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Salvaging the shipwreck


‘When you invent the ship’, warned the late cultural theorist Paul Virilio, ‘you also invent the shipwreck’. Virilio was speaking about technologies, but his words have a broader relevance. Social conditions harbor the potential for catastrophe just as many inventions do.

During his December journey to the eastern Mediterranean nations of Cyprus and Greece, Pope Francis drew attention to the conditions for irregular migration that result in thousands drowning at sea and many more languishing for years in camps. The International Organization for Migration records 23,150 missing migrants in the Mediterranean since 2014.

Greece has received over 1 million sea arrivals since the beginning of 2015, with over 856,000 in 2015 alone. Recently, there were 103,000 refugees in Greece and over 60,000 asylum seekers. In Cyprus, the government estimates that asylum seekers account for four per cent of the population.

In both countries, Francis acknowledged the problem that many asylum seekers are stuck in Greece or Cyprus because other European countries refuse to accept their fair share. In Cyprus, speaking directly to migrants, the Pope called for ‘effective recognition of the dignity of every human person’.

In Greece, for the second time in five years the Pope visited Lesvos, an Aegean island through which hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers have passed since 2015. There, Francis spoke at the ‘reception and identification centre’ (which has replaced the squalid Moria camp which burned down in 2020) and got to the heart of the problem:

‘The Mediterranean, which for millennia has brought different peoples and distant lands together, is now becoming a grim cemetery without tombstones … Let us not let our sea (mare nostrum) be transformed into a desolate sea of death (mare mortuum). Let us not allow this place of encounter to become a theatre of conflict. Let us not permit this “sea of memories” to be transformed into a “sea of forgetfulness”. Please brothers and sisters, let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!’


"Perhaps in 2022 a greater recognition of human interdependence can be a starting point, helping to roll back what Francis labels a culture of indifference." 


The ship is the irreplaceable symbol of a shared fate, from the Odyssey to the Bible to Moby Dick. When a government fares poorly, the ‘ship of state’ might be imperiled. Environmentalists sometimes invoke the lone voyage of ‘Spaceship Earth’ to urge collective action against common threats. More lightheartedly, the improbable tale of the Irish Rover depicts the diversity of characters to be found on a ship, all hailing from different places but sharing the same journey.

With his call to ‘stop this shipwreck of civilization’, Pope Francis reminds us that at stake in the Mediterranean are not just the ones who might be lost at sea. The claims of civilization itself are also ‘in the same boat’.

Indifference to asylum seekers matters not just because of what it does to them, but also because of what it does to us. Commenting on the Pope’s journey, the theologian Assaad Elias Kattan notes that ‘the foreigners do not bring with them only their grief’, but also experiences and know-how that receiving countries often lack: ‘All these in their turn shape an inclusive society that includes innovation as well as a sense of solidarity and mutual support, elements which are absolutely necessary if we do not want to turn humanity into a vast and inhospitable desert.’

Without these values, a society risks becoming unmoored from its declared respect for human dignity. The hypocrisy of (rightly) criticizing the human rights abuses of others, while erecting and maintaining structures of exclusion against those legally entitled to seek asylum, can only corrode what Francis referred to as ‘this developed civilization that we call the West’.

Are there any prospects for improvement? If the human tragedies of irregular migration are nothing new, perhaps the pandemic has created the conditions to reconsider systems that leave some ‘at the mercy of the waves, in the wash of indifference’. As the Pope has observed, the pandemic ‘has made us realize that we are all on the same boat; it has made us experience what it means to have identical fears’.

Our interdependence has become tangible in exposure site lists, chains of transmission, precarious work conditions that encourage some to work through sickness and the vaccine inequity that creates the conditions for new variants. But the pandemic has also foregrounded indifference – e.g. the refusal of some to wear a mask or get vaccinated, indifferent to their neighbors’ wellbeing.

