Mauricio Silva, the Inter-religious Dialogue Coordinator for Britain, said, “we are a pilgrim Church” as he introduced a Columban webinar on Migration on 8th December. He is part of an international Columban Working Group on Migration that has been meeting for two years. Fr. Brian Vale, who gave a welcome on behalf of the Columban leadership in Hong Kong, stressed that “welcome” is the theme for Columban outreach on migrants. This is one of the top four Columban priorities for mission on Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.
More than 50 Columban ordained, lay missionaries and co-workers joined the webinar, from places such as Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, the United States/Mexico border, Australia, Japan, Pakistan, Philippines, Chile, Ireland and Britain.
The first report came from a Filipino Migrant worker in Taiwan who attends the Hope Workers Centre, founded by Columban missionaries in 1986. He first decided to work abroad in 2010, seeking a job that would boost his income and help his wife and children overcome hardship. He is currently a security guard. He highlighted that the long periods of separation from his wife means that “she does it all with the children” and “the children are distant from me and closer to their mother”. The issue of long-distance relationships being hard to maintain is a feature of migration, but “my work is the source of our living” he explained. He also supports his parents and reflected that, “these responsibilities keep me going.” He hoped his children, “will grow to be good people and fulfil their dreams,” and prayed that God would look after them. He felt supported by the priests in his parish, where he is a Eucharistic minister, reader and cleaner. “I have a sense of family at Church,” he said.
From Australia, Fr. Peter O’Neill spoke about the work of ACRATH – Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans – supporting their forced labour team. He told the story of seasonal worker, ‘Phil’. From an island in the South Pacific, he travelled to Australia first in 2014, after being recruited by an agent. He had to provide money upfront and found himself working long hours harvesting crops in terrible working conditions. When he transferred to a new employer, ACRATH started acting on his behalf, and the government covered the cost of wages stolen from him. Fr. Peter reported that victims of labour exploitation can wait up to seven years to get some form of justice, and he hoped criminal sanctions would be introduced. The Brigidine Sisters were thanked for their help with accommodation for migrants from Iran, Ethiopia and other countries.
Columbans in Chile introduced a Haitian migrant who has lived there for five years. He explained how hard it was to find “good employment” when he couldn’t speak Spanish and was missing identity and residency documents. His son, Emmanuel, was only one when he left Haiti and he has not seen him for five years. He misses his six-year-old and also his parents. “I can’t afford to get back to Haiti and get the right documents,” he said, “it is so difficult to save money for a visit to Haiti.” A Venezuelan migrant in Chile, who is blind, spoke about having to beg food from houses, which he described as “unbearable”. He collapsed one day from hunger.
Columban co-worker in Ireland, Michael O’Sullivan, spoke about support for migrants over many years, including involvement with the Migrant Rights Centre in Dublin. The centre supports groups of workers when their employers abandon them, documents racism on Ireland’s streets and at borders, and has won landmark victories for domestic workers, victims of forced labour, students, undocumented workers and families.
From Britain, in a testimony introduced by Columban lay missionary Nathalie Marytsch, a 22-year-old asylum seeker from Pakistan wrote a letter from a place of detention near London. She described being “treated like an animal although I have not done anything wrong,” and described the hurt caused by separation from her mother. There are around 20,000 migrants in detention in Britain and Church groups, including the Columbans, are amongst those pointing out the poor conditions of holding centres.
The Missionary Society of St. Columban has committed itself to, “continue accompanying and defending the rights of migrants,” and “to address the underlying causes of the migration of peoples.” Columbans believe “that we are called to both serve the needs of migrants everywhere, and to address the root causes of migration so that people and their families have the choice to remain at home.”
“Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity. They are children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.”