It was a summer day in Dover but as I stood at the seafront looking over the choppy sea I understood how desperate asylum seekers must be if they try to cross from France in tiny boats. France was just 22 miles away but crossing it can be treacherous, especially in inflatables. Despite the sunshine, it was windy and chilling at the two memorials on the sea front dedicated to those who have lost their lives attempting the channel voyage. One plaque was inscribed: ‘In memory of the many victims who have lost their lives seeking sanctuary in the UK. October 2018. Every migrant has a name, a face and a story – Pope Francis.’
It was 20 June 2019 – World Refugee Day – and I was there because a key Columban Justice and Peace focus is Migrants. The group of about 30 Christians prayed for migrants and called on both the British and French governments to replace the security-focused approach with a humanitarian alternative. “It is time to show that love knows no borders,” said the Seeking Sanctuary organisation, which was founded by two Catholics to respond to the situation.
Since then, Church leaders and groups continue to monitor migrants in Calais and Channel crossings to England, lobbying for a safe asylum process. Bishop Paul McAleenan, lead Catholic bishop in England and Wales on migration issues, prayed at the Migrants’ Memorials in Dover in September this year, alongside Phil Kerton and Ben Bano of Seeking Sanctuary. Phil expressed concern over the number of asylum seekers who are stuck in the Home Office system and who have been housed in 90 hotels around the country, many of which have no local support group. “Here in Kent there are now well over 100 in the former Gurkha barracks near Folkestone which been unoccupied for quite a number of years” he reported.
Seeking Sanctuary has worked with others to organise ‘welcome’ gatherings in central Dover “to promote tolerance and understanding” amidst the hostility of vocal right-wing groups. Migrant support groups continue to be concerned about the anti-migrant rhetoric coming out of the Home Office, which has been challenged by the Churches. “The latest attack by the Home Secretary on immigration lawyers does not bode well,” says Phil. “The popular myth that migrants are safe in France is an illusion”. Instead, he said, “they are harassed by the police and deprived of food and water and it is no wonder they put their lives and those of their families into the hand of traffickers.” One Columban role has been to highlight Church support for the plight of migrants in the media.
Church leaders and charities are urging the government to create legal routes for refugees to reach the UK after four members of one family drowned in October when the boat they were on sank in the Channel off the coast of France. Fleeing from Iran, they were: Rasoul Iran-Nejad, 35, Shiva Mohammad Panahi, 35, and three children of nine, six, and a baby. A further 15 people from the capsised dingy were recovered. Bishop Paul McAleenan said: “All who value human life, whatever their position on migrants and refugees, will be united in sorrow following this tragedy in the Channel. Columbans support those seeking fresh solutions that do not involve more security measures such as patrols, walls and fences, but which instead see each individual as a fellow human being in need of advice and help and with a genuine contribution to make to our community.
Around 8,000 migrants have reached the UK in small boats this year – four times the number in 2019. Many come from conflict zones including Syria, Yemen, Iran and Iraq. However, the escalating number of migrants is a global issue. The Catholic Church asks that we welcome the stranger in our midst. Pope Francis said in February 2019: “Displaced people offer us this opportunity to meet the Lord, even though our eyes find it hard to recognise him: his clothing in tatters, his feet dirty, his face disfigured, his body wounded, his tongue unable to speak our language. We are called to respond to this pastoral challenge with the four verbs – welcome, protect, promote and integrate.”
For the past 20 years the Missionary Society of St Columban has committed itself in a special way to, “continue accompanying and defending the rights of migrants,” and to address the underlying causes of the migration of peoples. In the past three decades, the number of international migrants, has more than doubled to nearly 200 million worldwide. These include economic migrants compelled to move to feed their families, refugees and internally displaced persons fleeing persecution and natural disasters, including those related to climate change and victims of human trafficking. Columbans recognise the right to migrate in order to seek a higher quality of life, but often global economic policies result in grave inequalities and oppressive working conditions causing people to leave home. We stand with migrants in a number of places, such as the US-Mexico border, Australia and in Britain.
“Every migrant has a face, a name and a story.”