Perhaps in 2022 a greater recognition of human interdependence can be a starting point, helping to roll back what Francis labels a ‘culture of indifference’. Perhaps the pandemic’s hard lessons of interdependence can encourage more of us to take another look at the structures and systems we have been prepared to walk past. Perhaps we could pay more regard to asylum seekers and to all those consigned to the ‘existential peripheries’ of our civilization.



Stephen MinasStephen Minas is associate professor of law at Peking University and senior research fellow at the Transnational Law Institute, King’s College London, where Stephen completed a PhD in law. Stephen has worked on climate issues in various capacities in domestic and international processes. He is an alumnus of Newman College.

Main image: Pope Francis visiting the Mytilene refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece (Vatican News)

Topic tags: Stephen Minas, Pope Francis, refugees



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The world is at what, looking at the overall picture, seems an insoluble refugee crisis. I believe there were recently 40 million refugees in the world. Germany accepted over 1 million refugees from the Syrian debacle. That was not inconsiderable. There were and are real problems dealing with the sheer number, let alone the vast cultural differences between the two diverse communities. Greece and Southern Italy seem to have borne the brunt of the migration of refugees. Northern Italy, let alone the rest of Europe, refuses to take them. Europeans, whether we like it or not, are worried that their culture is threatened. As, historically, Islam came to Spain and the Balkans by conquest, resulting in a Muslim elite and dhimmi (second class) status for Christians for hundreds of years, this is not something you can just brush aside with motherhood statements. There are numerically far more Muslims with citizenship in Northern Greece than there are Christians with citizenship in Turkey.
Erdogan is using migrants as a political weapon. Criminal gangs are enslaving, torturing and drowning migrants. This needs a political solution.

Edward Fido | 19 January 2022  
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Religion doesn't correspond with culture or nationality, Edward. The European nations you mention are all secular democracies, and whatever their historical religiosity, their political cultures are influenced by the principle of 'laicite' (or separation of Church and State, unless you've switched to Roy's view).

Your persistence in posting this opinion, rather than switching to a more reasoned response with evidence to support it is disappointing, when one expects consistency on such a heated topic.

It also means that any form of theocracy, including sharia law that devout Muslims are used to, will never take hold in a secular democracy, which is designed to promote pluralism and multiculturalism and, properly, will be abandoned by zealots on all sides as they become socialised.

Indeed, secularised Muslims constitute an increasing percentage of parliamentary representatives in the UK and across large parts of Europe.

As for Spain, Muslims were there for nearly a millennium and Spanish DNA reveals that the majority of Spaniards, with the exception of the Basques, are of Arab heritage. Moreover, nothing the Muslims did there compares with the Inquisition!

The people who murder and participate in ethnic cleansing in Europe are hardly refugees and not Muslims but European Neo-fascist thugs.

Michael Furtado | 28 January 2022  

It gladdens the soul that a Newman alumnus and promising international relations scholar should focus on this topic as ES' opening salvo for 2022. Bravely said, too, after reading Barry Gittens' fervorino regarding our collective bleak prospects for the year ahead. A time for kinder hearts and blunted weapons!

Michael Furtado | 19 January 2022  

Pope Francis likes to point the finger at other nations and shame them into accepting refugees. However charity doesn't begin at home in the Vatican because other than taking in a small number of Muslim refugees from Lesbos many others have been excluded on political grounds including Christian refugees.
The Vatican is walled and has 100 acres. Not much for its 800 inhabitants. Of which 450 are citizens.
Italy has 26 cardinals with the right to vote in a Conclave, 10 of them are residential bishops and 16 are members of the Curia: this accounts for 21% of the electoral college.
From January to November 2021, 59.7 thousand migrants arrived by sea in Italy. In 2020, 34.1 thousand migrants arrivals on the Italian coasts. Between 2014 and 2020, the number of migrants setting foot in the country peaked in 2016 at 181 thousand individuals. Among the most frequent countries of origin declared upon arrivals in 2021, Tunisia and Bangladesh ranked first. About 14 thousand people were Tunisian, while around six thousand immigrants came from Bangladesh. (Wikipedia).
Aside from his position as head of the church, Francis is above all a politician with socialist inclinations. "Do as I say, not do as I do. "

Francis Armstrong | 19 January 2022  
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Francis Armstrong makes a strong point. His 'no-holds-barred' approach immeasurably improves our ability to confront the terrible crime of child abuse and the cost of it on Mass attendance. For this I congratulate him.

What makes me wonder is how forthrightly and 'fearlessly' he has shifted his focus to the Pope. One has to assume in this that, not finding a case of child abuse to pin on Him, he has turned his interrogative eye towards comparing the size of the Vatican state and speculating about the Swiftian absurdities of fitting into it the many thousands of asylum-seekers seeking refuge in Europe.

Not satisfied with clearing out a few Cardinals (although I'm impressively surprised at his laying-off Pell) he can now demonstrate his talent for collecting and applying his statistical knowledge, though sadly not extending to a deeper understanding of the world of symbolism that +Francis employs and most Catholics comprehend in appreciating what the Pope has done.

In the Marriage at Cana account, Jesus is described as attending with his mates. While relaxing with a drink, his Mum worries that there's not enough to go around. 'Relax, Mum,' says he.

Please God Francis sees the symbolism in that miracle!

Michael Furtado | 02 February 2022  

Thank you Stephen

Bernie Introna | 19 January 2022  

Thank you! Are we listening to our Pope

Bernie | 19 January 2022  

Pope Francis does not live in the real world. The responsibility for the deaths at sea and the circumstances that induce refugees to take such risks in a bid for freedom lies firmly at the feet of the governments or dictatorships of the countries from which they flee. If we are really to show genuine compassion we should be sorting them out, not placing unachievable demands on the citizens of the countries where these poor oppressed people seek asylum. The refugees are fleeing inhuman, godless individuals similar to Hitler, Pol Pot and Joseph Stalin who have no concept of the human dignity of every person. I reckon that if Christ walked the face of Earth today he would treat the oppressors a little more harshly than he did the money changers in the temple. Perhaps like all things, it is his will that some of those he created should suffer as harshly as he did when he met his earthly oppressors??? Turn the other cheek, love them and let the bastards go free??? Interesting but impractical philosophy which does nothing to relieve the suffering the bastards inflict on others.

john frawley | 19 January 2022  
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Vengeance belongs to God but self-defence is permitted to humans. Somehow, the moral prudential reasoning of the Christian has to negotiate this practical paradox.

roy chen yee | 22 January 2022  

Which 'real world' would that be, John Frawley? The 'reading' or 'model' of the world that you see and others don't? Or the angle from which they look at a complex problem and suggest solutions for resolving it?

+Francis is by reputation, a 'relationships' man. Latin in his cultural instincts, Jesuit (and therefore Justice-oriented) in his inclination and, of course, pastorally loving to all, as a Holy Father should be.

It may happen, also, that as an Argentinian, he has a very different view of world history, and where the 'bastard' oppressors have always been around and are likely to continue to be.

Among these he might number Cortes, whose murderous escapades are thought to have decimated over a million indigenous Mexicans. Then there is the great shroud-lifting of postcolonial historical scholarship that reveals the incalculable indignities and atrocities inflicted by precisely those European nations from whom refugees seek recompense and which they flock to in numbers greater than ever because of global terms of trade that impoverish the developing world.

Add to that blatant racism that emerged after the European nations repatriated in excess of ten million expatriates post-independence and one has to wonder who the real 'bastards' are!

Michael Furtado | 02 February 2022  

Thank you, Stephen, for your gentle words.
Not all the nations of Europe have closed their hearts. Over one million Syrian refugees have been resettled in Europe.
There are at least seven models, globally, of how countries have responded to the growing crisis of refugees and people displacement. The model supported here [Amnesty International model] is strong, seemingly, on human rights. Yet fails in many other ways - almost no acknowledgement of rights of nations [politically, no government in Europe can be seen to not be in control], little options for control of people movements [the European experience of 2015 was and is unsustainable], uncapped demand for resettlement, inability to target or prioritise limited resettlement places etc. All of this leads to increasing redirection of resources to policing, border control, ultimately, cruelty.
There are suites of policies and programs that may help. Most displaced people remain internally displaced. No country of second asylum have signed a co-operative agreement with a first asylum nation to support them [Europe and Turkey an exception]. Too often, discussion is filtered through the assumption of resettlement bias in discussion. What is needed is a focus on nations working together. Sadly, I can't see this happening.

John | 20 January 2022  
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John's post correctly identifies several 'models' of asylum-seeking. one of which is the brain-child of the International relations scholar, Anthony Pagden, who was a tutor of mine in International Relations at Oxford.

Pagden, although not Catholic, is a Thomist and expert on the Dominican philosopher, Vitoria and Vitoria's ameliorative influence with the Spanish crown on the treatment of indigenous people, which hallmarks a softer attitude towards race throughout the former Catholic-colonised world than in those territories colonised by Protestants.

Despite this difference, Pagden's impressive research has concentrated on the relationship between the peoples of Europe and their overseas acquisitions and those of the non-European world and in the main, mediated by residual elements of religiosity, especially in the Iberian world, since subsumed within the influence of the Enlightenment, which he regards as not discontinuous from a religious world view but an extension and development of it.

Pagden's work shows that, while nationalism has ridden hand-in-hand with the Enlightenment into usurping the territories of nearly all of what used to be known as the non-European world, there is a sufficiently mixed-bag of good and bad to show that issues of reparative justice will surface to resolve the disequilibriating impact of refugees.

Michael Furtado | 02 February 2022  

Interesting that there are so many Tunisian refugeees to Europe. Tunisia is the one genuine democracy in the Arab world, with a pretty secular government. It is also stable. There is no civil war. Why are Tunisians crossing the Mediterranean? Are they Islamicists? A real possibility. They normally migrated to France. French and Tunisian intelligence agencies co-operate. We may be being sold a pig in a poke here regarding them.

Edward Fido | 21 January 2022  
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The 'Us and Them' construction blowing its heated trajectory through John Frawley's post and Roy's 'prudential' response invites the expression of additional perspectives, one of which is conceivably that some refugees are here to take from us what may rightly be argued to be their's.

After all, the 'goods of the earth' are intended for sharing by all and not to be hoarded by some. (Principles of Catholic Social Teaching, No 7, Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn)


Michael Furtado | 26 January 2022  

‘After all, the 'goods of the earth' are intended for sharing by all and not to be hoarded by some.’

Given that the same institution which says this quite correct statement is also bound to teach that sexual pleasure as a good of the earth is to be shared by all who comply with a certain mode of being and purpose, nuance qualifies general statements and nuance is identified and explored by prudential reasoning. If there is a compatibility between a nation’s mode of being and purpose and those of a foreigner, the foreigner is welcome to become a member of the nation. However, in an empirical and evidence-based world, the compatibility simply cannot be assumed.

roy chen yee | 27 January 2022  

From what you've posted on the printed page, Roy, the little that can be made sense of would suggest that, yet again, you deny Christ's corporality and humanity and His links with the Creator God of the Old Testament, a dualistic doctrine called Marcionism with links into Gnosticism. (Marcionites hold that Yahweh is inconsistent, jealous, wrathful and genocidal, His realm a place of suffering and He a malicious, Platonic and bungling demiurge).

As to the matter of compatibility, in every empirical sense Judeo-Christianity teaches that we are all Creatures of God, equal beneficiaries of God Provenance and that, accordingly, the question of compatibility or incompatibility doesn't arise in the Christian cosmos.

So this begs the question in this forum, Roy, about what someone with a Chinese background, such as your name suggests you have, is doing almost perpetually proffering a contrarian point of view in a journal committed to social, cultural and humanitarian inclusiveness.

