In 1989, the thirst for freedom and dignity led to the fall of the Berlin wall which had become, over the years, a symbol of division, injustice and tyranny.
The images of people tearing down the wall bit by bit, signalled to many the end of the Cold War and the inexorable dawn of a new Europe which from now onwards would be “united in diversity”. No one knows exactly the number of people who were killed while trying to reach West Berlin, but conservative estimates put the number at 133 victims.
Fast forward 30 years and Europe is once again grappling with the reality of walls and division: a total of 1,000 kilometres of walls have been erected in Europe in a bid to keep out “foreigners” and “migrants”.
That’s six times the length of the Berlin wall. It is estimated that since 1990, over 30,000 people have lost their lives trying to reach “Fortress Europe” by land or by sea.
The human cost of these barriers set up to “protect” a European Union founded to bring people together is truly astounding.
In the words of Pope Francis: “Those who build walls will become prisoners of the walls they put up. This is history.”
These newly erected walls and barriers might seem to be a legitimate answer to the fears experienced by so many of our European fellow citizens when faced with a rapidly changing world, where the old certainties of the past have given way to an uncertain future.
Keeping the foreigner at arms’ length and hidden behind a wall can momentarily reduce the anxiety of having to deal with what is unfamiliar and different.
The problem is that by sheltering behind barricades and finding refuge in like-minded communities, a foreigner will always remain foreign to me: a statistic at best, a perceived threat to my identity, prosperity and security in most cases.
A “foreigner” stops being foreign to me only once I meet him or her.
It’s only by creating common spaces of encounter that I can recognise in the other person a fellow human being, a brother or sister who shares my same dignity and rights
It’s only by creating common spaces of encounter that I can recognise in the other person a fellow human being, a brother or sister who shares my same dignity and rights. It’s only when we meet each other that we can unleash the creative imagination necessary to imagine a world in which we can peacefully live together in justice and peace.
With the European Parliament elections fast approaching, it is time to reflect on the kind of Europe we want for ourselves and for future generations. The choice is between a Europe which is true to its founding values of solidarity, dignity, equality and freedom or a Europe whose identity is built by excluding others.
More concretely, as an organisation striving to accompany, serve and defend the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, at the Jesuit Refugee Service we’ll continue working for a Europe of protection where the rights of those who are looking for a safe haven to continue their lives in peace are always protected.
Safe and legal pathways to reach European territory will reduce the number of people who die trying to reach Europe.
We dream of a Europe of dignity that creates humane and dignified reception facilities for people in need of protection. Dignity is the necessary precondition for a successful social inclusion for every human being.
We hope for a Europe of liberty in which the EU respects the value and fundamental right to liberty not only for its citizens, but for all people. Unfortunately, detention within the asylum and migration procedures is still an everyday practice both within the territories of many EU member states and especially at their external borders.
We call on member states to stop detaining vulnerable people, including children, and to continue exploring alternatives to detention.
We call on all European citizens to vote for a Europe of equality and solidarity in which the integration of all citizens, including asylum seekers, refugees and forced migrants, is a reality. We support an EU that assists national governments by providing funding and expertise on migration and asylum and fosters dialogue between citizens’ initiatives and local authorities.
For those living behind the Iron Curtain, the European Economic Community – precursor to the European Union – represented a beacon of hope. Europe is now at a crossroads.
The stakes are high for everyone, but especially for those who are most vulnerable and excluded. On May 25, let us exercise our right to vote with intelligence, wisdom and responsibility by choosing to be part of a European Union, which remains a beacon of hope for all those seeking protection, dignity, liberty and equality.
Fr Mark Cachia SJ is JRS Malta assistant director.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece