“Solidarity is contagious”. Catia, from Matera, will not complain if I “steal” her this expression. Catia is a member of one of the families lining up for welcoming refugees, after listening to media news about the Humanitarian Corridors project. Catia’s family is not one of practitioners, just people who never before experienced welcoming people at home. They are not specialists, nor experienced, nor do they belong to some religious or civic community. They are small entrepreneurs who have something to give and perhaps a say. In her unpublished paper titled “Solidarity is contagious” Catia describes the complexity of welcoming refugees, as well as her expectations, which were met only partially: “It is very difficult – I quote – to describe in short the complexity and the intensity of what we have experienced. Taking care of people with a very different culture and background, has been quite challenging, not to mention language issues”. However, at some point Catia observes: “Allow me to underline another aspect of what we experienced. Through the foster project we uncovered how surprisingly generous and gifted are the people of our town. A broad and crosscutting network of helpers was created; irrespective of their social, cultural, political, religious and national background, our people identified with enthusiasm in this project (…). [We received] many tributes (to the point of embarrassment). We were repeatedly told that we were doing something wonderful and that people were grateful for the chance of giving a small hand. Now that refugees left we benefit from a network of new friendships and relationships.” This network of friendship and relations is the sustainable legacy of welcoming.
The end of August I went to Northern Italy, to visit the Syrian families welcomed through the Humanitarian Corridors Project, a success story of welcoming refugees, launched in February 2016 by the Community of Sant’Egidio together with the Waldensian Table and the Evangelical federation of Churches, in collaboration with the Foreign and Home Affairs Ministries of the Italy. While witnessing the pace of integration I was struck by the amazement of the Italian hosts: amazement indeed, because integration is actually easier than what expected; because a few low hanging fruits are been collected; because the Syrian boys and girls already speak Italian, less than a year from their arrival. Most of all, this is what I have been told at the outset, they experienced amazement for the impact that welcoming has had on their own community, i.e. the Italians: “Now everybody gives a hand”. Activities such as accompanying people to receive health care, administrative clearance, job seeking, shopping, language teaching, in sum, the responsibilities deriving from a welcoming project, require joining hands, mutual understanding, in a nutshell: the existence of a community, of a proactive civil society.
May I now open a small parenthesis and address the issue of the role of civil society. A recent discussion originated in Italy but known to all Europe, and unjust and inacceptable controversy: in three years, civil society saved the life of more than 100.000 people shipwrecked in the Mediterranean Sea and is providing a remarkable contribution to welcoming and integration. Such a resource requires support and promotion. I close the parenthesis.
I just described how the community is revamped by welcoming. I now focus on what to me is one of the most significant features of the Humanitarian Corridors proposal, which also accounts for the good results achieved so far: sponsorships. Sponsorships are not a new proposal, albeit new for Europe. Canada has practiced it for a long time. Sponsorships are a form of scaling-up legal access, planned in advance under specific criteria. It foresees active involvement by civil society in its diverse manifestations: associations, relatives, friends, etc. The sponsor takes responsibility to finance the first year of integration by a household of single refugees, or economic migrants.
Sponsorships are just one among many modalities to grant regular and checked access. In this way, migration is managed and not suffered. Sponsorships avoid human trafficking, dangerous journeys, overcrowded centers, issues of integration, ex-post or late management when people are already in our territory, etc. Sponsorships guarantee a widespread welcoming, with less social impact, easier job opportunities. It is not only a good management proposal. They is something more. The Community, every community, grows and strengthens by welcoming; dies or becomes unfertile by building walls. It is a fact.
Levinas, the philosopher, wrote: “The starting point of brotherhood is my responsivity vis-à-vis a face that looks to me as an absolute stranger” . This quote addresses a foundation of the human community: my responsibility vis-à-vis a face, not a familiar one, which resembles me. It is not “me” in the mirror but an absolute stranger. The Christian perspective is embodied in the words of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Disciples of Jesus that is described by Paul as “our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph. 2:14).