Where's the relevance in your point that boundaries matter, especially on matters of sexual responsibility relating to our Creator's gift of the senses, unless and as usual, you seize this opportunity to excoriate me for being born gay, using it to disqualify me from commenting here?

Michael Furtado | 02 February 2022  

Making, again, a mountain out of a molehill?

The point always has been that the passion to be expansively inclusive has to be restrained by prudence in a world containing limited resources and people of changeable moral intentions, and working out what is licitly prudent requires working within the boundaries of Scripture and Tradition, at least if one claims to be Catholic.

roy chen yee | 03 February 2022  

'We', friend Edward? And who might that 'we' be? Those of us who shifted here, or into metropolitan France, or indeed anywhere else, displaced pre-existing people, inserted our respective flags, set up border controls and forces to police them and decided who should or shouldn't come after us?

Whose epistemic voice is being expressed here and what others, until now, are excluded from this conversation? Elderly White Men's or those now drawn from a wider spectrum? And what entitles us to 'other' Tunisians, simply because they have olive skins and profess Islam in large numbers? On what other basis would you exclude them?

Tunisians are poor and often find it a struggle to put food on the table. Western Europe is incomparably wealthy, having made a head-start with its economy by colonising Tunisia and vast other parts of the world from which wealth was extracted under colonial rule. (For instance, Bengal had the wealthiest economy on the globe until the East India company annexed it).

On whose behalf do we assume an entitlement to post here? What unquestioned assumptions do we bring to this conversation? And what might our rationale for posting be, other than to reveal who we are?

Michael Furtado | 26 January 2022  

Some ethical and moral compass in action?

The Anglosphere and Europe has refugee, border and immigration policies that have become more nativist and authoritarian' matching ageing voter demographic vs. younger diversity.

This can be traced to the influence of deceased white nationalist, admirer of the white Australia policy (and visitor), muse of Steve Bannon and promoter of the 'great replacement' (before Renaud Camus), John Tanton.

Part of the inspiration was Jean Raspail's 'Camp of the Saints' with the destruction of 'western civilisation' due to warms of 'immigrants' and 'refugees' hijacking ships; the author was interviewed in Tanton's Social Contract Press by a Swinburne University academic in 1994-5 (republished 2005) in article titled 'A Conversation With Jean Raspail (Reprint)'.

Andrew J. Smith | 22 January 2022  

‘‘When you invent the ship’, warned the late cultural theorist Paul Virilio, ‘you also invent the shipwreck’. Virilio was speaking about technologies, but his words have a broader relevance. Social conditions harbor the potential for catastrophe just as many inventions do.’

Those clamouring for a civil scripture such as a constitutionalised bill of rights, or even an overarching legislation that is revocable by a simple majority of a parliament, might remember that in a fallen world where intelligence tends towards distortion unless restrained by explicit resort to fundamental principle (something touched on by Greg Craven in a concurrent article), to invent a liberty is also to enable a licence.

‘Good’ as it appears to human apperception sometimes fails to contain an implicit or explicit description of what is anti-good through showing to that apperception what it is not. The good in the Garden had to contain, in the tree of knowledge of good and evil, a representation of what it was not, with a concurrency of free will to be at liberty to eat of any tree that was not the tree of knowledge of good and evil or at licence to eat of that tree. The personification of Good in a God does not adequately describe to human apperception what evil is without the personification in the Devil as human examples cannot escape being, by reason of physical frailty and the fears it induces, a mixture of both.

