The Church and immigration

Michael Blume SVD

The problem of refugees is world-wide. michael Blume, a priest of the Divine Word Society, has been in charge of the Refugee Desk at the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Immigrant People for the last five years. Here he defines what refugees are and then describes their plight in a world full of wars and conflicts. 'I fear there will be no end to forced migrations for the foreseeable future. for that reason we have to keep preparing ourselves as Church to respond to that reality.'

A few years ago the United Nations produced a poster showing a dimly lit brick wall covered with graffiti saying, ‘Refugee, go home!’ At the bottom was a one-line answer: ‘He would if he could.’

The word refugee elicits a variety of reactions from concern and compassion to anger and blame. For those who have the misfortune of being refugees, the word is a constant reminder of something they would rather not be. It must be the least sought-after title in the world.

Refugees: who are they?

The popular press, TV and radio are not known for clarity when they talk about refugees as they too often confuse refugees, migrants, illegal or clandestine entrants, and criminals - sometimes using them all in the same paragraph without distinguishing one from the other. Each of these words represents different social and personal realities that have to be distinguished. A refugee, according to the Geneva Convention of 1951, is a person who: owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

The definition of the Geneva Convention is also at the basis of refugee and asylum law in the European Union as has been affirmed again at the EU Summit at Tampere, Finland. International agreements in Africa and some parts of Latin America and some national legislation recognise additional factors that make people refugees, e.g. generalised civil disorder, internal and external conflicts, and massive violation of human rights. All together there are some 23,000,000 people in the world who can be classified as refugees or people under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Contrary to scares created by the media (e.g. ‘invasions’ of refugees), the vast majority remain in countries bordering their own. An example should suffice: in 1998, 360,850, 1.5 per cent of the total, applied for asylum in European countries (excluding Russia). The total number of people actually recognised as refugees in Europe during 1998 was 31,248 (UNHCR statistics).

Uprooted people

The total number of people who live like refugees doubles if we add a group who are refugees in everything but one detail - they have not left their countries of residence. They are the ‘internally displaced people’, whom this article includes when talking about refugees. There are also other uprooted people, e.g. those granted temporary protection or humanitarian protection status, those who leave economic situations where survival at a human level is practically impossible. Behind the numbers are people, who have names, families, dreams, talents, and everything human. The bigger the numbers, however, the more difficult it is to imagine this. Our mental circuits start shorting out after trying to imagine even a few thousand people like that.

The authors of the Geneva definition belonged to the generation that three years earlier produced the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. They had fresh memories of the Second World War, recent civil conflicts, and the oppression of dictatorial governments. Knowing at first hand the terrible things human beings can inflict on one another, they acknowledged that people in such circumstances have a basic human right to the protection of other countries. That is not a right that a government grants. It is a right that governments are called upon to recognise as rooted in the human person and to protect.

Torture and conflicts

While refugees have a basic right to international protection, one can hardly speak about enjoying that right. Being a refugee means abandoning home and work and being separated from family. The decision to leave - provided there is time to think about it - usually follows witnessing violence, torture, or systematic violation of basic human rights, or experiencing the same directly on oneself, loved ones, or neighbours.

That happens in many ways. One is that dictatorial governments regularly use torture, imprisonment and assassination to maintain their power; rebel movements do the same. The second is through war or civil conflicts, 90 per cent of whose casualties are non-combatant civilians (as compared to 15 per cent in World War I and 40 per cent in World War II). It is not simply a case of people being caught in cross-fire or a house being accidently bombed. The Rambos of today deliberately go after ‘soft targets’. Torture, rape and mutilations are the order of the day in every conflict going on at this moment. All sides in the decade of civil war in the former Yugoslavia deliberately made people refugees by ‘ethnic cleansing’ and expulsion. The perpetrators must have learned the techniques together with those responsible for what happened in East Timor. The conflicts in Africa that have been simmering since the 1960s have involved the same tactics. The same can be said about the less known wars in Central Asia and the unending violence against civilians by rebels, paramilitary groups and the military in Colombia. Chechnya also seems to follow a similar path.

Those lucky enough to escape can often identify with the biblical saying about someone who ‘fled from a lion and was met by a bear’ (Amos 5:19). They often enter a new cultural world, where the language, customs and laws can be totally new and intimidating, especially when law means underpaid police and soldiers who make the rules as they go along. Getting to a safe haven can also be a road through hell. One example is enough: in a camp of Rwandan refugees in Central Africa in 1995, 90 per cent of the women and girls had been raped before, during, or after flight. And that is only one camp!

These experiences, plus those of hastily organised travel, lack of food, water and medical care, and a permanent state of insecurity, can traumatise and break even the strongest of persons. Then comes the time of exile. Its misery is compounded by rumours and news reports from home, misinformation, inability to find separated family members, unfriendly officials, inadequate food and health care, the extortion by armed elements in camps, widespread sexual promiscuity, and by the boredom of living in a quasi-prison environment without an end in sight. Those who live their exile outside camps in urban centres have to face homelessness, violence against foreigners, lack of food, health care and work, intimidation by police, and even assassination attempts by agents of their home countries. Who would not want to flee even such so-called ‘safe situations’?

