I am sure that among those who attacked Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo for his denunciation of the detention centres, where we lock up for 18 months those who reach our shores after fleeing their country, there are many who must have heard what Jesus Christ says; that to be a Christian means to welcome strangers, to love them and show them solidarity: “I was a stranger, and you took me in.”
Many must be proud of what The Acts of the Apostles say about the inhabitants of these islands when the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked and the crew and all those aboard managed to swim ashore: “The natives were very friendly to us. It had started to rain and was cold, so they lit a fire and made us all welcome.” The local inhabitants showed this hospitality before Paul healed their sick during his stay here.
According to their faith Christians believe that receiving the stranger means receiving God – rejecting him means rejecting God. This is why Bishop Grech used the expression that when we treat badly the strangers who are landing on our shores we are “failing the test of faith.” Though the general public perception is that many of them are Muslims threatening our Christian social fabric, most of these strangers are in fact Christians and even Catholics, and some of our Churches have opened their doors to them and masses are celebrated in the detention centres.
Yet Bishop Grech was heavily criticised because he chose to swim against the strong current of xenophobia and racism sweeping Malta and Gozo. Inspired by a human and Christian fundamental value, he appealed for a much more humane treatment of the strangers who reach our shores: “The time has come to ask ourselves in all honesty: Is it possible that a civilised country such as ours, having the values we think we are defined by, sees nothing wrong in keeping locked in detention women and men who committed no crime and who are only here because they are seeking another country’s protection? … What society are we building now and for future generations when, blinded by prejudice, we depict as enemies or threats to national security people who need protection?”
There are many people who have no problems with their conscience when they reject so vehemently (often by declaring themselves faithful to Christian traditional values) those strangers who end up seeking refuge amongst us. Why do we get it so wrong? Why are most of us ready to behave like milder versions of Nazi officials who considered themselves good practicing Catholics and took Holy Communion daily while they ran concentration camps where they burned thousands of men, women and children simply because they were Jews, Communists, homosexuals, gypsies and disabled people?
Bishop Grech has had the courage to swim against the current while most of us choose to be dead fish and go with the flow. I know many kind people who will be ready to donate money, food and clothes for the poor in Africa as long as they remain far away in their country. But this charity turns to hostility once these Africans come too close for comfort. While addressing all the legitimate concerns of our people as thousands of Africans reach our shores, we must have at least the courage to see them as people and treat them as human beings instead of often describing all of them pejoratively as carriers of disease, job-snatchers or part of a grand Muslim conspiracy to take over Christian Europe.
Recent statistics provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency show that there are nearly 12 million persons who have fled across international borders to escape persecution and conflict. This unprecedented number of uprooted people has led UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres to say: “We are now faced with a complex mix of global challenges that could threaten even more forced displacement in the future. They range from multiple new conflict-related emergencies in world hotspots to bad governance, climate-induced environmental degradation that increases competition for scarce resources, and extreme price hikes that have hit the poor hardest and are generating instability in many places.”
It is still too early to say to what extent the current global economic crisis and rising unemployment in countries like the US, UK and Germany will deter the hundreds of thousands from trying to reach them in search of a better life. The flow of people is set to continue as borders have become more porous and systems of national control often inadequate as the trade in human trafficking has become so lucrative. To keep the unwanted out, a global system of deportations and removals, UN-controlled safe havens, refugee and internment camps, prison islands like Nauru, armed border guards and patrolling fleets have been established. Those who disagree with these measures have denounced them as “21st century symbols of inequality, injustice and the politics of exclusion.” A growing number of persons and organisations worldwide want detention centres to be closed down, deportations stopped and immigration controls abolished as the only way forward to global social justice and equality.
It is inevitable that the same controversies arise in these islands but we must do all we can to address these issues without hysteria, xenophobia and racism but also without downplaying the implications of the situation we are in. We must have the courage to treat the 5,000 Africans we have amongst us as our brothers and sisters. We must manage better the relations between them and the local population and cultivate the lifeskills needed for an integrative multi-ethnic society. The GWU already has plans to train its leaders on these lines. Some schools are already doing this with great success. The political parties, local councils, parish organisations should also set up informal face-to-face meetings between immigrants and local families so that they get to know each other as human beings. We must work harder to get adequate practical support from the European Union and other international agencies to help us cope much better with the effects on us of 21st century immigration.