Archive for Migration

‘Mercy and Migration’ Sacred Heart Messenger Magazine January 2016

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Lampedusa Day 4…an amazing story

Popes cross red

We stopped off in Sicily to meet some people who had made their way from Central Africa to Europe. Lampedusa is only one port that receives refugees and migrants. When boats are intercepted they are brought to many different ports in the Mediterranean. When they arrive the people are brought to detention centres until they are given status if they can prove they are refugees seeking asylum. If they are deemed to be economic migrants they are usually returned or ‘repatriated’.

I met Abraham. He was fifteen when he left his country. He is now twenty years of age. When he was in his homeland he witnessed a murder of someone he knew. The killers were convinced he’d retaliate or inform so they put a price on his head. His sole relative at that time was his grandmother. Before the murder occurred he made friends with an older man who had spent time in Libya, this man was friend of his father who died when Abraham was in his mother’s womb. Following the murder Abraham decided that he had to leave his village and his country if he was to stay alive. His father’s friend had also decided to travel back to Libya and volunteered to fund Abraham’ journey. They would travel together.

The first part of the journey from his native country was traversed by bus but there was no way he could cross the border as a minor without his father and mother. Abraham and his friend had to get off the bus and travel by land across the border to avoid capture and detention. Once across the border the negotiations with the traffickers began. His friend did all the deals. The plan was to get to Libya and the traffickers promised that they’d get them there. They were loaded into a truck and headed deep into the desert. Days and nights passed until the driver stopped and he instructed everyone to get off they truck explaining that he had to go for petrol. They protested asking where he could get petrol in this place however, you cannot argue with men with guns. They had no water and no idea where they were.

The cold at night was as intense as the heat during the day. They travelled when they could hoping they were heading in the right direction. Eventually another group of traffickers arrived and began to negotiate with them. Abraham was taken to one side and a gun was put to this head. The traffickers were going to use him as an example and were ready to kill him. If the other people in the group did not pay money they would be killed. His friend volunteered to pay so they took his money and then shot him but Abraham was allowed to live. His great friend who had taken him so far, feeding him and negotiating on his behalf was now lying dead in front of him.  The remainder of the group was taken to another location where they were locked in a shed. They were continuously beaten and guns were put to their heads in a threatening fashion. The traffickers used mobile phones to contact the family members of those who were locked up trying to extort money from them. If no money was forthcoming they were killed.

Astonishingly the traffickers kept their promise to Abraham. He was brought to Libya and was kept for a long time in a detention centre with adults from many different countires. Many local people visited the centre to bring food and clothing to those who were held there. One day a man who came to visit on a regular basis spotted Abraham and asked him how old he was. He was quite shocked that one so young was in this place and he arranged to take him to his own home to live with his family. Then the war broke out. This man was a political associate of Colonel Gadhafi and as the war intensified it became clear that his life was in danger, his mother had already been killed.  Abraham foster father advised him to get out of the country.

Abraham saw the NATO reconnaissance flights during the day and saw and heard the bombs fall at night. Migrants were rounded up and put in areas to act as human shields. One night the ground shook from the bombs that dropped around him. Soon after this soldiers came to the building where they were kept. Many were ordered out at gunpoint and placed on trucks. As they left all their paper work was taken, every pocket was checked and they were left with only one tee-shirt and one pair of trousers. They were driven to the harbour side and put on a boat with no water and no food. There was one thousand and five people squashed on board a fishing boat. This boat and others like them were used as human shields to hamper the navy offensive and to discourage shelling and the use of torpedoes in the area.

It didn’t take long to realise that the man who was put at the helm of the boat knew very little about navigation. They were basically pushed out onto open water with no guidance or assistance and with no skills set to help them find their way to a safe haven. They were war fodder. For three days they headed off into uncertainty until they came across a fishing boat. They shouted for assistance and even for water but the skipper of the vessel just told them to move on and not to be annoying them. Abraham could tell from the flag that it was an Egyptian vessel. Because people rushed to one side of the boat the bow boat rose up and fell down again into the water. This sudden motion caused many on board to be thrown into the sea. The man at the helm was crying as he tried to manoeuvre the boat back to collect those who were drowning but he wasn’t skilled enough to navigate a course. The fishing vessel disappeared. A day later they were met by an Italian Coast Guard vessel that guided them to a safe haven. Over a thousand people on open water for four days without food or water until they met this ship.

Abraham was detained in a migrant centre for two weeks until he was moved to a juvenile centre. He received basic training and was given work in a hotel. At twenty he went back to secondary (high) school as his childhood schooling was non-existent. He sits with teenagers who are five years younger than him; some are racist towards him sending inappropriate texts. He works every morning from five a.m. before he heads to school. He works after school, he does his homework and he gets extra study support to help him understand the some of the more complex subjects.

I asked him about his understanding of God. He said he could not have made the journey without God. Every day he wakes up the first thing that comes to his mind is God; every time there is a problem he knows God will sort it for him. He explains that whenever he thought the end was nigh, God always sent some one along to help him. He cannot understand how a world can live without God. ‘Where in the world would you most like to live?’ I asked him, ‘wherever there is peace’ was the immediate reply. His prayer is always for peace in the world, he cannot understand how people who say they believe in God are at war, ‘peace is God’s way’, he said. Spontaneously he said that he thinks Papa Francesca is a man of peace and a man of God whose words will last for thousands of years. When he reads what his hero says he feels so blessed and is awe of the man who speaks from God with such authority. Every day and sometimes twice a day he looks up Papa Francesca’s Facebook page to see what is saying. Abraham considers Papa Francesca to be a man who is a leader for all faiths. Abraham, he should know, after-all he is Muslim!

migrant boat graveyard red

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Lampedusa Day 3

graveyard lamp 2

Borders have been around for a long time. In the past they were predictable and defendable now they are appearing in the most surprising and unexpected places.

