A Vatican official in charge of assisting migrants spoke about the increasing number of refugees around the globe and stressed that they should be welcomed as brothers and sisters – not seen as a burden.
From a Catholic perspective, migrants should above all be recognized as persons created “in the image and likeness of God, which is the basis of human dignity,” Fr. Matthew Gardzinski told CNA Aug. 26.
Christ left us the example that migrants “are brothers and sisters,” he said, and noted that too many migrants frequently find themselves “in very tragic situations, for example here in the Mediterranean, in Far East Asia.”
The process of welcoming migrants and helping them to integrate into their new society is “always a mutual enrichment, both for the society who accepts them and for the migrant who becomes a living part of that society.”
A member of the Society of Christ Fathers, Fr. Gardzinski is in charge of the migrants section for the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples.
The council serves as a point of reference and coordination for the various initiatives the Vatican oversees and organizes in terms of helping migrants and all people on the move throughout the world.
Their mission also entails encouraging the pastoral care and spiritual and physical accompaniment of migrants.
In addition to working with various charitable organizations such as Caritas Internationalis and the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican’s migrant council shares a particularly strong collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, since their mission tends to focus on political influence on society and governments.
The plight of migrants fleeing war-torn Syria was thrown into sharp perspective this week when photos from British newspaper the Independent began to circulate showing the dead body of a small Syrian boy that washed up on the shore of Bodrum, Turkey.
Aylan Al-Kurdi, three years-old, drown along with his mother and older brother in a failed attempt to reach the nearby Greek island of Kos from Bodrum, their most direct passage into the European Union.
The striking images of Al-Kurdi’s tiny body lying face down in the sand serves as a drastic illustration of the crisis currently unfolding in Greece, which has become one of the primary destinations of mainly Syrian and Afghani refugees seeking entrance into Europe.
After the photos of Al-Kurdi began to make rounds on social media and the worldwide web, many have begun to criticize European leaders for not doing enough to help incoming migrants.
Close to the situation in Greece is Fr. Luke Gregory, OFM, who lives on the Greek island of Rhodes, but travels to Kos every 15 days to celebrate Mass for Kos’ 30 Catholics in the city’s only Catholic Church – more of a chapel – named Agnus Dei, and which sits in the city’s Catholic cemetery.
He spoke to CNA Aug. 17 about the plight of the thousands of migrants who arrive to Kos and other Greek islands from Turkey by the boatload every day, uttering immediately: “the poor things, they are suffering so much.”
With a financially stressed economy, Greece has been completely unprepared for the 124,000 refugees that have reached their shore in the first seven months of 2015, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
No welcoming facilities or refugee centers have been established, and the island’s 26 police officers have been responsible for managing the 2-300 migrants that arrive each day.
Most of the new arrivals are left to fend for themselves, and those already on the island have taken over public spaces such as the beaches and parks.
Their tents can be seen everywhere, as well as their clothes which have been washed in the sea and left on trees to dry. Some are even sleeping on the property of Orthodox churches, who have opened their land to the migrants.
The government is doing “what’s possible” given the situation, Fr. Gregory, said, explaining that it has been the locals who, in their own financial duress, have welcomed the refugees and brought them food.
“Greeks have done well in welcoming them, as well as the hotels,” he said, explaining that the hotels have been providing food, while Kos locals have brought clothing and tents.
However, now that the tourist season is over most of the hotels are closing, it is Caritas who will provide the food.
But with a nationwide financial crisis and the number of refugees increasing daily, funds for provisions are limited, and Caritas’ Greece branch has turned to others for help.
The Italy branch has been the first to respond, and the first shipment of food arrived Aug. 25. Fr. Gregory said he is “very happy” with Italy, who despite having their own migration crisis were the first to give. “Bravo Italy!”
Others, including groups of youth around 19-20, have also provided help after hearing his homilies, the priest said, recalling how in the summer one group after Mass went directly to the market and bought food to hand out to the refugees.
The generosity on the part of locals “is touching,” he said, adding that despite current difficulties, “we must have faith.”
Fr. Gardzinski explained that there are both positive and negative consequences of migration. While one country loses the persons who migrate, the receiving country gains their ideas and creativity.
“For example here in Europe we’re seeing an aging population where these migrants are a vigorous force,” he said, noting how most of those who immigrate are among the younger generation.
“These are people that move not only physically, but they bring with them their ideas, their strengths, weaknesses, so at a certain point societies who were very ‘one-kinded’ all of a sudden become a society that is standing in front of someone who is a little different.”
Although there are some who fear that migration on the large scales that we’re seeing might water-down the culture of the countries they move to, Fr. Gardzinski said that it depends, and that the presence of migrants serves as a type of identity crisis.
“Maybe the word is a negative, but a ‘crisis’ in a sense that it puts to the challenge who you are on one hand to build your own identity, your own cultural traits, and on the other hand also to see the positive thing of the other person,” he said.
However, the priest also noted how xenophobic, restrictive or fearful attitudes can arise when the number of incoming people is larger than the receiving country.
While having fear in the face of such situations is a natural, human reaction, he said it’s important to look at what the fear is grounded on.
In terms of migration and the presence of new ideas and approaches, “it’s worthwhile to ask that question: what stands behind that fear, what stands behind that approach? Is it really something objective, or is it something more subjective, because I feel threatened, or challenged?”
Cardinal Antonio Maria Vegliò, President of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, spoke to CNA Aug. 27 about the topic, saying that in her social doctrine, the Church safeguards both the right of peoples to migrate, as well as to preserve one’s culture and the common good.
“Regarding migration, the social teaching of the Church concentrates on three rights: the right to migrate, the right of every country to regulate the waves of migration, and the right not to migrate,” he said.
“What does the Church do with regard to these rights? With reference to those who immigrate, we have the duty to safeguard their dignity, welcoming them, providing them a spiritual and material accompaniment, sensitizing public opinion, speaking out about their situation.”
On the other hand, he said that countries also maintain the right to regulate the waves of migration, creating policies based on the general needs of the common good.
But this must be done “warranting the respect of the dignity of every human person, included the migrants,” the cardinal said.
Fr. Gardzinski said that the challenge on this point always comes in finding a balance between the two, and that situations of crisis can often tend to push toward the black or the white.
However, this perspective doesn’t help to have an objective outlook when the situations “are already inflamed, or in a crisis beforehand,” he said, such as in situations like Greece.
On a personal level, the priest emphasized the need to work together in order to solve the current migration crisis, whether in Europe or the entire international community.
“I do not think one nation can actually handle migration by itself, it has to work together in collaboration because otherwise we are not able,” he said.
“The size of migration is just too big to be resolved from one perspective.”