The plight of migrants judges our integrity

Annually, on the 10 December, the United Nations (UN) observes Human Rights Day. It was on this day in 1948 that the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a milestone which laid out the inalienable rights – regardless of creed, race, gender, language, national or social origin or political persuasion/opinion – to which every human being is inherently entitled. It is fitting that this day is marked in the Season of Advent, the season in which we contemplate and wait for Christmas, the feast on which we celebrate God becoming one of us, God becoming a human being with inalienable rights.

Sadly, many in our society are denied basic human rights. One such group is migrants and refugees. In September, when Pope Francis celebrated the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, he reminded us that this was “not just about migrants… not just about foreigners; it is about all those in existential peripheries who, together with migrants and refugees, are victims of the throwaway culture.” He went on to insist that “the Lord calls us to practice charity towards them. He calls us to restore their humanity, as well as our own, and to leave no one behind.”

The way we treat migrants and refugees says something about us, about our commitment to life and human rights. Nine years ago when Pope Francis visited Lampedusa, to mourn thousands who had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, he said: “Today, the culture of comfort… makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people… which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalisation of indifference.”

The recent xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg are a mirror to us of our society. It is a cruel and painful image we see: one of destruction, violence, cries, indifference.

Jesus, whom we await in Advent, knew the pain of his rights being violated. As a young child his family fled to Egypt, they were refugees from a cruel political regime. Later, his rights were violated when he was scourged, mocked and unjustly condemned to death.

To commemorate Human Rights Day the Jesuit Institute, in collaboration with Jesuit Refugees Service (JRS), will screen a short documentary that we have produced entitled In Another Prison? Migrants in Johannesburg. The film is our mirror. It reflects for us, in the plight of migrants in the City of Johannesburg, who we have become.

In the documentary several migrants tell their stories. Many of them fled their own countries in fear of their lives. Some have lost contact with their families and struggle to rebuild their lives in a harsh and unwelcoming place where the struggle for survival is real.

Reflecting on their situation Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg says: “You cannot not be moved by young people, strong, who could be making a contribution and yet are PRISONERS of their own situation, not of their own making, but of society,”

We are that society. What is God asking of us as we reflect on a God who became human and had human rights this Advent?

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church. @rpollittsj
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