In Europe as in Mindanao

The heart-wrenching image of the lifeless little body of Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the Turkish shore, facedown on the mud, has spurred the world to do more about the Syrian refugee crisis. In a Rappler article, Cardinal Chito Tagle is quoted as saying: “They’re sinking, but many people played deaf, blind, and mute, until the world’s imagination was stirred by the image of the child.”

 Like the family of Aylan, millions of Syrian refugees, many of whom are children and the elderly, brave starvation, sickness, and even death from drowning or from sniper fire from the warring factions in order to flee their country into an uncertain future. They seek asylum in other countries, many of which are unwilling to extend their helping hand to their desperate plea for help.

Since the all-out war erupted four years ago in Syria and over 220,000 casualties—half of whom are believed to be civilians —later, the mass exodus of refugees and asylum seekers has grown exponentially never seen since WWII. It is the worst humanitarian disaster of our time. The United Nations estimates around seven million internally displaced Syrians fleeing the unending fratricidal conflict in their homeland. Many escaped to Iraq only to find themselves in another equally devastating civil war. Others are risking a trip across the Mediterranean towards Turkey and Greece. Like Aylan, though, many do not survive the perilous journey.

The countries earliest to respond like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are at a breaking point and can hardly cope with the crisis. Resources are strained beyond tolerable levels and services are minimal. Social tensions are beginning to emerge.

Rich Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait have donated billions of financial aid but are unwilling to host the Syrian refugees for fear of social instability. Many nations are also hesitant if not hostile to the idea of giving asylum for ideological, ethnic, social and economic reasons. The refugee crisis has evoked a variety of sentiments ranging from pity shown by Austrians and Germans applauding as busloads of refugees cross their border, to hostility shown by countries of Eastern Europe, exemplified by a Hungarian journalist caught on video kicking and tripping migrants entering Hungary across the border with Serbia. Ironically, it is the countries that have in the 20th century seen many of their own peoples persecuted for ethnic, religious, or political reasons that have been the most unwelcoming of the refugees.

After more than four years, it is only now that the United States, Australia, Britain, Spain and other European countries are easing their borders to allow more refugees into their territories.

On the crisis, Pope Francis explained: “Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees who flee death from war or hunger, on a journey towards the hope of life, the Gospel calls to us and asks us to be close to them, to the smallest and the abandoned; to give them real hope. Not merely to say: “Be brave, be patient..Christian hope is assertive, with the tenacity of those who go towards a certain destination.”

He then urged immediate action in addressing this crisis. He implored every Catholic community across Europe to do as he has, and commit to hosting a refugee family: “Therefore, as we near the Jubilee of Mercy, I wish to address an appeal to the parishes, religious communities, monasteries and shrines throughout Europe to express the concreteness of the Gospel and to welcome a family of refugees. A concrete gesture in preparation for the Holy Year of Mercy. May every parish, every religious community, every monastery and every shrine in Europe host a family, starting with my diocese of Rome.”

We cannot but sympathize with the Syrians. Our country has its own share of refugees we call “bakwits” who for decades have been internally displaced because of the fighting in many parts of the archipelago as a result of the Moro rebellion and the protracted Communist insurgency. 

Recently, the lumad (indigenous peoples) in Surigao del Sur, mostly Manobo, had to flee their communities because of alleged atrocities committed by the Magahat-Bagani paramilitary force. Three tribal leaders have been summarily executed by this para-military group on the suspicion that they are NPA sympathizers. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has been accused of supporting the group. Over the years, innumerable killings and human rights violations have been perpetrated as a result of these insurgencies/rebellions victimizing mostly the weak and vulnerable communities. In particular, the lumad are often caught in the middle of these conflicts; often used as pawns and victimized by special interests and warring factions.  But on the latest incidents, blame must be out squarely on the government.

It is naïve to suppose that on appeal people would just lay down their arms to kiss and make up. Intolerance and injustice propelled by the instinct of self-preservation and selfishness are the baser proclivities of human nature that will not simply go away. Tragedies are as old as humanity itself, yet it seems that human capacity to inflict suffering upon another is getting more intense and severe with each passing generation. What is needed is a supreme effort on the part of national and international actors to summon their better instincts of love, sense of fairness, respect and tolerance to prevail over these baser impulses. Until then these killings and refugee crises will continue to the utmost detriment of people especially the innocent. This is true in Europe, in the Middle East, as it is in our very own Mindanao. Shame on some Europeans for how they are treating the Syrian refugees;  shame also on many of us for allowing the killing of the lumad.


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