On the occasion of a double anniversary of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), the thirtieth anniversary of JRS International and the tenth anniversary of JRS Belgium, people were invited to watch and discuss Olivier Masset-Despasse’s hard, but moving film “Illégal” (Illegal). I had been invited to offer a short reflection on migration, detention and illegality.

In this Belgian movie an undocumented Russian migrant, a woman, Tania, is detained in a detention center as the authorities plan to expell her. Her son, Ivan, has escaped detention. It is, ultimately, the love between mother and son that will help them to overcome the psychological, social and physical hardship they both suffer.

In a short contribution, I highlighted seven ideas. (1) The importance of an existential identification with the people presented in the movie, not in a superficial emotional sense, but in the depth of a shared humanity. (2) The awareness that people hide suffering and their responsibility in the suffering of others behind the screen of social systems and institutions, which offer them the possibility to avoid a direct confrontation with reality. (3) The rude awakening when the cracks in these systems, structures and institutions confront us with real suffering people or with the people, who, directly, inflict the suffering. (4) The importance of political action aiming at the constuction of a community where life is shared: such political commitment requires, in the case of migrants, profound changes in our lifestyles and international relations. (5) We try to hide our personal and structural abuse of power, but we are also sensitive to the resources of hope, faith and love that help us to denounce abuse and to hold firm amidst abuse. (6) The word “illegal” in the title of the movie suggested that a person can never be called “illegal”, but also that, sometimes, people will assume the nasty word as a title to denounce the abuse that it expresses. The makers of the film also intended to say that, in fact, a system, which leads to such experiences in detention centers, is illegal. (7) JRS – in its threefold mandate to accompany, to serve and to advocate – invites all of us to a solidarity with refugees and migrants, out of which grows a dignified community, in which all of us enjoy one another’s fellowship.

This approach suggests a variety of theological thoughts, which cannot be fully developed here: on incarnation, on the structures behind which we hide people’s real crosses and our inhuman behaviour, on an anthropology that expresses the ambiguities of our lives, on the call to community (creation, church, Kingdom of God, Trinity) and to the political engagement necessary to build such community, on the resources of love and hope, on the preferential option for the poor, and on how, in people and in circumstances, we are invited to always discover the presence of the Lord of Life.

Nov 6, 2010: A French translation of my intervention at the JRS anniversary is available on the website of the Centre Avec.

Nov 6, 2010: I would like to add another link to a review of this film by Jim Conway SJ on the pages of Thinking Faith.


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