“Immigrants who died at sea, from that boat that, instead of being a way of hope was a way of death”.
These words were part of the homily given by Pope Francis on July 8 of this year, when he celebrated Mass on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Not far from Sicily and the closest Italian island to Africa, Lampedusa has become a destination for tens of thousands of refugees seeking to enter European Union countries.
On Wednesday, October 3, less than three months after the pope’s visit, a boat carrying up to 500 refugees caught fire and sank less than a mile off the coast. It is feared that as many as 300 may have died.
In his homily the pope also spoke of what he called the “globalization of indifference.” Francis said, “In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, and it’s none of our business.”
And now a few months later hundreds more are dead. The tragedy did make the news. 300 persons dying at the same time in the same place continues to make news. But the odds are good that the story will go nowhere, in that nothing will be done to prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future.
The United Nations estimates that there are some 232 million migrants in the world today. This is just over 3% of the world population. But if we gathered all 232 million together, they would form the fifth largest country in the world, so this is a lot of folks. These are people who, for one reason or another, are forced to leave their homes and look for a better life somewhere else. Most are on the move for one of two reasons: fleeing oppression and violence or moving for economic reasons.
We momentarily mourn tragedies like that of hundreds of people risking and losing their lives in a boat that was very overcrowded. In the past two decades, almost 20,000 people are recorded as having lost their lives in an effort to reach Europe’s southern borders from Africa and the Middle East. In 2011, at the height of the Arab uprisings, more than 1,500 died in a single year.
Along our own border with Mexico, deaths of migrants in the desert are almost a daily occurrence. The estimates are that from 1998 to today, as many as 6,000 people have died along the U.S.-Mexico border, while trying to enter the United States. While the number of people crossing the border is down, the number of people dying is up, with 477 deaths being recorded in 2012. One of the reasons for this is that with greater border security, migrants have to take more remote and dangerous routes into the United States.
Activists and policymakers agree that a large portion of the blame for migrant deaths must lie with the unscrupulous criminal gangs who demand large payments for arranging to smuggle people and often use dangerously overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels to reach Europe or ever more dangerous routes to smuggle people into the United States. But on the question of how Europe or the United States should approach this problem, there is considerable discord, dividing those who believe far more needs to be done to prioritize the saving of lives, from those who fear any shift in emphasis away from border enforcement will only encourage the people doing the smuggling.
Without a drastic change in political will and without addressing the root causes of migration, we will not alter the landscape where migrants are dying. We have created a world where, according to the World Bank, 80% of the people on the planet live on less than $10 a day. 40% live on less than $2 a day. Now what would you do if you were making $10 a day and had a family to support? Would you consider going somewhere else, where salaries are more just, where life is better? I suspect that you would. I certainly would. A good parent will do anything to feed their family. Dangerous seas and high walls are a consideration, but ultimately they will not stop someone from going in search of a better life for their family.
A few months ago, standing at the very site where people from the doomed refugee ship were brought ashore, both the dead and the survivors, Pope Francis begged us to not be indifferent to the plight of our brothers and sisters who are simply seeking life. Now hundreds more are dead. Is the pope a prophet? Did he know the consequences of our indifference? I believe he did. Now we know too.
We cannot bring to an end all injustice in the world. We cannot even end the injustices in our small part of the world. We can though end the indifference. We can look for ways to do something, anything, to make our own contribution to a more just world for all.
A first step it seems to me is to not try to insulate ourselves from the suffering of the world. On his first trip out of Rome, the pope went to this island of Lampedusa, where migrants fleeing poverty and oppression, are regularly arriving. He met the migrants. He met the people who work to aid those fleeing. He prayed with and for them. He did not simply issue a statement of support for the workers and a prayer for the migrants from within the walls of the Vatican. He walked right into the middle of the human suffering.
And in his homily he asked over and over again, “Where are your brother and sister?” And he asked, “Who is responsible for their blood?”
When we read about the migrants dying in the sea or the desert, perhaps we think “poor guy,” and we continue on our way. To quote the Holy Father, “We feel at peace with this, we feel fine! The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference. In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business.”
People crossing the sea or the desert, looking for a better life, present us with strong, biblical images. As we know, when Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, they were forced to cross both. While I am sure that there were casualties along the way, God protected Moses and his band of migrants as they crossed the Red Sea and as they wandered for years in the desert. The migrants that we talk to everyday in our comedor (soup kitchen) are unsure of many things. But they are certain of one thing, that the same God that guided Moses today walks with them as they leave behind everything, risk everything and yet hope to gain everything. It is nothing short of an opportunity for life for themselves and their family.
How long will we be able to stop desperate people from seeking life? We can be on the side of God, on the side of the migrants, on the side of life, if only we would soften our hearts and join with those walking and working for justice for all.