Talking to people who have worked with those who arrived in Lampedusa was a very humbling experience. The overall sense they had was one of their short-comings, of not doing enough no matter how much they did. One word I heard over and over again in Lampedusa was ‘occhi’. It is Italian word for ‘eyes’.  Looking into the eyes of those who had just arrived was personally challenging. I also heard deeply the frustration of those who tried to help. ‘Being among them I felt a pain driving though my heart…I could see fear in their eyes and they were so close to me… they were shaking from the cold weather and the fear…they seemed lost ..they were not demanding…they asked for nothing…some of them were just crying because they were split from the rest of the family…it was just about feeling with them…you are powerless…you are just a piece of a very big mechanism…bigger than you’.

Looking into the eyes of the person who arrived after a hazardous journey was difficult but not as difficult as trying to look into the eyes of the systems that have been created around those who are moving across our globe. There is no doubt that people who looked into the eyes of these migrants were transformed by their helplessness, their fear, their undemanding presence and the pain of women holding their children but they spoke of rings of military wrapped around migrants even on ferries. In these situations individuals were writhing in pain or just needed to use a bathroom but they weren’t allowed. No one judged the military because they have to do their job however the operation need not be an entirely military one. Sadly this is emerging as the primary emphasis today and maybe this is the way it has to be it has to be for many reasons that some of us many not understand fully. However, European decisions makers do not necessarily have to compromise on the humanitarian dimensions of the crisis and the basic needs of those who arrive.

Sadly, the borders we are creating now are not just on extreme geographical locations but between people. Welcoming the stranger and loving your neighbour now needs a permit, a permit which disempowers you because you are not allowed to say unsavoury things or make comments on human rights infringements. We heard of the United States Military embedding journalists during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have got to the stage now that those who want to offer a cup of water are facing borders that vary in their penetrability. Isn’t it strange that looking into the eyes of another is so counter cultural and a threat to prevailing systems? Its not that strange really. Ed Ayers who was nominated for Pulitzer Prize for History once said that in order to cope with the issues emerging in our world today the general pattern of behaviour is that we will be encouraged to become a more blinkered people and less focused on the heart of the crisis at hand.

There are ongoing changes in the management of the whole migration system that a place like Lampedusa witnesses over the years. From the perspective of the locals many have seen a gradual shift from the tender welcome of a local fisherman to the emergence of a vast military operation. Migration and specifically the management of migrants has become a vast industry. We often hear about the outrageous sums of money that traffickers make from migrants but there are now enormous businesses involved in security and detention whose budgets and profits are increasing at the expense of the public purse. We are all too aware of this in Ireland following various investigations into Direct Provision Centres whose owners now do not have to file accounts.

In Ireland today little is known about the plan for the resettlement of refugees. There is no evidence that the larger community is welcome to assist with the task. This goes against the principle of integration which states that all integration is a two way process between the long term settled and those who are newly arrived and the less interaction between both groups the more damage is done to the integration process thus damaging the overall cohesion of society. We have many people who are willing to help and support those who are arriving. Their energy needs direction; it will be good for everyone.

Lampedusa Church red 2

One of the people we met in Lampedusa told us of how she understood the mission. Relating to a story of Jesus in the Gospels she said that when the crowds came to see him it was often the disciples that rebuked him. Those who came from the surrounding areas knew his power and they longed for him to look into their eyes and make them whole again. This is not unlike today where those who have been given authority are often becoming a barrier or constructing borders between those in need and those who have something to offer. Another person described one particular occasion when she was bending down to give water to many who were seated on the harbour side. It was a particularly hot day in mid-July. The water they were giving out was warm and not very refreshing. When this person bent down to help people drink from the bottles a cross that she was wearing was hanging from her neck. Despite their great physical thirst many of the migrants reached past the water to touch the cross. This moment underlined for her that the people who made the journey across desert and water hunger for something deeper.

Those who integrate the perspective of others into their own lives learn more about themselves as well as about others. Beck, U and Edgar Grande, (2004, reprinted 2008) Cosmopolitan Europe, Cambridge, UK Polity Press pg. 14

Alan Hilliard, 27th October 2015

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Lampedusa Day 2

boats lampedusa red

One person that I met described Lampedusa as a life-raft for the migrant. A life raft as you may well know is a small craft equipped with emergency supplies which is launched from a bigger vessel when the larger ship is in danger. The island measures just over twenty square kilometers and is therefore slightly bigger than Inis Mór which is the largest island of the Aran Islands lying off the west coast of Ireland. The total area is just over nineteen square kilometers. The image of a life-raft is appropriate as most other countries or regions in southern Europe could be compared in scale to fishing boats or luxury liners. Comparatively speaking then Lampedusa is indeed a life-raft.

The island has a long history of welcome. Locals tell stories of people from Tunisia making their way to the harbour as many as twenty years ago. The locals knowing that these people had made a long journey would bring food and drink to them in the harbour. A fishing community is less concerned about security and it is more concerned with the well-being of their fellow fishermen. Some of these people used Lampedusa as a stepping stone into Europe not unlike the way many Irish people found ways to get into the United States illegally over the decades preceding 9/11.