Every human community, of political, social or religious origin, grows and strengthens by meeting the other; it withers when closing itself. This happened also with community known as European Union. Born after World War II under a vision, this project of integration has been forged by the richness of diversity. In his last works, Umberto Eco makes an important point about immigration. I quote him: “Europe resulted, since fall of the Roman empire, from a successful cultural melting pot”. What is true for immigration applies to all situations: “The foundational principle underlying human issues – I quote again Umberto Eco- is the one of negotiation (…) which stands at the basis of cultural life” .
Welcoming others produces the miracle of revamping communities, groups, parishes in small towns, groups of friends, entire Nations vis-à-vis a staring face, the one of a child or elderly refugee, or migrant. It is at the opposite of closed, self-centered, communities, in search for people “like me”, under the illusion of controlling global complexity by marking borders or simplifying the world by separating “us” from “the others”, or even “us first, then the others”.
For the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaties, Pope Francis stated the following: “Europe finds new hope in solidarity, which is also the most effective antidote to modern forms of populism (..) Forms of populism are instead the fruit of an egotism that hems people in and prevents them from overcoming and “looking beyond” their own narrow vision, “The European Union, too, is called today to examine itself, to care for the ailments that inevitably come with age, and to find new ways to steer its course”. Indeed the discussion about migration is a window of opportunity to achieve a “new youthfulness” for Europe .
Face to this window of opportunity, Europe is late, and stiffened in old mindsets. A case in point is the Dublin Regulation identifying the country responsible for asylum application, on which discussion was reopened thanks to the proactive initiative of Chancellor Merkel. As it stands, the Dublin regulation is an old answer to new phenomena, which requires fresh instruments, also legislative ones. It well represents Europe today: stiffened and locked into 25-year old rules, with a few amendments. These rules are part of the problem, having created a new category of inconvenience: the so-called “Dubliners” affected by a tragic ping-pong between country of entry and country of destination. For example, a refugee, also many years after his/her entry in a European country, can be forcibly relocated to the first European country of entry.
Why is migration on the front page of the European media? Today more than in 2015? Datasets do not provide a credible answer. In 2015, migrants crossing into Europe by sea were more than a million (namely 1.015.078). In 2016, they lowered dramatically to 362.753 (around one-third of 2015). As of 31 August, migrants entering by sea were 123.950 . The year 2017 has not ended, but there is a very low probability that the 2015, nor the 2016 figure, be attained. This reduction has occurred before the agreements with Libya, which are notoriously in force only since last month. Perhaps the revamped discussion about immigration is driven by the electoral agendas, more than by actual figures (important European countries, among which Germany and Italy will soon face elections).
I agree with those who argue that the first victory of populism is not in the electoral booth, but when it is successful in setting the agenda of the political debate with a theme, as today occurs with immigration. More meaningful and urgent issues should actually be addressed. I will never buy the populistic refrain by which my problems will be magically solved, a wall would be enough, keeping problem people away would serve and solve… etc. These are only dangerous lies.
It could be useful to resort to a methodology proposed by a great Italian National Alessandro Manzoni, always valid, who in his Promessi Sposi advised avoiding speaking so lengthened and crooked (Ch. XXXI). He was referring to the irrationality and chaos by which the plague was being addressed. The guilt was placed on the foreigners, thus also on the protagonist of the book, the poor Renzo. Speaking so lengthened and crooked is in tune with the simplification and irrationality of the present debate on immigration. The method proposed by Manzoni, which we should resort to, was the one of “observing, listening, comparing, and thinking, before speaking”. Thinking and listening before speaking is a method to be urgently applied today while we witness with concern the revamp of intolerance and fascism, we had relinquished to the past as a horrible nightmare.
Since February 2016 the Humanitarian Corridors Project flied to Italy around 900 Syrians who were in Lebanon: women, children, sick men, elderly accomplished a journey of hope on a regular airline and not on the boats of death. They overflew the sea, needing not to put their lives at risk by sailing. Ten journeys have been organized and the last one took place on 29 August.
In October, we will welcome the first group of refugees from the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia). This operation is possible thanks to a new protocol signed by The Italian Catholic Bishop’s Conference, with Caritas Italy and Migrantes, the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Foreign and Home Affairs Ministries of Italy.
