Pope’s humanity puts others to shame

Published by The iPaper (17th April, 2016)

Hasan and Nour Essa are both engineers, who fled their besieged, bombed and battered home town in Syria with their young son after troops tried to press gang Hasan. Ramy, a teacher, and Suhila, a tailor, are a middle-aged couple who escaped a city attacked by the zealots of Islamic State. Osama and Wafa have seen their home destroyed, their children terrorised; their youngest went mute for a while and suffers terrible nightmare. But today these families can face the future with a sliver of certainty, rather than spending another day treated like convicts behind barbed wire and watchtowers.

For on Saturday they were among a dozen people saved by Pope Francis, chosen by lottery from the 50,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece and flown back to Rome as victims of what he calls ‘the greatest human catastrophe since the Second World War’. The Vatican said the symbol-laden stunt was a ‘gesture of welcome’, insisting that the short papal visit to the island of Lesbos was purely religious and humanitarian. Few were fooled. This was gesture politics of the most powerful kind, designed to discomfort a continent that has lost sight of its core values.

So let us praise the Pope. The Christian world’s most important religious leader, accompanied by senior Orthodox figures, has reminded the world – and our political leaders – of the inhumanity sweeping Europe. As fearful countries build walls and brutalise people fleeing war or poverty, he urged a response ‘worthy of our common humanity’. Previously, the pontiff has visited the island of Lampedusa in Italy after boatloads of people began drowning in their desperation to cross the Mediterranean. Back then, he said every Catholic parish should take in a refugee family.

His stance on this issue at least could not be more welcome amid the rise of bigotry, nationalism and xenophobia. He made similar unsubtle comments last year when visiting the US. As Republican candidates outbid each other to be toughest against migrants, he used his first public comments there to say he was the son of an immigrant family. ‘I am happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by such families,’ he said, pointedly. But how tragic that in the current migration debate on both sides of the Atlantic, the Pope ends up as a subversive voice.

Sadly, his visit and impassioned words will make little difference in the current cruel climate. Just look at what is happening in Lesbos, thanks to a panic-stricken deal made with Turkey that largely dumped the migration problem on Greece – which is, of course, the European Union member least able to cope with the crisis thanks to its crippling economic problems. About 3,000 people are crammed into one grim camp, half of them Syrian and the majority women and children. Some aid groups have withdrawn due to the appalling conditions. Traumatised Syrians are left wondering why they have been jailed for the crime of fleeing a savage civil war.

On nearby Chios, Amnesty International found just one case worker to process applications at the detention centre. Two weeks ago, he was working through 833 filed cases but had only processed 10, underlining how a dodgy deal was rushed through in advance of any ability to implement it. Meanwhile once again we see how hollow the pledges were to help Greece. Seven months ago EU leaders promised to relocate 160,000 refugees from the frontline states, then under the Turkish agreement a month ago they should have welcomed 6,000 by this weekend. Instead just 208 people have been helped – excluding the dozen now heading to the Vatican.

It is often claimed that we live in times of unprecedented migration. Yet while numbers have grown, relative rates of migration remain the same with less than 3 per cent of the planet’s population on the move. The difference is rich countries that pioneered concepts of protection and sanctuary have been overcome with panic and dumped the problem on poor countries. Almost nine in every 10 refugees live in developing nations. So Francis is wrong to warn about ‘globalisation of indifference’; from Africa to the Middle East, we can see countries shouldering the burden with far more sympathy than the selfish attitudes displayed in much of Europe.

Britain, of course, is one of the worst offenders. Our history, both ancient and modern, links us to some of the problems lying beneath the tensions causing people to flee; the vast majority of those seeking asylum last year in Europe came from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet despite our size and economic muscle, we receive less than one-fifth of the EU’s average application rate. Our double-talking politicians pretend spraying aid around makes much difference to penury faced by millions living in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey while allowing barely 1,000 Syrians in to our country under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme. Eritreans fleeing repression are rebranded as economic migrants.

Westminster’s lack of leadership, let alone morality, is depressing – as well as demeaning to the birthplace of democracy, Behind it now lies the fear of Brexit paralysing politics, with immigration lurking behind so much of the shrill referendum debate. I wish to remain in the EU. But as I look around my country and my continent it is hard not to wonder what is the point of staying amid such disunity on refugees, such disrespect for human beings and such disregard for our most sacred ideals.


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