In summary then Lampedusa has an ethic of helping those who arrive. They do not want to be hailed as heroes because as they say ‘this is just what you do’. Those who work on open seas know that while others have the luxury of arguing over what is right or wrong or who should or shouldn’t  be rescued a fisherman when he is alongside someone in the water knows that you have the choice of letting that person live or  die. Furthermore, being fully aware of the hazards of the sea, they know that no one would willingly get in a crammed makeshift boat, especially women with children, unless they were leaving behind a life that was unbearable.

In every sense then this little island is a life-raft which gives initial and limited comfort to refugees and migrants as they make their way to the larger vessel we call Europe. Each and every person who arrives lives with the hope that they will be permitted aboard.

Lampedusa takes its name from the Italian word for lamp which is lampada. A guide told me that an eleventh century source relates the story of a hermit who was the sole occupant of the island. The lantern he carried at night brought many to safety. He lived in a system of caves which lay above a safe harbour. He took time to check the origin of the ships that were arriving. Some were Christians returning from the crusades, others were North Africans who traded with Europe. He had two caves set aside for worship, one was Christian the other more suited to Muslim prayer. Depending on the ship he made ready the space appropriate to the crew. The welcome was respectful and it ran deep.

Unlike the past, the welcome of the fisherman is not the norm for those who arrive. The harbour has one wall which is a military area. This is where the refugees and migrants are landed. It is a secure area and only those with permits are admitted. Those who are fortunate enough to get into the compound can offer assistance to those who have been taken off the boats further out at sea. They speak of the fear in the eyes of those who arrive. Not sharing their language means that they cannot hear their story; not sharing their culture often means you cannot offer a tender touch or hug. The sickness of those locked below due to engine fumes, salt water and human excrement leave them dazed and forlorn; those who look after them feel that they do not do enough. Both those who are above deck and below are parched with the thirst, dehydrated and unwell. Medical examinations mean that men and women have to lift clothing which makes it embarrassing for those who are present to offer help.

Any lifeboat has limited resources and it is clear that those who arrive here are moved quite quickly from the island to other towns in Southern Italy. When I hear the story of Pope Francis’ visit to this island I hear that he had three purposes. Firstly, to stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants. Secondly, to say thank you to the people of Lampedusa and thirdly, to pray with everyone. A fourth outcome of his visit, and maybe an unintended outcome, was to show the world and especially other European countries like Ireland the intolerable and uneven  burden that was placed on certain parts of Europe in the wake of this crisis. He used the situation to move from a language that criminalised the migrants to a language that reminded the world of their humanity. He has not wavered on this and when many died off the coast of Lampeudsa in April 2015 he said as part of his Angelus message, ‘

These are men and women like us, our brothers and sisters seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded exploited, victims of war; they are seeking a better life. They were seeking happiness…

Having heard many of the stories surrounding his visit to the island I think that in many ways Pope Francis’ visit to Lampedusa was a life-raft for him.  His visit to the island which is  seen as a life-raft for many migrants, allowed him an opportunity to give an important expression to his vision for the Church. Never in the history of the Vatican has a Papal Visit been organised in eight days. He didn’t go through the local Bishop but his intentions were made known to the local clergy. Word filtered out because staff in the airport were told a special flight was arriving from Vatican City. They figured this wasn’t to promote tourism to the Vatican Museum! There was no time to organise a grandiose altar or lectern; even seating proved to be a challenge. Some have said that he was so eager to visit the island that he had set about booking his own ticket on the internet before the Papal Household staff took him seriously. He made it clear that this was not an event for officials or dignitaries and let it be known that local bishops were to be busy in their own dioceses that day.

chalice lampedusa red

A local carpenter made a wooden chalice from a boat from which many were rescued but sadly on which three people lost their lives. The lectern from which Pope Francis asked us to  ‘beg forgiveness for our indifference to so many of our brothers and sisters’ was made from boats, some of which carried migrants to their hope filled futures and others were from the timbers of boats on which many died.

The Bishop of Rome travelled to Lampedusa to show that the Church must  be a voice for the voiceless and a voice that inspires local gifts and talents for the service of others. He had just taken over the helm of the Universal Church, some might say the Church in Europe was loosing it’s course and was heading for the rocks. He got down from the heavy and awkward barque of Peter and stood among the people of the island of Lampedusa, an island that is recognised as a life-raft of opportunity for people on their way to Europe. In simple gesture of solidarity he held a lamp of opportunity before us all. This lamp casts a  light that leads a way for  members of the Church and members of the larger human family as we all seek to find a more even and secure route through the stormy waters of our contemporary world.

ambo lampedusa 1

Ps the carpenter who the chalice for the Mass made a chalice for me from the wood of one of the boats. I pray and hope that I am worthy to hold it.

Alan Hilliard 26th October 2015

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Lampedusa Day 1


I’m thirty thousand feet above the earth heading to the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea. When I told people where I was going I knew by the look on their faces that the name rang a bell with them. It might with you. Lampedusa is three hundred kilometers off the coast of Libya yet it is part of the Italian nation. The island is the first port of call for many migrants who traverse the sea in open, unsafe and crushingly full boats. I am feeling a little cramped on this Airbus 321 flight to Rome but there is no comparison with the conditions of those who head for Lampedusa at the hands of traffickers.

