5.1.2 Desperate people

Back to 5.1.1

Unit 5 Contents



In summer 2014, 35 people from Afghanistan were found locked in a shipping container at Tilbury Docks to the east of London.  They had got into the container at Zeebrugge, Belgium, hoping to smuggle themselves into the UK.  When discovered, one of them was already dead and most of the rest were close to suffocation and suffering from dehydration and hypothermia.

In 2012 a man was found dead in a street in south-west London having fallen from the undercarriage of a plane about to land at Heathrow Airport.

In 2015, migration across the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas to EU countries reached unprecedented numbers: more than a million people.  This became one of the most high-profile media stories of 2015.  But such migration from African and Middle Eastern countries was by no means new.  For many years, desperate people have been making that journey, often in small, barely-seaworthy boats.  In the years 2011 to 2013, 2600 people died attempting the crossing.  In 2014 alone, 3500 died and the Italian navy rescued around 150,000 people from the sea.  The 2015 figure for deaths was 3771.1

The world contains vast numbers of people whom some combination of poverty, war and persecution have made desperate. While many try to escape by one means or another, no doubt many more have no practical choice but to remain where they are.

The 35 Afghans in the shipping container were Sikhs.  Afghanistan has been subject to violent conflict throughout the past 30 years. There has been severe persecution of religious minorities, including Sikhs.  Indeed most Afghan Sikhs have left the country: their number has fallen from around 100,000 in the 1980s to fewer than 5000 in 2014.2. It is also a poor country: in 2013 average income was US$730 per year – US$2 per day – and life expectancy 60.3

For many years, some of those attempting to cross the Mediterranean have come from Eritrea.  This small country in north-east Africa has had a highly repressive government ever since its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, even though its government has also overseen improvements in health care and reductions in poverty.  While the Catholic Church is one of the officially recognized religious groups in Eritrea, most Protestant churches are not, and Protestant Christians, among others, have experienced severe persecution.  Many have fled.

Daniel Habtey, now the pastor of an Elim Pentecostal Church in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, did this in 2003, not long after Eritrean government outlawed gatherings for worship by many religious groups.  With his wife and young daughter, Habtey paid to cross the Mediterranean in a fishing boat, along with 80 other people.  You can read his story in the Yorkshire Post here.  Many from other African countries attempt the crossing simply to seek escape from poverty and the possibility of a better life.  Since civil war broke out in Syria 2011, a huge number of Syrians have sought to escape the immense destruction it has brought.

Pope Francis was elected in March 2013.  His first pastoral visit outside Rome was in July that year.  He went to the Italian island of Lampedusa in the middle of the Mediterranean.  Many of those coming from North Africa aim to reach Lampedusa or the small neighbouring island, Linosa.   While there he met a group of 50 recently arrived migrants, mainly young men from Somalia and Eritrea.

In Pope Francis’s homily that day he protested against the “globalization of indifference” to the plight of desperate people around the world.  He had begun by thanking the local people for refusing to be indifferent:

First, however, I want to say a word of heartfelt gratitude and encouragement to you, the people of Lampedusa and Linosa, and to the various associations, volunteers and security personnel who continue to attend to the needs of people journeying towards a better future. You are so few, and yet you offer an example of solidarity!

This homily is the first reading in this unit.


Reading (4pp)

Pope Francis, Homily on visit to Lampedusa, 8 July 2013


Less than three months after the Pope’s visit, 368 migrants, including many from Eritrea, died when a boat carrying them sank within sight of Lampedusa.4

Modern CST began with a great cry on behalf of desperate, suffering people.  You will recall from Unit 3 that the context in which Rerum Novarum was published, in 1891, was the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution in Europe (3.1.4). This had left vast numbers of people employed in terrible working conditions and earning subsistence wages.

Here is a quotation from near the beginning of Rerum Novarum:

[W]e clearly see… that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class… [I]t has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition… To this must be added that the hiring of labour and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.  (#3)

This is echoed near the start of an encyclical issued in 1961 by Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra. In the following passage he was reflecting on RN. We shall look at this encyclical in this unit.

Enormous riches accumulated in the hands of a few, while large numbers of workingmen found themselves in conditions of ever-increasing hardship. Wages were insufficient even to the point of reaching starvation level, and working conditions were often of such a nature as to be injurious alike to health, morality and religious faith. Especially inhuman were the working conditions to which women and children were sometimes subjected. There was also the constant spectre of unemployment and the progressive disruption of family life. (#13)

From the early 1960s onwards, CST developed by widening its focus beyond working conditions in industrialized societies to take up the challenges of global justice.  The desperation that drives people to risk migration by dangerous means tends to come from some combination of poverty, war and persecution.  Units 5 and 6 address poverty and Unit 7 war, so these are on our agenda for much of the rest of Module B.

We shall give less attention to persecution, whether religious or political, for the simple reason that Unit 3 put across CST’s position on this very clearly: freedom of religion and freedom to speak, including about faith and politics, are among the most basic of human rights; all governments are obliged to uphold them for all citizens.  This does not happen in many countries, but this fact is not at all a reason why it should not, but shows only how far many governments fail to fulfil their basic responsibilities.  On this it is effective political campaigning that is needed.



End of 5.1.2

Go to 5.1.3 ‘See, judge, act’

Module B outline

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  1. For the statistics here, see UNHCR, ‘Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean’ accessed (7 Apr. 2016) at http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php and ‘UK opposes future migrant rescues in Mediterranean’, BBC News, 28 Oct. 2014, accessed (7 Apr. 2016) at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29799473

  2. Melanie Abbott, ‘Why are Afghan Sikhs desperate to flee to the UK?’, BBC News, 4 Sep. 2014, accessed (7 Apr. 2016) at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-29062770 

  3. World Bank, World Development Indicators for Afghanistan, accessed (19 Nov, 2014) at http://data.worldbank.org/country/afghanistan 

  4. UNHCR, ‘Mediterranean crossings more deadly a year after Lampedusa tragedy’, News Stories, 2 October 2014, accessed (19 Nov. 2014) at http://www.unhcr.org/542d12de9.html