Daniel Harkins says we should open not close the door to refugees.
It was an unusual Mass, with a congregation that had been through great hardship.
There was a little boy in an Argentina football shirt with his hands together in prayer, a little girl no more than a few years old peeking over a makeshift altar, shoeless men lying on dirty mattresses.
All had trekked through thick jungle and braved wild animals and violent criminals to be here. But they weren’t supposed to here – they were supposed to be living a new life of opportunity in the United States.
Instead, they were in limbo, waiting to be sent back to poverty.
The limbo was a refugee camp in Panama City in Central America. The Mass was celebrated on November 13, the World Day of the Poor, for the congregation of refugees, who were mainly from Venezuela.
They reached Panama after walking for days through almost impenetrable jungle – the Darién – that covers the border with Colombia. Their plan was to travel through Central America to the US border, and hopefully across it.
But a change in policy in the US in October meant Venezuelans had little chance of achieving asylum in the country. So the refugees were stuck in Panama.
Most are back in Venezuela now, with the help of a number of religious organisations who paid for their flights. But refugees still make the journey every day through the Darién jungle.
In November, more than 16,000 hiked their way through mud, water and thick forest cover into Panama. This included more than 5,000 children.
More than 200,000 people from across the world have crossed through the Darien this year. Hundreds of those were unaccompanied minors: children, alone in a deadly jungle.
Why am I telling you this? Because it has an important lesson for us here in the UK. The lesson is this: there is no policy, regardless of how harsh, that will deter refugees.
If someone is willing to risk their life in a deadly jungle in the hopes of maybe, weeks later, making it to the US, then they will brave any risk in the hope of a better life. Help, not deterrence, is the best approach to the problem. The UK is currently pursuing a policy of deporting refugees to Rwanda.
The Tory government claims it will reduce the number of refugees making the deadly journey across the English Channel. It will not.
Needleless to say, it is also an inhuman policy. Every refugee is a person seeking a life. A life they do not have in their homeland – homelands which are usually suffering from problems created or contributed to by the western world.
They deserve our respect and our help.
And like all humans, their stories are not all dark. I visited a refugee camp in Bangladesh in 2017 with SCIAF. I was told terrible stories by refugees as I sat in a cafe. But I was also amazed at the fact there was a cafe in this refugee camp.
People sat around laughing and drinking sweet tea. They had built a community. They had built hope among darkness.
Refugees are people, the same as us. See them as people. Help them on their journey. Oppose idiotic government policies built on fiawed theories and inhumanity.
And if you have any spare cash this Christmas – unlikely I know – consider donating it to SCIAF or the Scottish Refugee Council. Details are on their websites.