Hope amid horror in Lampedusa
BEFORE we travelled to Lampedusa, I thought that I knew a lot about the situation facing refugees travelling through Africa and on to Europe across the Mediterranean.
I had read many accounts of the journey and many academic analyses of the underlying causes and international political decisions that have led to this situation.
Then this month I had the opportunity to visit Lampedusa with an ecumenical delegation from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and I heard first-hand accounts of trafficking, slavery, enforced labour and prostitution, rape, violent beatings and even summary executions by children; real horror stories from Libya.
And after all that, several of the people I spoke to described losing friends, drowned whilst crossing the final stretch of water between Libya and Europe.
Standing on the quayside in Lampedusa harbour, on the very spot where thousands of people first set foot in Europe, I imagined the conflicting emotions they must feel at that moment, and it stirred up all sorts of conflicting emotions in me.
On this spot, people rescued from overcrowded, often sinking boats, in the Mediterranean are set ashore and immediately whisked off to the 'hotspot' centre built in a hidden valley not far from the tourist and fishing resort of Lampedusa town.
They may be wet and cold, or baking in the heat; hungry or thirsty; and yet none of the officials charged with receiving them give them food, drink or blankets. There is not even a toilet for them. Yet cattle would have water provided for them when they are shipped around.
The staff and volunteers of the Mediterranean Hope charity, an initiative of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy (FCEI), are the only people on the quayside who offer a smile, a handshake without wearing protective gloves, a 'welcome', some information, something to eat and drink, and a blanket before the newly arrived travellers are loaded onto the waiting buses.
I'm so thankful that someone offers a welcome. Mediterranean Hope also give migrants access to the internet, build good relations with the people of Lampedusa and identify those who have died along the way.
Perhaps most significantly, the FCEI - in collaboration with the Community of Sant'Egidio - has developed the concept of humanitarian corridors, a scheme piloted in Italy and recently extended to France.
This provides a way for the most vulnerable people to reach safely in Europe legally, with dignity and without the risks that accompany irregular migration.
Standing on that quay, I felt both a sense of helplessness at the enormity of the forces at play which lead to so much suffering.
But I also felt real hope because of the power of a small number of committed people.
They were prepared to say 'yes' and daily they touch the lives of some of the most vulnerable people on the continent while also challenging those in positions of power with a demonstration that there is a better way.
- Damian Jackson is programme officer for the Irish Council of Churches and co-led the delegation to Italy. Based in Dublin, he enables churches to become places where all of God's people can belong no matter where they come from.