I am meeting some colleagues from Notre Dame University on the island. All of us have a keen interest in migration and we are taking time on this tiny island to see first-hand how the migration crisis has impacted on this normally busy holiday location for Italian tourists. We’ve heard that the community on Lampedusa has opened its doors and hearts to these migrants from many countries which lie to its southern aspect. People have come from Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola and many others failing or failed nation states.

Those I know who have made this hazardous journey have the utmost respect for the community on this island. They gave them sanctuary, clothes, food and most importantly a welcome. However, Lampedusa and Italy generally felt abandoned by Europe. The Dublin Convention means that asylum has to be claimed in the country that you first set foot in. This also means that when migrants were apprehended in any other European country, including Ireland, they were sent back to Italy. Noting Europe’s internal wrangling and Europe’s Pilate like approach to the problem, Italy solved the problem the Italian way…they stopped registering those who arrived! This left many migrants free to seek a new home elsewhere in Europe.  Part of the failing in this present system is based on the  naïve assumption that policy in fact controls migration. When it comes to refugees and asylum seekers who are leaving horrific situation no amount of policy can dictate who goes where. The ‘Italian Solution’ to the ‘Dublin Convention’ has only served to reveal a Europe that is not in touch with the present realities.

Eventually the challenge to save human lives from the waters surrounding Lampedusas was heard. The challenge is becoming more evident as people arrive in many cities in Europe. Some countries build bigger walls to keep people out, others are at wits end trying to find more and more housing for refugees as winter approaches. While some are extending a gracious welcome to many, other countries like Ireland are trying to keep a rather insipid response out of the gaze of the public and the media. Ironically Ireland is about to go on a rather nostalgic period of reflection on migration with the release of  Colum Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn onto the screens of cinema’s up and down the country. I am a fan of the story and I hope the movie does justice to both the longings and decisions of its main character Eilis.

The book is an epic in the world of Irish emigration. Tóibín’s characters are slowly built up to reveal the complex impact of emigration on the main character and also every other character in the story. Eilis, like many migrants today sought happiness. The reasons why she left Ireland maybe different to the reasons why people cross the Mediterranean today, nevertheless migration was an option for her as she sought to live a happy and fulfilled life. How is it that we in Ireland can conveniently ignore the link between the life giving opportunities that were afforded many thousands of Irish people and dodge the life-saving opportunities we are asked to afford to our brothers and sisters across the globe?

Our President Michel D Higgins announced this week that he is going to make migration a special theme of his remaining time in office. Maybe he feels compelled to do this as he sees the lack lustre institutional response to the issue of migration in Ireland. Though many on the ground want to assist there are very few options being put before them as to how they might give assistance.  It is significant that our President and Pope Francis have both made the issues surrounding the plight of migrants and refugees important. As global leaders both see migrants and refugees as victims of a world that has lost its intrinsic order hence the subsequent impact on our fellow human beings as a direct result of many imbalances. When Pope Francis came to Lampedusa he warned against the ‘Globalisation of Indifference’. We also have to watch out for the ‘Localisation of Indifference’. There is no doubt that there are many campaigns on social media crying for our attention. It is my view that these platforms can eventually cause burnout in us as they draw on our empathy and emotion. The Christian is asked to love their neighbour not just to ‘like’ them. The face to face challenge in loving our neighbour and welcoming the stranger changes us in a way that is beyond what any social media campaign can do.

This week I told one man that I was going to Lampedusa. I asked him should I see anything while I am there. He said he’d prefer not to think about it. You see he crossed to Lampedusa in a boat from Libya. He said ‘since Lampedusa I cannot go for a walk on the beach’. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because when I look at the water I see the faces of my friends who drowned on the journey’. He continued, ‘these people became my friends on my travels, we became brothers and sisters to one another, both Muslim and Christian. I would not be in Ireland today without them and some of them died’. I was with him one day as we stood by open water and he just broke down with deep sobs. I didn’t know why at the time, I now know why.

Alan Hilliard 25th October 2015

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Parish Response to the Refugee Crisis


A number of parishes and groups have asked my advice on engaging with refugees from a local parish perspective. I’ve prepared the following document. Church Refugee Crisis Response 2015FINAL

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Locked-In and Locked-Out. Europes Humanitarian/Migration Crisis


I’ve written quite a lot on the subject of migration but now I find it difficult to put pen to paper. The events in Europe at present are beyond what words can capture.  Writing feels like self-indulgence when more is needed.

To be honest writing and speaking on the subject of migration in Ireland falls mostly on deaf ears unless of course it is about tragedy that befalls Irish people abroad or the subject matter revolves around the plight of groups of Irish emigrants who are suffering under the weight of a seeming injustice abroad. I am often perturbed that a country like Ireland with such a tragic history of emigration cannot draw the parallels with contemporary European migration. The simple wish to live in place where one can find safety, security, even happiness is the key to every migratory journey whether that is a journey out of Europe or a journey into Europe.

A recent program on RTE on the subject of return emigration reported on people struggling with the question of returning to Ireland to live. The burning issues for them was whether they could have the same standard of living as they currently had in the UK. Their future depended on choices of restaurants, quality of housing and a general ‘above average’ standard of living.  People have a right to a life and an appropriate standard of living but those who cross into Europe just want to ‘live’ and sometimes the crossing takes away the very breath from their body that  gives them life.

I once got locked into a wardrobe when I was a child. I can remember the fear that took hold of me when in one irrational instant I thought that I’d be there for ever. The door had closed behind me and locked itself and there was no one around to hear my cries. Eventually, after what was only a few seconds, I managed to kick the door open but for me, as a young child, those seconds were akin to an eternity. I was uncontrollable when I found my mother and sobbed deeply into her belly.

