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Happy Birth Day?

By: Ellen Van Stichel

 364,501 new stories every day. The way a child is born mirrors the society and the place where its cradle stands. It also determines its future.

 From the website of Lieve Blancqaert. Birth Day:

 In a project called ‘Birth Day’, the Flemish photographer, Lieve Blancqaert, travelled around the world (from Shanghai to Kenya, from the United States to India and Siberia) to ‘get a picture’ of how children are born in very different cultural settings. She literally drops by when women are in labour to find out ‘how the world welcomes its children’. The project has given rise to a book and exhibition of her photographs, and to a nine-part television documentary series. On Epiphany, the last episode was broadcast on TV, reporting on a hospital in Brussels where midwives take care of illegal immigrants. It was really a revelation; an eye-opener. Of course I was well aware of the fact that a ‘happy new year’ would not be given to all people, not even to all the inhabitants of one of the most wealthy countries of Europe. But what this episode revealed went far beyond my imagination.

About 200 people, half of whom were children, were living in an illegally occupied house, with poor heating and electricity and dirty toilets compared to which our stables for animals look like paradise. But an inhabitant praised the government for being so ‘humane’ as to let them at least live there. (Correction:  at the time of the interviews, in August 2013, these people lived there, but by November 2013 the mayor of the town had thrown them out, because it was ‘unsafe’.) A woman living on the street with a 2-year old, three months pregnant by a man who gave her a roof above her head for a while (thus giving him all she had to offer – herself), could not find any place to stay and hopped from one place to another every day, most of the time ending up in the train station for the night. ‘This is much worse than it was in Africa, much worse,’ she says with a desperate voice and sad glance. The Christmas-event couldn’t be revived more strikingly.

The “migration of the desperate”[1], as John Paul II tended to call economically deprived migrants, was given a face. I was touched, completely in disbelief, and moved to sadness. How can it be that ‘my’ country, the capital of Europe, is not able help these people or to show some creativity to avoid these situations?

But what also concerns me – maybe at this point, even more – is the fact that our, my, society does not even seem to care anymore. In May we have ‘the mother of all elections’ as announced by media and politicians: with Flemish, federal and European elections all taking place on the same day. The credibility of the current government will be put to the test and the majority will have to see whether ‘the’ Flemish people regard the right-wing, separatist nationalist party NVA as the better alternative. For this party reflects a growing current that, despite its subtle presence, is gradually gaining momentum. This is a political current supported by people who feel frightened for the future, their future, their wealth; who are threatened by all kinds of challenges (migration not in the least), who feel isolated, abandoned, and treated unfairly by ‘the system’. The political reactions in Germany and Great Britain against the open borders policy of Europe which, for instance, allows Bulgarians and Hungarians easy access to work in the whole of Europe, reflects the wider scope of this tendency. This is occurring at a time when we need more solidarity and to join forces to work for justice across Belgium, across Europe.

These responses reflect the danger John Paul II warned of, namely the tendency to “talk less and less of the situation of ‘emigrants’ in their countries of origin, and more and more of ‘immigrants’ with respect to the problems they create in the countries where they settle”[2].

Easy answers to this complex social question are hard to give, perhaps especially for theological ethicists. These situations are far from the ideal “right not to have to migrate” so that people can live in their identity-constituting community, as Catholic social thought has put it.[3] Even the more realistic idea of a “right to immigrate”[4] seems an idealistic dream in this political and social context. In order to realize these ideals, if ever, structures will have to change. Moreover, to deal with migrants today, structures of receiving countries, such as mine, will have to change.

Until then, it is comforting to know that there are people, such as these midwives, who feel the injustice and just do care (or do just care!) – both symbolically and literally speaking – for these illegal immigrants!



Ellen Van Stichel is postdoctoral researcher of the Anthropos-project (Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of KU Leuven, Belgium).  Anthropos is an interdisciplinary project of fundamental theologians and theological ethicists seeking to develop a renewed theological anthropology rooted in the Christian tradition and in dialogue with contemporary science and philosophy. As an ethicist, she is connected to Fara, an organization concerned with counseling women and couples when facing a dilemma during their pregnancy (for example, the pregnancy is unplanned, or the child may be disabled). Hence, her research interests are in social and political ethics, as well as biomedical ethics.


[1] John Paul II, Message of for the World Day of Migration 2000, §4.

[2] Jon Paul II, Message for World Migration Day 1996, §1.

[3] See Pontifical Council fort the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Instruction: Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi (The Love of Christ Towards Migrants”, §29.

[4] Laborem Exercens, §23.