In the midst of the deafening roar of pre- Christmas shopping: “Black Friday”, “Cyber Monday”, cut-price temptations everywhere, it is very hard to perceive the “still, small voice” of the Spirit, or what we might also call our moral conscience. Side by side with this hectic persuasion, we hear about the homeless, the death of a man sleeping in a doorway, the plight of asylums seekers living in accommodation centres and also that the forced movement of peoples in the world has reached levels not experienced since World War Two. But are we listening?
The past year has seen a surge of migrants risking their lives to reach across the Mediterranean to relative safety in Italy, and from thence to other countries of Europe. About 150,000 migrants – mostly fleeing violence in the Horn of Africa and Middle East – have been rescued by Italian ships over the past 12 months. However, this year more than 3,000 have died or gone missing at sea. The big increase in those fleeing for their lives at the present time, is due mainly to upheaval in the Middle East.
Despite this, the European Union, including Ireland, has reduced its rescue contribution by creating a new scheme, Operation Triton, which limits rescues to within 30 nautical miles of the Italian coast, leaving it to larger ships on open waters to rescue those they come across. Operation Triton has been heavily and rightly criticised, both by the UN and the European Council on Refugees (ECR). It is much smaller than what it has replaced Furthermore, some states, including the UK, have opted out of it, with the UK maintaining that providing rescues is a “pull factor”, enticing desperate people, many from Syria and Iraq, to try their luck. This is outrageous, according to a UN envoy, and it is. Peter Sutherland, the UN special envoy for migration, condemned such arguments: “I think that it is an utterly outrageous statement to say that it is a good thing not to save lives because it may put other people off trying to travel across the Mediterranean,” he said.
Up to now the Italian navy “took the lead to save lives,” said Vincent Cochetel of the UN refugee agency. “Now that responsibility is going to be transferred to those private ship owners – will they switch on or switch off their signals when they get the call from the rescue centre in Rome?” He cited an incident at the end of August in which there were 76 ships in the area of rescue. “The call centre called them all, and within one minute there were only six ships left on the radar screen. All the others switched off their radar signal.”
Once again, Pope Francis has spoken wisely and compassionately when he visited Turkey in recent days. He praised the country for taking in so many thousands from Syria and Iraq, and assured those whom he met – young people from the Middle East and Africa – that he shared their sufferings. “Yours”, he said, “is the sad consequence of brutal conflicts and war, which are always evils and which never solve problems. Rather, they only create new ones ….“Refugees often find themselves deprived, sometimes for long periods, of basic needs such as a dignified home, healthcare, education and work. They have had to abandon not only their material possessions, but above all their freedom, closeness to family, their homeland and cultural traditions. The degrading conditions in which so many refugees are forced to live are intolerable! For this reason, we must do everything possible to eradicate the causes of this situation. I encourage all who are working generously and steadfastly for justice and peace not to lose heart. I ask political leaders to always remember that the great majority of their people long for peace, even if at times they lack the strength and voice to demand it. I appeal for greater international cooperation to resolve the conflicts which are causing bloodshed in your homelands, to counter the other causes which are driving people to leave their home countries, and to improve conditions so that people may remain or return home”
Surely, for Christians, the connection between consumerism with its surrounding hype, and the words of Pope Frances are clear, especially at this time as we come near to Christmas. What we celebrate at this time must not be an orgy of over consumption, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the upcoming feast. Instead, let us listen to the quiet voices around us: those of the homeless, including all still waiting for acceptance into our society. May we help them to know that their voices have been heard; that their stories, sometimes, horrific, have been listened to with compassion, and that as a nation, Irish people want our country to be their new home where they can settle down, contribute, and enrich us all. May it be a “Happy Christmas” for everyone.