This memory filled my being when I read about the plight of the people whose badly decomposed remains were found on a truck in Austria. A local newspaper reported that ‘the lorry’s lining was ripped from the inside suggesting the victims had tried to escape the truck before suffocating’ FT 28/8/15. On the same day two boats sank in the Mediterranean. One had fifty passengers, the other had four hundred. Over half have died. The words of Pope Francis ring through yet again. From the perspective of our globalising world he said that migrants have to be more than just pawns on the chessboard of humanity.

Our history should bring us closer to the struggle of these people and not just at the level of a warm fuzzy empathetic feeling but a desire to change things for them. In a short book entitled Nana the author recounts the story of her Irish nurse who travelled from Ireland after the famine and was employed by her family. As a young girl the author was enthralled by the adventure filled stories of the Atlantic crossing that her Nana related to her.

‘When you were in steerage you were expected to have everything with you, like a soldier going to war. But we didn’t know that, and, anyway, we didn’t have anything, nor any money to buy anything. We put our little bundles of our best clothes in our bunks and put them under our heads for a pillow and we never undressed at all….Were there any port-holes or windows, Nana?…No, and it was so terribly dark’.[1]

It is but a sliver of time that separates our reality from the reality of those who migrate into Europe today but it is an expanse of privilege and politics that separates us from their need and their plight.

I have to admire Angela Merkel and her country for their decision to take in so many migrants. Whether their motivation is to replace the falling birth-rate or whether it is to set themselves up as leaders in the modern world I can’t know but they are to be admired. Maybe people like Angela Merkel are influenced by their memory of time spent in East Germany when life was limited and political freedom was but a dream.

Ireland is an embarrassment at the moment. We are couching behind political correctness to an alarming extent. I feel grossly unrepresented and unspoken for. In short  e are leaderless.  A country that once prided itself as central to human rights campaigning no longer knows right from wrong. Weaving between Schengen Area diplomacy and the Common Travel Area with Britain, Ireland acts like a lost child. The fear of rocking the diplomatic boat and the on-going political positioning is evidence of a nation that has lost its moral compass. The present tactic of acting incrementally in step by step diplomacy bears sad tidings for those whose boats fall apart and who do not die ‘incrementally’. It’s time for Ireland to act unilaterally using its history and isolation to make a difference. This last year in Ireland many a long day and night was spent arguing and canvassing for equality. Let us remember that the original rainbow was a sign to people that is was safe to leave their boat and step onto dry land.

It is also time to call Europe to task over its interests in countries that are countries of origin for many migrants. Countries where business and trade interests are supporting despotic overlords. Aid should longer be about easing our conscience but it should relate directly to the security and stability of the citizens of the receiving countries, especially the poorest. Like the recent purge of the Vatican Bank the aid budgets should be purged by Europe and aid should relate to a wide range of indicators. As David Brooks of the New York Times said;

’you can cram all the non-governmental organisations you want into a country; but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much…in short, there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on[2]

It’s absurd to think that our aid is encouraging migration but in certain instances it is. While aid may claim to improve the living conditions of people in various countries, efforts to transform the criminal justice systems and to address political corruption to protect the poor from violence and vicious predators has largely failed. It is a fact that most of world’s best police forces were once plagued by corruption until they were challenged and rebranded. Furthermore businesses that act with impunity in counties should also be taken to task by European countries that have stricter regularity regimes.  Ethics in business should be globalised; it should not vary depending on what one can get away with. There is need for a common European voice on these matters.

Mainstream political parties say they are fearful of a growth in right wing parties due to immigration into Europe. This language permits an anti-immigrant rhetoric. Nowhere in Europe in recent times has the rise of the right influenced major political decisions.  This fear has only nudged middle ground parties from their centrist outlook and wetted the pages of newspapers. If any wing of politics is losing out it’s the left as it was once called. Lost of all economic ideology and with a distinct inability to confront the excesses of present economic models the left now finds its purpose in a cosy liberalism that has little to do with those who are disenfranchised in their own jurisdictions never mind in other parts of the world. The divergence in local politics now reflects our global divergence which is that of a liberal elite and your ordinary Joe Soap.

As for the Church, it’s time that it became even more unpopular. Ireland sees the Church running at an all-time low with vocations bottoming out and attendances at Church settling at historically low practise rates. The fallout from sex abuse scandals and a growing secularism has had its impact but nothing can account for the mediocre Church that has been brought to attention by the bright lights of Pope Francis’ simplicity and forthrightness.Surely the role of sound doctrine and good liturgy is to inspire the Christian/Catholic Community to make a difference? Is not the mission of the Church to transcend tribal identities and unite all the baptised within the promise of the Kingdom? Why can’t the Church now become infinitely more unpopular by transcending the polite politics of our nation state? Why can’t the Church, like Churches in other countries become the main agent for the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers? Why can’t every parish in Ireland volunteer to take a family from Syria, Afganistan or Eritrea – again not just to ease the consciences of the parishioners or to feed a feel good factor but to educate the local community as to why migrants are forced to leave in the first place. Someone has to present those who migrate as human beings who are educated, professional and gifted and who love and cherish their families.

Is it not time to turn on the pressure on our elected representatives some of whom represent us in Europe to stand up for what we believe? Do we need to be continuously reminded that the subsidy for every cow in Europe amounts to the per capita annual income of many millions of people in Africa? Or are our cows so sacred that these facts don’t matter.

