“We can't deter people fleeing for their lives. They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival, and how humanely.”
Antonio Guterres, secretary general, UN
The Pilgrim Team Visit took place from 20-25 May in various locations in Italy—Palermo, Lampedusa, and Rome—and was co-led by World Council of Churches (WCC) central committee moderator, Dr Agnes Abuom and Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe general secretary, Dr Torsten Moritz. We explored the theme of migration in its varied forms and expressions (refugees, human trafficking, seasonal workers, unaccompanied minors) organized and accompanied by our local host, the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy. The visit brought poignantly to the fore that migration is a critically important issue and one that must continue to be at the forefront of the churches’ mission and ecumenical initiatives.
The visit was itself a pilgrimage of migration–physical, emotional, spiritual, and involving all our senses. We traversed the cities of Palermo, Lampedusa, and Rome. We heard and engaged with stories from migrants and organisations committed to the work of integrating migrants into Italy with the guiding principle of self-autonomy and agency of the migrant as their prime objective. We were reminded again of the risks and costs borne by migrants fleeing their homes in search of a better and safer life and how this journey often renders them vulnerable to exploitation, and the violation of their human dignity and rights. As we sat down at each meal together and gave thanks, we were acutely aware of our own privilege and the responsibility of the Gospel imperative each of us carry in terms of what it means to act in solidarity with the stranger. Migrants depend on the hospitality and sanctuary of neighbours.
Two words stuck with me throughout the Pilgrim Team Visit: borders and migrants. In Lampedusa, I was struck by the symbol of the Porta d’Europa. Doors or gateways are known as symbols or metaphors of opportunity and promise. But in Lampedusa, the Porta d'Europa stands as a bleak reminder, in fact a memorial (designed by Mimmo Paladino) to the migrants who perished while attempting the treacherous sea journey from North Africa to Europe. I was moved and impressed by the work of churches through humanitarian corridors, an ecumenical initiative, established by the Italian church community in late 2015 which grants refugees safe passage and integration into the country. Often refugees are just nameless faces, mere strangers at the borders. The work of humanitarian corridors ensures the safe transfer, accompaniment, and support of refugees.
The Porta d'Europa was a somber reminder to me of how borders can function as places of welcome or as deterrents. In the case of migration, borders have mainly served to keep certain people, the “other,” out by assigning them a definition and a category. Some migrants are more welcomed than others. As one of the speakers at the Centrale de la Noce stated in reference to migrant status in Italy, “Migrants are not illegal when entering the state. It is the state immigration laws that make them illegal.”
The term “migrant” continues to be contentious as it conjures up different meanings and images and is often politicized. People move for a variety of reasons, some by choice, others because it is the only choice they have and are compelled to make. According to the IOM there are currently 281 million international migrants. Refugees total 84 million, suggesting that about 90% of migrants cross borders voluntarily. But migration is epitomized by the faces of refugees, or asylum seekers, illegals or the undocumented, stigmatized as problematic and people we should fear. Perhaps a better descriptor is “people on the move.” This shift of term or words could better accommodate the different reasons and categories of people movements and elucidate both the opportunities and challenges of migration as well as the human dignity of all migrants. Each migrant has an identity – a name, a history and a connection to a web of relationships. UN secretary general Antonio Guterres is right to remind us in saying, “We can't deter people fleeing for their lives. They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival, and how humanely.” I hear echoing alongside Guterres’ words those of Jesus in Matthew 25:40 saying, “just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”
Although our pilgrimage in Italy has ended, the journey of migration and movement continues for each of us as we return to our homes and places of work and play–inspired, moved, and empowered to act in solidarity, amplifying the voices of those whose stories we have heard and have yet to hear.