Without resort to fundamental intellectual principle, the good that is a human being’s autonomy over his or her bodily functions of itself fails to address what is the case when one of those functions includes the gender-segregated ability to deprive another human of life. So, too, the good that allows humans to derive sexual pleasure from complementary biologies for greater social purpose of itself fails to address what is the case when the biologies are not complementary and the purpose is unattainable. Similarly, the good that allows a country to be a refuge fails to address what is the case when the carrying capacity, in all senses, of that country is not unlimited.

roy chen yee | 26 January 2022  
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Roy makes a brave attempt, not only to link all his prejudices and phobias - misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia (you name it, he applauds it) under one Scriptural umbrella drawn from the Fall account, but to assemble them for all to see under the logic of his dialectical method which sees the purpose of Christianity as not to advance the Love of God in all its effulgence but as a perpetual apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil.

Roy's incessantly embattled construction of Christianity as a religious landscape that will allow no peace raises important questions about his participation in this conversation and what he imagines is the purpose of his Cassandraic theology.

Drawn especially from the Greek myths, it proffers a cosmos in which war, murder and every possible vice is unleashed upon the human psyche as a consequence of the Fall, wiping out the New Testament in its entirety as a countervention and stymieing of the Christian message he depicts of unspeakable, unbearable and
unremitting suffering, misery and hopelessness.

As Roy himself alludes to another in Eureka Street, so also might I recommend him to read Joel Hodge's article on the scapegoating that fittingly describes Roy's theology.

Michael Furtado | 28 January 2022  

‘wiping out the New Testament in its entirety’

The New Testament which is umbilically attached to the Old Testament which canonically tells us of the Fall?

roy chen yee | 01 February 2022  

I think, as John Frawley says, the Pope, a thoroughly decent person, is unrealistic. Sub-Saharan Africa is, in the main, with some honorable exceptions, in the grip of a continuing economic crisis. Much of this is caused by the vicious kleptocrats at the top who are in league with the Chinese exploiters of their countries' national resources. China's ecnomic empire in Africa, ably advanced by the Belt and Road initiative, is as bad, if not worse, than the worst European colonisers. Africa (and Asia's) economic problems need to be addressed at the coalface. Migration will merely lessen the problem and will often deprive these countries of their best and brightest. Of course we don't want more deaths at sea, but the problem needs to be addressed at source.

Edward Fido | 29 January 2022  
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Edward misses Dr Minas' and Pope Francis' implicit point that the immediacy of the crisis demands a humanitarian response, regardless of numbers seeking asylum in Europe, North America and Australasia.

Speculative forays into contestable ideological analyses that would blame China for the refugee mess, when the World Bank itself estimates that China has raised 850 million people out of poverty, suggests a lack of proportionality on Edward's part, akin to Marie Antoinette's frivolous allusion to cake-consumption as a solution for the starvation of the French masses (and which tragically cost her a head).

Edward's net, cast wide into the heartless Mediterranean, desperately searches for fish, initially Tunisian and now sub-Saharan, to make his excellent point about the importance of long-term solutions.

However, a dip into the work of Anthony Pagden would show him that his entrapment, as with some others on this platform, in the heady narratives of Christian pragmatism and left-wing multiculturalism misses both Minas' and the Pope's point.

Broadly enlightened if even post-Christian values still predominate in the world's democracies. The Pope and Minas appeal as humanitarians for those same values to to be extended to the desperate. Otherwise we face a tragedy equivalent to the Jewish Holocaust.

Michael Furtado | 02 February 2022  

‘Sub-Saharan Africa’

Try Spanish Sahara, desert, but, if the Moroccans are willing and the Polisario can be persuaded to go along, a workshop sub-sovereign state for the landless can be set up along the coastline with solar power for manufacturing and desalination. Close by across the sea is the US, China’s main customer for goods which the workshoppers can produce at costs which are seriously competitive with those incurred by Chinese industry.

roy chen yee | 06 February 2022  

A good suggestion, Roy, and why not? Meantime thousands drown or face starvation through the ill-gotten gains that account for postcolonial wealth in some quarters and abject destitution and turmoil in others.

Thus we're still faced with Edward's problem (and Stephen Minas' and+Francis' pressing challenge) of the immediacy of the crisis.

Michael Furtado | 10 February 2022