I was wondering how to conclude when I was present at a funeral where a man spoke. His young son had died tragically, taken before his time. He thanked God that in the midst of the tragedy he felt he lived in a Christian community, a community who rallied and supported. He asked us to pray for those who have no such community to offer support and comfort and he asked us to especially remember those who were crossing the Mediterranean. It’s strange that one in the midst of grief can think of others and others in the midst of plenty are devoid of ideas.

[1] Harriet Ide Keen Roberts, (1936) Nana A Memory of and Old Nurse, London: Gill and MacMillan & Co. Ltd.

[2] [accessed 28th August 2015]

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Migration..Thoughts for Saint Patrick’s Day.



Saint Patrick and a Student-

As a third level chaplain today one is very aware of the increasing diversity in the student population. Among these there are numerous examples of immigrants who have left their home countries and have seized the opportunity for education and advancement. They are very aware of the fact that this opportunity would never have been possible in their former homelands. The story of one particular student who spoke to me about his experience at the hands of traffickers and crossing the Mediterranean in an open boat were made bearable by the touching way he talked about his life, his journey, his love for his homeland, his people, and his family.

I told him about Saint Patrick and how he was trafficked and how he escaped back to his home country on a boat not unlike those who cross the Mediterranean today. He, like countless others today, was in search of a reasonable life that is free from torture and oppression. The student was enthralled by Saint Patrick or at least he was enthralled with the version of Saint Patrick we chatted about. He expressed gratitude for the fact that he can call Ireland home and was deeply appreciative of the hope that Ireland offers him. I caught something of the spirit of Patrick in him when he expressed a desire to give back to this country that has given him so much. We have cloaked Saint Patrick in so much tinsel that we forget the power and dimensions of his story. Isn’t it strange that the Irish Church began with a migrant and not ‘one of our own’; maybe we find this fact hard to digest….to download the complete article please  go to…


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Homily for World Day of Migrant’s and Refugees 2015. ‘Why is Pope Francis fascinated by Migrants..a consideration’

Mass for World Day of Migrant’s and Refugees, 18th January  2015

Jesuit Community, Church of St. Francis Xavier, Gardiner St, Dublin 1.

Words of Welcome

Today is set aside by the Church as World Day for Migrants and Refugees. This day has been celebrated for well over fifty years following growing concern about the plight of migrants worldwide. You might very well say that migration has nothing to do with me but as I welcome you here this evening I welcome especially those of you affected by migration.

At this stage you may be casting your eyes around the pews identifying those who you think are affected by migration. But let me welcome you who are the children of Irish parents who were born in England and were brought home to Dublin Port on the Princess Maude to settle back in the home place. Let me also welcome you who were educated by money sent from far flung shores. Let me welcome those of you who have a sibling living overseas and whom you have less and less in common with as the years pass by. Let me also welcome those of you who have a child living and settled abroad. You’ve faced the dawning realisation that they are more at home there than they are here and this is upsetting to you. They are slowly being lost to you as you approach an age where you thought they’d be there to meet you for a coffee in town, or that you’d drop by once a week to have time with the grandchildren and that Christmas dinner would mean a full house rather than empty spaces. As a mother said once (and this can apply to all migrants and those affected by migration) ‘the hole in my heart doesn’t go away; it just changes its size and shape’.

Let me also welcome those of you who have come to Ireland to find a new home. I welcome especially those of you forced by family circumstance to come here so that you can send money home to your family. This has to be done to provide an education and what we’d term the basic necessities of life. Let me welcome those of you who are part of the ‘globalising world’ who find yourself fliting and flying everywhere and anywhere and who even though you may enjoy the benefits of ‘Business Class’ are tired of travel and weary of hotel rooms and antiseptic offices. Let me also welcome you who may be living in direct provision…that is if you call it living…as our system only gives you enough to barley exist and serves only to curtail your humanity. Let me welcome you who have come to Ireland at the hands of traffickers. Let me welcome you children of migrants who wonder at your identity; stuck between the culture of the homeland of your parents and your growing Irishness.

If I have forgotten anyone I am sorry…and let us for a moment remember that whatever tag or identity that others have placed on us…we meet here as Brothers and Sisters of Jesus the Lord. He who was born undocumented, a refugee, displaced, and sought asylum in Egypt. We remember also that he grew up in Galilee which unlike Jerusalem was a place of diversity and acceptance. Let us turn to our common brother and seek his mercy.







Pope Francis and Migrants


To “be” more.

The scripture readings this year for World Day for Migrants and Refugees were very appropriate. The first reading and the gospel featured the concept of ‘call’. Samuel’s call was the topic for the first reading. It is a call littered with confusion…who is calling me and why? However, so precious did this engagement prove to be that from that moment on, no word was wasted, no moment unimportant in his life with God. John’s Gospel presents grown adults waking up to a new realisation that life can be better. Life can be more engaging and more exciting than it is now. So it is with a migrant life; there is a deep underlying desire to follow a call, a call which is indeed tinged with sadness on leaving and hope on arriving. It is a call that can be confused and even chaotic. This call is described by Pope Francis in the following way;

Our hearts do desire something “more”. Beyond greater knowledge or possessions, they want to “be” more.