When people flee home, they commonly think of it as a temporary measure ‘until things get better’. Unfortunately temporary exile has a disconcerting tendency to become permanent though there are some exceptions. The Palestinians know that only too well. The internationally proclaimed years of return of citizens of the former Yugoslavia have fizzled out. Notable numbers of Rwandans, Burundians and Congolese are dispersed in practically every country of Africa and cannot seriously think of returning; Sierra Leoneans are starting to return, but the very fragile peace and continuing barbarisms inflicted on civilians are hardly an encouragement to stay.

Church’s special ministry

These are just a few of the experiences of refugees. The Church is called on to practise a special ministry among them and in the communities and countries that receive them. I hope this very incomplete description at least makes the point that these are among the poorest of the poor who have a right to the solidarity of the international community and, in particular, of the community of believers in Christ.

The Church in the midst of refugees

Being refugees and exiles is nothing new for God’s people. Those who fled with the Exodus left behind extreme oppression and wandered homeless forty years in the desert: theirs was the God of Refugees. Large numbers of Jews were later forcibly deported to Babylon between 701 and 597 BC. The Gospel of Matthew reports the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt, an icon for refugees of all ages. The typical response of Christian communities up to this day includes hospitality, sharing food and shelter, many forms of prayer, listening to people’s experiences, and advocacy. Before international aid arrives - if it does at all - ordinary people have so often shown a spontaneous hospitality, giving out of their own poverty, and many at a tremendous price to themselves and the societies where they live.

On an international level, Catholic and Protestant communities have impressive networks, like Caritas and the Lutheran World Federation, for delivering much needed aid to people in flight, finding them temporary shelter, and even resettling them. Their campaigns for refugees have helped Christians become aware of their plight and express solidarity with them.

In many places Church-related organisations have been the only credible institutions among people in flight or exile. Nevertheless their resources are insufficient for meeting the needs of all involved. Co-operation with other organisations is thus essential. Aid generously given, however, should not obscure the need for effective political solutions that put an end to the causes of forced migrations.

Humanitarian aid is not the only service of the Church either. People in flight need to find a place of security, human warmth and understanding, others who can give a listening ear to their many questions and anxieties. They need to mourn and bury their dead, to cry out their sorrow to the Lord, and to experience once again a bit of hope. Responding to these and similar needs is the pastoral role of the Christian community, with the variety of its ministries at the service of its guests. There are many parishes in refugee-receiving countries that have generously exercised that ministry. Parishes once established for stable communities have often become places where refugees and exiles can find a place where, despite their many problems, they can gather, pray together, interpret their experiences with the light of the Bible, share sorrows and anxieties, let their children play, and even engage in small income-generating projects.

Being a voice for the voiceless

A further pastoral role is advocacy, the mission of being a voice for the voiceless and powerless. Bishops and their conferences and ecumenical organisations have done much to make their governments aware of the gravity of their refugee crises, challenge them to divert resources for the sake of refugees, and insist on the rights of refugees under law, which are so easily passed over. Those appeals are echoed by bishops and other Christian leaders throughout the world. On many occasions the Holy Father himself has publicly spoken out and appealed to Christian communities and politicians on behalf of refugees. The papal representatives in the United Nations organisations regularly put these appeals before the governments of the world. Aid is not enough: political will and action are essential to finding durable solutions to any refugee crisis, and the Church is encouraging this at all levels.

The work of Church-based organisations, priests, religious and lay people among refugees is impressively generous. Just recently an important official of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees expressed her admiration of priests and religious remaining with refugees after NGOs and international organisations had pulled out. That is not the first time I have heard that comment. At the same when it comes to consistently developing the non-material and pastoral aspect of church presence among refugees, further efforts are needed. Our brothers and sisters in the faith have a right to a pastoral care befitting their culture and concrete circumstances. Flight and exile, like other human experiences, present opportunities for growth in Christ, even if it is strongly marked by the sign of the cross. Unfortunately the qualified personnel needed for this task are rarely available at short notice and in sufficient numbers, and a general organisation at the level of local churches for meeting such needs is not yet in place. The ministry can furthermore be very demanding and even dangerous.

As the mission of the Church moves into the twenty-first century, we will not be able to escape the experience of people on the move, whether they are refugees or uprooted migrants. Wherever these people are, they have to be met. Human mobility is a sign of the times, and the Holy Spirit calls on the People of God to be there where the action is, making its specific contribution as the community of believers in Jesus Christ. In that way we recognise Christ’s presence in the poor and oppressed, let their voices echo in ours, and promote a new human solidarity, beginning in the Christian community. This is a missionary challenge for the new millennium.

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