Along with six other young men from across Britain and Ireland, West of Scotland Green MSP Ross Greer is in Italy to hear first hand testimony from refugees and staff in camps and support projects on the islands of Sicily and Lampedusa, the ‘door of Europe’.The fact-finding trip is organised by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) and follows on from a delegation of women who visited refugee women and families in mainland Greece and one of the islands in May last year.
Overland Balkan routes into Europe are all but closed. After the signing of the EU agreement with Turkey last April, the primary entry point into Europe switched from Greece to the central Mediterranean, with the majority of people crossing by sea into Italy from sub-Saharan Africa. More than four in five (83%) of first time asylum seekers in the European Union in 2016 were younger than 35 years of age.
Ross Greer MSP said: “We are in Sicily and Lampedusa to encounter, to listen and to reflect with refugees who are making this deadly journey to safety in Europe. Vicky, one of the first refugees we met, was a victim of rape, forced prostitution and punishment beatings on her eight month journey. She is only 17 and has already experienced horror beyond what we can imagine – but now she is safe and supported by the Casa delle Culture centre run by Mediterranean Hope in Scicly, a town on the island of Sicily.
“Our visit brings men, mostly in their twenties, to meet primarily the similarly aged men making the journey by sea to Europe. This is a group often misrepresented and demonised. We want to hear their stories, to put ourselves in their shoes, so we can understand their choices; to pass on their experiences to others on our return home and to campaign for a humane response to this crisis.
“Having seen the horrors that people have gone through and knowing how urgently they need our support, it makes me proud that Renfrewshire are among the councils leading the UK-wide response to the refugee crisis.
“As well as meeting with refugees, we will see first hand the work of staff from the charity Mediterranean Hope who are working on Lampedusa and Sicily.”
Alan Meban coordinates CTBI’s Focus on Refugees project (http://focusonrefugees.org) and is co-leading the delegation. Before leaving for Italy, he said:
“We go as people of faith, moved by that faith, in a concrete initiative of putting ourselves alongside our fellow human beings who are in the direst situation of need and insecurity, even if only for a very short time.
“We want to show solidarity with those whom fear, danger, increasing poverty and despair have led them to embark on dangerous journeys with no guaranteed outcome. And with our presence we want to support the churches, NGOs, volunteers and local people who have responded, often where governments cannot or will not, and often at cost to themselves, with generosity, humanity and compassion.
“We will be ‘living letters’ to our churches and communities, seeking to make visible what is currently invisible, and to amplify the testimony of those who do not have our privileges of voice and access.”
CTBI’s director of international programmes Christine Elliott said: “We want to challenge the political rhetoric that by providing support in the Middle East and Africa, less support is required in Europe and in Britain. Instead we say that there must be investment in both.
“The group come from different Christian traditions and from all over Britain and Ireland. We expect to meet those whose stories are so often told in impersonal and derogatory ways.
“The team will encounter people who have moved away from their homes and their families for many different reasons. They will meet those who have put their trust in smugglers and unsafe vessels, and are now vulnerable to abuse and trafficking. They will hear stories of families split apart by politics, conflict and climate.
“CTBI is confident that our churches and communities will be moved and challenged by the stories the group will share with us and will want to ensure that this message will be laid alongside the new media headlines and stories.”