Whether we have travelled from Lagos to Limerick, From Newport to New York or from Cork to Dublin there is an underlying desire to ‘be’ more…not just to ‘have’ more, or to ‘do’ more but to ‘be’ more. We move to a new place to be the person that we believe God not just wants us to be but the person that God needs us to be.

Pope Francis has befriended the migrant. He addresses their issues and their needs. He communicates in a language that shows empathy and understanding. When he visits countries he doesn’t side-line migrants; they feature quite highly in his timetable and speeches. Furthermore, when one lists all the shrines in Italy, all the places associated with the grandeur of the papacy, all the monasteries and convents and all the places of pilgrimage that exist, what was it that made him chose Lampedusa as his first place to visit outside of Rome. After all Lampedusa is synonymous with migrants and to be honest don’t most of us think that the Church is really about fixed geographical locations we call parishes where we can be dutiful but remain comfortably disengaged.

His own migrant experience.

I will attempt to give four reasons why Pope Francis embraces the plight of migrants. Firstly, migration was part of his experience. His parents left Portacomario near Asti, Italy in 1929. He was born to these migrant parents in Buenos Aries in 1936. As he grew older like most migrants I’m sure he was immersed in the stories of leaving the home they loved, the people they cherished and the culture they craved. He was also immersed in the story and the horror of losing everything. Following the 1932 crash the family were thrust into poverty. Like most migrants they were without the support of cousins, in-laws and neighbours. His parents stood on that threshold of darkness; where everything they lived for and hoped for was taken from them. Yet within this experience they discovered that God was with them and God led them through this darkness to a place of new possibilities. The first reason then why Pope Francis embraces the migrant is that he hasn’t forgotten his own migrant roots. There is a particularly important lesson here for Ireland. We too often don’t embrace the story of our own emigration when we address the issues of immigration. We can think that emigration and immigration are two different sciences; that one is a right and the other is a burden.

Prophetic passion.

The second reason why Pope Francis pays attention to the migrant is that the movement of people’s is prophetic. Prophetic in that it is the passion of God calling us to attend to the wrongs and evils of the world that we have a hand in creating. If you journey backwards with the migrant you find situations where gangs and guns have more influence than politics or police. These are situations where parents are desperate to protect their child from certain death at the hands of violent people; so they put their children on trains and boats and in the hands of traffickers so that their children, in the words of John’s Gospel, may have life. This journey into the life of migrants may also take you to places of modern-day slavery where people are working in squalor. They are paid a wage, but the owner of the factory provides housing which absorbs most of their salary. The journey may also bring us to see countries (even Ireland) that tolerate illegality and through complex systems of sub-contracting people pay tax, receive pathetic wages and yet receive few or even none of the benefits and supports that most of us consider are the foundation of a civilised society.

Another journey might take us to the Philippines, the location of the most recent Papal Visit. This is an example of a country that exports people so they may share in the wealth of the first world. The global market place is contineously separating families as Government policy promotes the exportation people to bring home remittances to support their children that they will meet as strangers in years to come. Between 2010 and 2013 an average of 5,000 left the Philippines every day. I read what one person said about this experience she said; ‘yes we make it to the first world but we end up in its back yard’. As a man who walked that thin line between shanty towns and palaces in South America Pope Francis shows us the shortcomings of the global market place not in theories or books but in the lives of his brothers and sisters. And in these lives we hear the passionate voice of God crying for his children. Lest we forget; we are a people of the incarnation; we believe that God is crying out to us through humanity just and he cried out to us through his Son Jesus. Though these insecurities’ are associated with migrants; more and more they are becoming a part of everyone’s life.

Finding God.

Thirdly, as a man of God Pope Francis continuously seeks to find the face of God. This, I am sure, is what we too desire. Scripture tells that God is more often found in what is strange rather than what is predictable or even in the stranger rather than in the friend. He lives this in many ways. Pope Francis finds his God in the humble trappings of a small apartment where he chooses to live rather than the lofty corridors of the papal residence. So let us not be surprised that he surprises us on the journey towards God. One other South American, Archbishop Oscar Romero, a great human being who has been brought out of an ecclesiastical wilderness uttered these words:

There is a criterion for knowing whether God is close to us or far away: all those who worry about the hungry, the naked, the poor, the disappeared, the tortured, the imprisoned – about any suffering human being – are close to God.

These are challenging words. Today the world wants to hear Pope Francis but do they want to see and embrace the path that he follows; do people want to shape their lives around his humble message or do they just want a ‘selfie’ with him so they can get thousands of likes? In this age where God appears to be hiding or is being hidden we are shown how to find God with the help of Pope Francis’ attention to the needs of the disposed many of whom are migrants.

Brothers and Sisters

Fourthly and lastly, Pope Francis has introduced us to the only language that we as a Church are missioned to use as we care for migrants and the Church at large. Language is powerful because it creates narratives. Narratives are stories that can give life or destroy life. The language of the world has boxed people, pilloried people, dehumanised people, offended and limited people. When we use language, labels and narratives to make the person beside us out to the ‘other’ then we are on a slippery slope as a society and a world. Whether we are a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Humanist; whether we are police, media, nurse, doctor or civil servant once we label to make ourselves feel superior to others we dehumanise them. Pope Francis is showing us that the way forward for the Church in this world is the language of brother and sister. The mission of the Church is to revert to this language and even though it may be pilloried and castigated for raising the marginalised to the category of ‘equal in the eyes of God’ one has to admit that never before was it more difficult to hold onto this language and yet never before was it so necessary. Even some of our agencies who act on behalf of the Church refer to people as clients and case-loads which is not necessarily the language of the Gospel and is definitely not the direction that Pope Francis appears to be pointing.


