the protection of human life and the promotion of its dignity.

For example, an increase in the number of humanitarian visas is not just an act of generosity, rather it may represent the possibility for safer avenues for migrants and their families. This would also provide a humane way for the government to monitor who enters the country and for what purpose. Boarders are for the protection of people rather than the exclusion of people seeking protection. To seek asylum is a consequence of being forcibly displaced. By focusing on those whose life is threatened, political leaders would be better able to distinguish and apprehend real criminals such as human traffickers.

The Pope left Lesbos accompanied on his plane to Rome by three refugee families from Syria, 12 people in all, including six children.

These people were already in camps in Lesbos before the agreement between the European Union and Turkey.

As it was explained by the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Fr Federico Lombardi, ‘the Pope’s initiative was brought to fruition through negotiations carried out by the Secretariat of State with the competent Greek and Italian authorities’.

‘The Vatican will take responsibility for bringing in and maintaining the three families. The initial hospitality will be taken care of by the Community of Sant’Egidio,’ (Statement of the Director of the Holy See Press Office; www.vatican.va 16/04/2016).

Pope Francis is advocating for a shift in migration policy: from allowing migration into the country on the premise that it is good for the economy, to allowing migration for the protection of the most vulnerable.

We hope that Pope Francis’ visit to Lesbos may help the Catholic community and beyond seek and promote real changes in immigration policies firmly based on the word of Jesus: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

The Vatican document, Welcoming Christ in Refugees and Forcibly Displaced Persons (2013) states what should be the way of the Church in considering and treating the stranger. ‘In the strangers the Church sees Christ who pitches his tent among us and knocks at our door.’


Source :
Fr Maurizio Pettena, Australian Catholic Migrant & Refugee Office