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How long, O Lord?

2015-04-21 10:01

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A fishing boat carrying up to 700 people sank about 120 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. It is thought that the boat which was approximately 20m in length and seems to have had no provision for lifejackets, overturned when desperate migrants tried to attract the attention of an approaching merchant ship. At time of writing, approximately 28 people have been saved and 24 others confirmed dead. A flotilla of rescue vessels and search and rescue planes are engaged in an urgent and probably fruitless attempt to find survivors. Part of the problem is that the exact number of passengers on the fishing boat is unknown so that rescuers cannot know how many people were thrown into the Mediterranean as the boat overturned. The Italian authorities had already said that at least 900 migrants from Libya have perished so far in 2015 as they attempted to find a better life: now that number has rocketed. Some of these, but by no means all, were Libyan, but the figures include men women and children from Syria, Somalia, Eritrea and other conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa.

The migrants who drowned and those who survived were ready to risk anything, including a sea passage in an unseaworthy boat in the hope of finding a new life and security. Yet they would not encounter a warm welcome in whatever country they eventually arrived: they would always be labelled as migrants, perhaps making the journey in order to take “our” jobs, benefits, housing, health care and education. Few people in the receiving countries would recognise that the arrivals had lost everything except a dream of survival.

One of the first actions of the newly-elected Pope Francis was to visit Lampedusa and to lay a wreath of yellow and white flowers on the sea in memory of the migrants who had died as they sought safety. At the time, he declared, “These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace; they were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death. How often do such people fail to find understanding, fail to find acceptance, fail to find solidarity. And their cry rises up to God!” Then, 368 people had died in a shipwreck. Now, double that number have lost their lives. He has again expressed his “most heartfelt pain” at hearing of yet another tragedy at sea. "These are men and women like us who seek a better life. Hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of wars. They were looking for happiness," he said.

Pope Francis has drawn attention to the modern slavers and slavery which cause so much misery, desperation and loss of life. How long will it be before the boats travelling from North Africa are seen as everybody’s problem? How long will it be before peace, human rights and security will ensure that there is no longer any need for anybody to be a refugee? How long, O Lord?

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