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  • Thomas Frost

What Your Right Hand is Doing

A few weeks ago, a group of pregnant women were driven into the desert by Tunisian authorities and abandoned there. Their phones were stolen, and if the Tunisian authorities followed their usual practice they were left with little or no food or water. If they were not beaten and tortured in detention as Black African migrants in Tunisia often are, that was the extent of the concessions. In all likelihood, such generosity had not been made to the hundreds of others from whom the pregnant women had been separated when they were arrested in trying to leave Tunisia to reach Europe by boat in order to claim asylum. If you are a European citizen, this was done for your benefit – the EU gave upwards of €100 million to the Tunisian government between 2015 and 2022 for the purpose of strengthening its borders, and last year proudly announced a ‘strategic partnership’ with the increasingly authoritarian regime, pledging €1 billion as part of its program of cutting off routes for refugees by outsourcing the necessary violence to the North African countries from which African migrants usually depart. All this fits very well with the British government’s own policy of hostility towards refugees, and it has raised no objection. There would, of course, be no need for refugees to pass through Tunisia anyway if British and European governments provided them with safe and legal routes, but we have chosen instead to turn the Sahara, as well as the Mediterranean, into a graveyard. The Tunisian authorities out of sight, the women started to walk back toward the coast.


Days later, I happened to be one of the people on shift with the Alarm Phone. The Alarm Phone primarily exists to support migrants crossing the Mediterranean – people travelling, usually already at sea, can call the number, and if they are in distress the team on shift can relay information about the boat to coast guards which are generally reluctant to rescue boats of migrants from the global South, to civilian rescue ships, or failing that, to commercial vessels. A degree of pressure can be placed on authorities to refrain from human rights abuses if they know that an external observer is aware of the situation. The work of the Alarm Phone is vital and undoubtedly saves lives, but there is always a limit to what it can do remotely in the face of persistent governmental efforts to restrict any civil measures to make the crossing safer. On this occasion, a man who had managed to evade capture to a sufficient extent to have retained his phone, and was now accompanying the group of women, was in contact with us. One of the women was about to give birth, and he wanted us to contact NGOs who might have been able to help. No relevant NGOs were able to operate in the area; we could offer nothing except the numbers of local health authorities which the group, after their recent encounter with Tunisian authorities, were understandably reluctant to call. We heard nothing from them for a while.


This took place a few days before Ash Wednesday, when Catholics heard at Mass the Gospel reading advising us, less on what we should give, than on how we should give when we do so. When you give alms, do it secretly. When you pray, do it secretly. When you fast, do it secretly. The King James Version refers, strikingly, to the recipient of our prayer as ‘thy Father which is in secret’. For most British Catholics, this is a free choice. We live in a democratic country with a law which acknowledges, even if it inconsistently practices, an obligation to secure our rights. Part of our privilege – especially those who are citizens, and those who are white - is that secrecy is not imposed on us. It is easy for us to avoid persecution; we can live our lives in public view and it is up to us how much we do in public. For the many people whose presence in this country is criminalised by our immigration laws, who cannot legally rent or work, who cannot make themselves known to authorities without grave consequences, secrecy is not something they can opt out of. Jesus’ own situation had more in common with theirs – toward the end of his ministry he could not heal or preach in public without the risk of apprehension by political authorities. In that way he is closer to them, just as we know that the itinerant preacher is closer to the poor than the rich. Our ability to live openly is another thing that separates us from the child refugee, the adult fugitive, the member of an occupied people who God was when he came down to us.


From Tunisia, the man contacted us to say that, as the baby started to crown, he had carried the woman giving birth on his back to a road, and found her and another woman with her a taxi to take her to a hospital. After walking for days through the desert he had found strength to carry a pregnant woman; having narrowly avoided imprisonment and abuse by authorities he had exposed himself to the risk of capture for the sake of a woman and child to whom he owed no special obligation.


His act of heroism will never be known, let alone rewarded, because he remains one of the thousands of people obliged to remain hidden due to the threat of persecution. Probably he still faces the lethal crossing, and then years of the dehumanising bureaucratic nightmare of European asylum processes, the end result of which may well be the decision that there is no sanctuary for him here.


His act of heroism was not unique; marginalised people cut off from mainstream protection and support are obliged to rely primarily on solidarity with each other. I think of the two migrants we know to have drowned this time last year rescuing others from the sea before any help arrived. We should use such privilege as we have as usefully as we can, but must keep in mind that, when it comes to the experience of those crossing borders, we are the ones at the periphery. We all know of the grandstanding charity of the powerful – the kind that has its place on television – which imposes a narrative convenient to power, of a global poor indefinitely dependent on the generosity of the global rich, concealing the unjust relations which create the need the charity only partially fulfils. God is in secret; God’s work is done in secret. If our work does any good, it will do good just to the extent that it was done without regard for the approval of power, which usually means that it will remain obscure. So be it – the more we are in secret the closer we are to God, and to the people to whom he is closest. Perhaps this is all to say just that we should expect to find him where he told us he would be, but I find that I need to keep being reminded.


This article was originally published in the Easter 2024 issue of the London Catholic Worker newsletter.

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