Pope Francis’ attention to migrants is an action of a pastoral leader which is summarised in a line from an African theologian; ‘unlike experts, Christian leaders are both inspired by a vision of God’s future and grounded in the thick stubbornness of the now’. Migrants are often trapped in the thick stubbornness of the present order. They need someone to speak for them and they also need someone to challenge the conditions that have facilitated their entrapment. In summary his attention to the plight of migrants not only highlights the shortcomings of today’s economic order it also never compromises on God’s call to each and every Christian to find God in the needs of our fellow human beings. The path he asks us to follow is a way of life that the strangers among us have revealed to us. We should welcome the challenge because whether we like it or not the way that Western Society is affecting us is tragic. It is constructing a narrative that is destroying our Christian imagination; in the eyes of God we are become dull, boring and disinterested. I bet that’s not what God wants, and I bet even more that it’s not what we want.

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‘I’ve watched men cry about their children emigrating’ Irish Times, Nov. 2014.

‘I’ve watched men cry about their children emigrating’

Finally the impact of loss on the people left behind by emigration is being recognised, writes Alan Hilliard.

Irish Times Generation Emigration. published 19th November 2014

There is something unnerving when you watch a grown man cry. He was in his mid-50s, dressed in overalls and work boots, and spoke to me through the kitchen window as he took a short break from his job. He tried his manly best to hide the tears and the choke in his voice in the mug of tea he was drinking from.

Tonight, he told me, he was bringing the second of his emigrant progeny to the airport. Though adults, these two people were still his “children”. They came home for a family wedding. There was great intensity in their homecoming but there was even greater intensity in their departure.

As families get smaller, the echoes of emigration grow louder in homes throughout the island. Parents will tell you that all the talk about modern communications easing the distance is farcical. Technology is more often a reminder of loss rather than a connector of presence.

The recently published research from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda), entitled The Emigration of Adult Children and the Mental Health of their Parents, is to be welcomed. Of the 2,911 parents involved, 361 saw at least one child emigrate. This amounts to one in eight parents, and is representative of the total population we are told. Put simply, the report tells us that emigration is not just about “them over there” but it is as much about “those left behind”.

It is interesting that the impact of emigration is being talked about now. The initial bright excitement of moving abroad is dimming and now the reality of it all is settling in. Weddings, births, deaths and birthdays are occurring, and as the years pass since emigration started to rise again in 2009, there are fewer opportunities for people to return home for these events. The phrase “maybe next year” is being heard more frequently.

Certainly emigration is not all about pain and loss, but neither is it all about opportunity and adventure. The dominant language of our political and economic systems has mechanisms that squeeze the human heart out of the migration narrative. Isn’t it extraordinary that these same institutions can tug at the heart when they speak the language of “diaspora”, but the heart of the person who emigrates is largely ignored?

During the American Civil War, soldiers were often allowed access to leave because they were diagnosed with “nostalgia”. This was another word for homesickness. The only cure for them was a brief holiday with their families. Both armies supported this measure because the soldiers were made to feel that they fought on behalf of their families.

This didn’t last. As World Wars came to pass it became impossible to repatriate those who were homesick. They were no longer fighting for families, but for a flag. Anyone who remembers M*A*S*H* may recall that visits home to the US by the characters were never recorded. Those in the camp were family. The army provided medical care, chaplains, entertainment and places for occasional R and R. Nostalgia and thoughts of family and friends at home were the enemy of order, stability and focus.

Our globalising world is benefiting from this evolving phenomenon. The market place does not want to hear about homesickness or nostalgia. Feelings of loss and depression are your own fault and it is unthinkable to blame it on a market driven world that wants you to mobile, flexible and loyal.

Multinationals go out of their way to create soft landings. Your office in London, Dublin, Sydney or Rio is decorated with the same colours and furnished with the same furnishings. You can “log-on” anywhere with the same password. These corporations provide “family” where you work. Sports facilities, classy canteens, socials and even places for you to nap fill the gap.

International students who are now the fodder of the globalising universities are told how wonderful the experience is, how travelling is a great opportunity to experience different cultures and become a citizen of the world. But nobody has said it is ok to be homesick; that it is normal to miss your parents, or feel sad when you miss your little sister’s birthday.

The concept of “migratory mourning”’ is one that is emerging in psychology today. It is most likely a clinical name for nostalgia and homesickness. This concept tells us that mourning occurs in those who go, those who are left behind, and those who return. The findings are only giving expression to what we always knew but what we continually find hard to face.

Emigration tears at the heart of families, communities and societies. Emigration – and especially the loss of our young – grinds a country down. We are ground down socially, culturally and economically because as every person emigrates we are losing possibilities for our future.

When the last of the islanders left the Blasket Islands in the 1950s, they said they could no longer stay because all their young folk had gone. Life, in the fullest sense of the word, was no longer sustainable.

The Tilda report is brave; it is saying what many have suppressed. Finally, people are being given permission to say they miss people they love. Finally, scientific research has acknowledged the impact of loss on the people who go and people who are left behind. Finally, loss that many can’t speak about is beginning to be recognised as significant and damaging. Finally, we can see the desire among emigrants to leave in search of a place where they can “be more” leaves others with an emptiness within themselves that may never be filled.

Fr Alan Hilliard is coordinator of the Chaplaincy Service in Dublin Institute of Technology, and a board member of the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants.

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