In France, a first group of refugees came through always thanks to the Humanitarian Corridors Project, which in that case foresees the arrival of a number of 500 prim Lebanon. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Federation of the Protestant Churches of France, The French Catholic Bishop’s Conference, Secours Catolique, Sant’Egidio and the French Government. Negotiations are underway in Belgium, Andorra, Monaco and other countries.
Allow me to highlight the lessons learned from this experience and the knowledge of the plight of migration, the Community di Sant’Egidio has been active in addressing, and to put forward a few proposals, recently announced by Marco Impagliazzo.
- As described before, promoting sponsorships for refugees and vulnerable groups. This modality should be mainstreamed into European legislation. Italy simply requires restoring it in its domestic legislation, as it existed before. Every country, on an annual basis, could determine the number of visas to be extended for this very modality. This would allow structuring practical forms of synergy with the civil society in its various forms and the public institutions.
- Facilitate and broaden the opportunities for Family Reunification (actually a recognized right). At present, Family Reunification cases in some European Countries are blocked or unduly delayed (more than 2 years in some cases). Many journeys of death in the Mediterranean Sea are undertaken by relatives, sons and daughters, brothers, to join family members already in Europe.
- Scale-up the quotas for Relocation of refugees from transit countries to European destination countries. The past two years witnessed a figure of 22,000 relocated in 27 EU countries. The experience was positive. It may be scaled up.
- Apply the European Directive on Temporary Protection by granting humanitarian permits in cases of massive influx of people due to violence, war and natural disasters.
- Consider Legal gateways also for economic migrants or environmental refugees. Sorting out between asylum seekers and economic migrants is not at all simple. A Senegalese arriving by sea to Italy and stating that his “land has become a desert” is an economic migrant or and environmental refugee? Europe must overcome the ban of labor permits, which today are authorized only for highly skilled migrants. Bilateral agreements with countries with high migration risk can result in quotas for specific countries with special legislation. Italy could sign up bilateral agreements with Nigeria, Guinea, Morocco, Bangladesh, etc. In any case, we cannot continue with the schizophrenia of maintaining at the same time that, on the side migrants are necessary (ore very necessary) to our economies and welfare systems, on the other side that “we do not want them. Banning and not managing is not a solution.
- Strengthen Development co-operation and relationships with African countries. We need to consolidate progress made with the increase of Official Development Assistance (ODA), making the increase of Italian and European Aid permanent. This a Euro-African message of hope of the young generations of the South.
In conclusion, allow me to go back to Bauman’s reflections. I remember when, last year in Assisi, we dared embark upon a very difficult them for our times: happiness. There is no happiness without problems but there is happiness in addressing and overcoming problems.
Happiness is something we gave up to, as Andrea Riccardi has observed, while being pressed by the deadly dream of terrorism with its obscure project of death and unhappiness. Attacks are on the increase and not by chance in places which are considered symbols of coexistence, such as the Ramblas in Barcelona, the restaurant in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. In Barcelona, someone observed that the attack affected people from 34 different nationalities.
Happiness results from accepting the challenge of living together, the need of living with other – a very difficult art. This is what we mean for integration but also the future for any life based of relationship that does not end up into isolation: we need to listen, to discuss, to negotiate, to re-negotiate, to strike the right balance, to start again. I am aware of the difficulties of integration, of the steps forward, the backwards, or the anxiety for a teenager that has a pessimistic attitude, the failed interviews and those with few chances of mending up. Briefly, I am aware of successes and failures, the fatigue of integration, thrilling but still tiring. Who experiences life, knows that living together is complicated. Nevertheless, this is life! Simplifying life ignoring problems or not addressing them is a cheat and not a solution! Integration, not an easy word, not to be taken for granted, not exempt of problems, but the indispensable path for living together. Which would be the best solution? Accepting the daunting challenge, the very difficult art of living together permanently in diversity. It is the path of integration, a complex one, but only one we can afford in order to achieve happiness.