We are approaching the time of year when people of all faiths, and those of none, gather with their families to share gifts, reflect on time spent together, and make plans for the twelve months ahead.
But whether you pray in a church, a temple, a mosque, a synagogue, or just celebrate the New Year and spend time with friends and family, I hope you will spare a thought this December for the millions of people around the world who are displaced from their homes, often stranded from their families, and forced to live a perilous existence as refugees or migrants.
As you know, The Elders have been desperately concerned with the plight of refugees and migrants for the past few years. The scale remains as daunting as ever: sixty-five million people have been displaced by war or persecution, the highest level since the Second World War.
I met some of these people last month at a refugee centre near Catania on the Italian island of Sicily, together with my fellow Elders Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson. We went there to show our solidarity with people who have suffered so much, and to see for ourselves the situation at the “front line” of Europe’s borders on the Mediterranean.
We were pleased to see a well-run facility but the sense of distress and frustration was still overwhelming; many people felt they were in a state of limbo, unable to work or support their families, and in many instances cut off from their relatives due to the strictures of EU immigration policy. It was both instructive and deeply moving for me to share a meal with a family from Syria who had fled their country bloody and enduring civil war. It was heartbreaking to learn from them that they had left one son behind because he was due to sit for the secondary school final examination: he was killed on the very day of the exam.
Refugees and migrants have the same fundamental rights as you or I, and they deserve to be treated with compassion and dignity. One brave and clear voice here is that of Pope Francis, whom I met with my fellow Elders in the Vatican after we had been to the refugee centre in Sicily, together with Ricardo Lagos who joined us in Rome.
We held warm and extensive private discussions with the Pope and expressed our appreciation and support for his work on global peace, refugees and migration, and climate change.
As our Chair Kofi Annan said at the time:
“Pope Francis has shown great moral leadership on the crucial issues of our time. His assertion of the values of peace and human dignity resonates with people of all faiths, and those of none. The Elders are proud to stand in solidarity with him today and in the future as we work for justice and universal human rights.”
This need for solidarity will only increase in the year ahead. Refugees and migrants continue to suffer from discrimination and persecution, including the appalling recent reports of migrant “slave auctions” in Libya. Political rhetoric, particularly in the developed world, too often depicts these desperate people as at best a burden to be borne, and at worst a horde to be repelled.
The various crises in the Middle East were naturally part of the discussions we had with Pope Francis. We did not imagine that the President of the United States would take the decision he just announced on Jerusalem: one hundred years after the Balfour Declaration, the Trump Declaration is making a complex problem infinitely more dangerous for the people of the region and the world.
Let us hope that in the coming year, the words of compassion from Pope Francis and others will ring clearly down the world’s corridors of power. As Elders we will do our part to make this message heard, and as ever we remain most grateful for your continued support.