Throughout history the need for individuals, families, and or communities to flee persecution and or famine has been well documented. In Exodus the people of Israel ed from slavery (Ex), Joseph’s brothers went to Egypt due to a devastating famine (Gn 42:1-3), and Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt to protect the life of Jesus (Mt 2:13-15).
Today there are 15.2 million1 people who are considered refugees in accordance with the strict terms of the United Nations Refugee Convention 1951. This convention defines a refugee as a person who ‘owing to 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’. Whilst an individual is applying for refugee status they are known as asylum seekers. Refugee status gives a person legal rights and protection. The Pontifical Council describes this situation as a “wound in the side of humanity that has continued to grow, infecting the poorest countries: about ninety per cent of refugees are found in third-world countries”2.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has three methods for helping Refugees:
- Voluntary Repatriation: refugees return to their own country, when their country’s situation allows individuals to return and live safely.
- Local Integration into the country of first asylum (usually a neighbouring country whose borders refugees have crossed seeking safety). This can only occur where the country has the willingness and capacity to integrate such people.
- Resettlement into a third country. This is generally reserved for those in the greatest need of international protection or durable solution, and will only occur if the first two options are not possible. In 2010 New Zealand took 535 refugees, Australia took 5,336, Canada took 6,706, the USA took 54,0773 via this method.
In addition to the 15.2 million refugees, there a further 26 million people4 who are internally displaced within their own country due to war, famine, and or persecution. However because Internally Displaced People (IDPs) have not left their own country they cannot claim refugee status and so are exempt from its rights and legal protection.
The UNHCR’s original mandate does not specifically cover IDPs. As IDPs do not qualify for refugee status they remain under the protection of their own government- despite the fact that their government might be the cause of their flight. However, due to the UNHCR’s expertise on displacement, it has for many years helped millions of IDPs. In recent years the UNHCR has taken the lead role in overseeing their protection and shelter needs, and it has been responsible for the coordination and management of their camps. In 2009 it helped 14.7 million people in twenty two countries including: Sudan, Colombia and Iraq.
Refugees and Internally displaced people (IDPs) face very different challenges to other migrants. Migrants have time to choose and plan their move to another country and culture. They can organise paper work and maximise their job opportunities abroad with thoughtful research. However, refugees and IDPs are the victims of disasters such as cruel regimes, civil war, and famine. Many will have experienced persecution, torture, rape or abduction. They are forced to leave their homes with little or no chance of preparation, sometimes in the dead of night. They are often unable to farewell close friends and family. Following often perilous journeys they are faced with overcrowded refugee camps, which can be seen by their host country as an imposition on their wealth, culture, and social structure, causing hostility towards those in the camp. These camps can then degenerate into virtual prisons. There are few if any hospital and educational facilities available. As individuals can spend many years, even decades in these facilities with few job and life enhancing opportunities they are forced into the status of beggars, further stripping them of their human dignity.
The question is how can the global, national, and local church effectively respond to our suffering brothers and sisters? “Indifference constitutes a sin”5 whereas solidarity enables us to walk with them in their time of need. Mindful of the Catholic Church’s teaching on human equality we are challenged to view the world from another’s point of view, inspiring us to overcome our selfishness and reach out without distinction to those in need. On a global scale we can support charities such as CARITAS who establish long term equitable partnerships with suffering communities, ensuring that all money is wisely spent with a view always to promoting future independence. CARITAS along with a number of other Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) lobby their national and the international community to develop policies/legislation that will promote and protect the rights and human dignity of all people, especially the most vulnerable. They lobby governments to find peaceful solutions to the conflicts that cause refugee problems. The importance of good law and policy making cannot be understated. St Thomas Aquinas said an unjust law “ceases to be a law and becomes instead an act of violence.”
Refugee resettlement involves a number of challenges. These include an often radical cultural transition in order to adjust to life in the country of resettlement. Many refugees coming from rural undeveloped countries can struggle to understand how to access public transport, education, and health care systems. Even shopping can be difficult to navigate with unfamiliar produce and clothes. Language barriers are often a problem. Resettled refugees can struggle to identify with their new community and can easily feel isolated and overwhelmed. Discrimination
from local people can further reduce their confidence to integrate. In New Zealand there are several organisations both voluntary and state funded that seek to help refugees overcome these barriers and successfully integrate into our community. These include: Refugee Services NZ, English Language Partners NZ, RMS Refugee Resettlement etc.
On a positive note, recent research from Australia has found that being a refugee is an experience that people can overcome. Once they have access to education and employment opportunities they positively contribute to their new country’s economy and therefore its prosperity. After ve years most humanitarian entrants will be well integrated into the community and will be either working, studying or raising a family5. It is important to realise that “as God walked with the refugees of Exodus in search of a land free of any slavery, he is still walking with today’s refugees in order to accomplish His loving plan together with them”6. Therefore within our parishes we must always actively be on the lookout to welcome the stranger, extend hospitality, give food to the hungry both at home and abroad, (eg. Via SVDP, Caritas) whilst always seeking opportunities to establish inclusive and respectful relationships with those around us.
The local and global nature of the press can have a profoundly positive or negative impact upon how refugees are perceived at home and abroad. It is not uncommon for the press to vilify refugees and excessively highlight any negative impact their presence will have leading to a scapegoat mentality. They can intensify a host country’s fear that refugees will disturb established patterns of life, threatening the country’s wealth, physical and spiritual health, and/or cultural stability. The challenge to the Church is to correct the imbalance of negative publicity by finding out and conveying to all its members and the population in general the balanced truth. It seeks to encourage an atmosphere of personal solidarity with those around us, encouraging us to live a responsible lifestyle so we can become contributors to the common good.
The Catholic Church has a Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People who seek to propagate the truth about the realities, rights, and needs of these people. Every January the Catholic Church celebrates Migrant and Refugees day. The Pope gives a speci c address highlighting the church’s solidarity with the challenges these people face. Similarly the United Nations hold a yearly World Refugee day on June 20th.
New Zealand along with the Catholic community has a reputation for respecting and defending human rights. For us to maintain and extend this we always need to treat others in a way we ourselves would like to be treated. The principle of Solidarity recognises that each person is connected to and dependant on all humanity, collectively and individually. We are one human family, irrespective of our national, racial, ethical, economic or ideological background. Extending a hand to welcome, assist and defend those who are in need such as genuine asylum seekers and refugees brings to the fore the global dimension of the commandment to “love thy neighbour as ourselves”. It was Oscar Schindler who famously said “whoever saves one life, saves the world entire”.
As we walk in Christ’s footsteps we remember his words…
“whatever you do the least of your brothers you do unto me”
– Matthew 25:40
- United Nations High Commission for Refugee Global Trends 2011
- Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity. Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.
- Letter to the High Commissioner of the United Na ons for Refugees, 25th June 1982.
- United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2012. Pg 64.
- Department of Immigration on and Citizenship (DIAC) A Significant Contribution, 2011.