Community of Sant’Egidio, Italy
“Migrants, a global challenge”, this is the title of this Panel. It is a challenge, for sure, but it does not concern only our unsuitable reception systems, orour worn out debates aimed at reviewing hyper-bureaucratic procedures. No, the challenge is bigger than that. It is a challenge to our founding values, a challenge to a prematurely-aged continent. We are now facing a radical question: whether we can define ourselves as human or not.
An icon is present in a tragic and painful way in our reflection today. It is the icon of the young Syrian boy, AylanKurdi, who was found dead on the Turkish coasts.
We will never forget this picture. A boy slightly more than three years old, who had boardeda dingy together with his family to seek shelter in Europe. His 5 year-oldbrother and his mother also died. They were a Kurdish family from Kobane. Kobane is one of the cities that stood up to terrorism. This picture represents the huge tragedy of the current exodus of refugees. It also represents the guilty passiveness of European countries.
During his brief life, Aylan only knew war. He was born during war. He questions us, therefore, not only about the tragedy of inhospitality, but also about the drama of an absurd and long war, that has not garnered enough attention and efforts aimed at solving it. I am thinking about the repeated and isolated appeals of Andrea Riccardi for peace in Aleppo.
Concerning the Syrian civil war Riccardi said: “Something tragic is happening, but it is either ignored or looked at with resignation (…). We need governments to take a leap in responsibility. Peace needs to be imposed in the name of those who are suffering”. Peace has to be imposed in the name of Aylan and his family, in the name of the 12 million Syrian refugees and IDPs.
We need a new vision for Europe in these times, aimed at overcomingthe current feeling of bewilderment andthe fear of an invasion. We need a vision on migrations whose strength should be based upon history, knowledge, hope, faith and the dream of a better life for everyone.
The unexpected surprise of these days is to see that Europe has a heart! Europeans have a heart! Emotion, indignation, solidarity. These feelings are emerging with strong intensity, shaking off numbness and breaking a stifling and dark cloak. Even the most apprehensive rulers, the staunchest populists, the most detached bureaucrats, the most inattentive mass medias have had to revise their trite and wary representations of the phenomenon of the flow of refugees within the heart of Europe.
European people are demonstrating that they are ahead of those who rule over them or those that represent them as only fearful and mistrustful. The latter picture is untrue and outdated.
Finally, I recognize myself personally and deeply in these feelings of emotion and indignation. I cannot accept it. It is enough! The walls, the barbed wires, the registration of people with numbers on their skin, the deaths, the inhuman journeys…the time to shift responsibility between governments has ended. This is too much! We need to act now; there is no time to lose!
The second recent picture that aptly represents Europe is not – and I affirm this with a little sadness – that of the European summits where these topics are discussed, clashing over the level of acceptable quotas. The truest picture, the one whichI fully identify myself with, is that beautiful picture thatvirally circulated in social networks and appeared on almost all European newspapers.
A woman, wealthy, Greek – not a secondary element – not young, but beautiful, embracing –after having saved him from drowning – a young Syrian refugee fleeing the horror of war, exhausted after thirteen hours in the water. He would have died otherwise.
An embrace. The lady said she decided to turn back and reach out to him after she hadalready passed him a first time on her boat.She was like a mother, in a very profound sense: she brought the man back to life.
An embrace. “The tension slowly ceases being tension and becomes an encounter, an embrace: it becomes unclear who helps and who is being helped”. These are the words of Pope Francis, and he continues, “Who leads the action? Both of them, or, to say it better, the embrace leads”. These words Pope Francis addressed to the Community of Sant’Egidio during his visit in June 2014. These words explain the picture I mentioned before, and help us understand the depth of this encounter between the one who welcomes and the one who escapes. The embrace transfigures both. It makes both live.
Europe – and we realize it in a clearer way during these days – can recover itself through this embrace. It can recover its credibility, and political and historical relevance, if it uses its wealth, its power, to provide constructive paths of integration to those who are currently arriving. Europe could even recover its youth!
Wherever it is located, the Community of Sant’Egidio feels the pressure to do something more. “We love you”, this is what we say over and over again to the very young refugees that we meet. They are 12, 13 years old, and they migrate alone, facing arduous journeys, facing the risk of death not once or twice, but a hundred times. 20% of the refugees landing on our coasts consists in unaccompanied minors. This means that they are young and lonely. Among Syrian refugees entire families are found, with children and elderly alike.
“We love you!” Someone smiles, others cry, others start to play and entertain themselves as young people do, since they are young! And in order to smile again, as every young man or woman, they need – I’d rather say they have the right to – safety and a motherly embrace.
In Sicily, our Communities wait in the harbors for ships carrying humans in pain: they welcome those who are alive, and sometimes also those who have died.
At Milan central station, together with the city's Jewish community, we have set up a hospitality center in the actual place of the memory of the deportation of the Jews. In that place we provide a moment of rest and relief to those who continue their journey.
In Rome, at the Tiburtina railway station, every week since the end of June, we prepare dinner and organize a party at the local refugee camp. The same happens in different ways in Germany, Hungary and Spain. The race for solidarity of people of all generations is surprising. Many join us to help. This happens also in Naples, Padua, Treviso. During this last summer, more than 2,000 young people from northern Italy arrived in Rome and asked the Community of Sant'Egidio to help the poor, to talk to the refugees. Something good can stem from the crisis: a new Europe.
The wall of "fortress Europe" is falling. Every day, under the pressure of the civil society, the walls of this fortress yield like the walls of Jericho. From Germany, Austria, Poland, Britain, France, Iceland, there are news of new openings, news that were unthinkable only a few days ago.
I am very glad to briefly say some words on Albania, a cherished country for the Community of Sant'Egidio. A country we have known, loved and visited since the 80s, even before the fall of the Communist regime. Looking backat the migration from Albania after more than 20 years, we see a success story. Awareness must be raised on this story. At this table we have a distinguished and appreciated witness of this story.
When the Albanians arrived in Italy in 1991, Italy had to deal, for the first time, in a few days, with a massive influx of people crammed into ships. In just over a month they reached the number of more than 25 thousand. I remember very well those days that seized everyone by surprise, especially the institutions. Everybody tried to do something, the national Authorities, the military forces organized camps, the ordinary people. Many people in Puglia region opened their homes to hospitality.
At the beginning, as it always happens, the reaction of Italians was also a defensive one. The general perception within the public opinion was not positive. It took time. But today Albanians are the second foreign community in terms of size in Italy, being nearly 500,000; they are well integrated, they contribute with their work to the economic and social development of Italy, and many of them have become Italian citizens. Albania is waiting to become a full member of the European Union, and we hope that this will happen as soon as possible. In less than 20 years, we speak about Albanians and Albania in a positive and encouraging way. It is a helpful example. There may be trouble in accepting others, but hospitality is never a mistake.
Many Europeans and new European citizens have understood this. I think of the Italians, the Greeks, the Germans, and the Hungarians – the list gets longer and longer every day – who in recent months agreed to overcome fear and rejection, helping as they could. They wanted to know, they put themselves to the test and played personally.
In conclusion: What should we do?
First of all I say we need to hurry. We cannot lose any more time.
1. European temporary protection to Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans must be immediately recognized. There is already a European Directive that only needs to become operational with a Decision of the EU countries. This will overcome the block established by the Dublin Convention, and a distribution of refugees can be attained. Family reuniting must also be simplified and extended.
2. We must organize an expanded hospitality system, more widespread and simple, and we must also channel the bottom–up initiative of citizens and of the civil society organizations, the parishes. We have heard the appeal of Pope Francis last Sunday, asking every European parish to welcome a family of refugees.
3. We must set up “welcome areas” for those who have entered Europe aiming to join their families or those who want to continue their journey. Along the whole refugee routes we can think and set up small camps as it is done in some emergency situations. It would be appropriate to create municipalities considered as “shelter cities”.
4. We must introduce sponsorship for individuals and families. It has been a successful instrument for many years in countries like Canada. Moreover, sponsorship was already available in Italy, but it was erased from the legislation. The advantage of this solution is that the host route begins already in the country of origin and transit countries. This is the real way to thwart smugglers. It is the way to help those who want to help. In this sense, the Community of Sant'Egidio, the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy and the Waldensian Board have already started on an experimental basis a self-financed project of sponsorship which, among other things, provides for the opening of offices in Morocco and Lebanon. In this first stage it is possible to prepare the documentation for the refugees that will be presented to the embassies of European countries for issuing visas for humanitarian reasons, as already required by European regulation.
5. In the midterm, it is necessary to review the whole system of asylum and immigration in Europe. Germany, followed by Austria, on their own initiative have already overcome the Dublin system. We must ponder the initiative of individual states and overcome and revise the Dublin Convention.
6. Increase cooperation with the countries of origin of refugees.
7. I say the following in just one sentence, but it is an equally important engagement: we must engage in peace processes in those countries that are at war. Peace is the most effective, lasting, and demanding response. Besides the issue of hospitality, Europe should become relevant again by playing a leading role in peacemaking.