The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention defined a refugee as someone 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 to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” 1
Interestingly, there is no direct reference in this definition to armed conflict or war, which means that many end up in situations in which their status as refugees may be in limbo. The Catholic Church’s approach widens the umbrella of the above definition to include victims of armed conflicts, misguided economic policy or natural disasters, and those who are uprooted from their homes without having crossed an international frontier.2 She treats victims of armed conflicts and wars as refugees whose humanity is threatened but must be preserved, and says “…the Church is close to them not only with her pastoral presence and material support, but also with her commitment to defend their human dignity’.3 Nevertheless, in the name of justice and equity, the Church also makes an appropriate distinction between refugees and so called ‘economic refugees’, making the point that “justice and equity demand that appropriate distinctions be made. Those who flee economic conditions that threaten lives and physical safety must be treated differently from those who emigrate simply to improve their position”. 4
The Church’s wider definition of a refugee challenges much of the contemporary discussion which seeks to justify the limiting of granting of asylum and refuge to those in need. This is particularly poignant in relation to the plight of people fleeing the conflict in the Middle East and especially Syria. Their situation challenges both our attitude and response to the appalling scenes we witness on the news. An estimated twelve million Syrians have been affected since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. According to the Office of the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), four million people have fled Syria to its immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq; a further 7.5 million have been internally displaced; and 650,000 have made the long and difficult journey to Europe.5 These movements are in addition to the estimated 250,000 killed and untold numbers injured and maimed. Now that forcibly uprooted people have become multitudes, the challenges to the international community and to international agreement must be revised. Because of geographical convenience, cost and cultural similarities, it is usually neighbouring countries who receive the majority of an exodus of refugees, as with the current Syrian crisis. The Church recognises this but places the responsibility globally: “It is significant that today only a small percentage of refugees seek or receive asylum in countries outside the region of origin. In large part, neighbouring countries bear the burden of the assistance the refugees deserve. This burden should be shared equitably by the international community.” 6 The New Zealand Government’s Refugee Quota Programme allows for the intake of approximately 750 people each year. The programme aims to accept half of this quota from the Asia-Pacific region and caters for family re-unification. The Government has announced, however, that it will accept an additional 600 Syrian refugees over the next two and a half years by way of a special emergency intake.
The difficult questions that are becoming ever more real are: how do we react as a nation and as individuals to the presence of such gross inequality? How can we be so rich when others are so poor? Is it anything to do with me? What should I do? Why would anyone choose to be less well-off and to have a lower standing of living? Why would anyone choose to share their goods, resources and opportunities with the poor? Some governments might appeal to the self-interest in limiting refugee numbers; citing the threat to their own citizens’ comfort, security and ‘way of life’.
The answers to the above questions centre around one of the central principles of Catholic Social Teaching, namely solidarity. The Church explains that solidarity is more than a vague sense of distress at the misfortune of others, but a “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”.8 The essence of solidarity is in valuing our fellow human beings and respecting who they are as individuals. Quoting Pope Francis: “The many situations of inequality, poverty and injustice, are signs not only of a profound lack of fraternity, but also of the absence of a culture of solidarity. New ideologies, characterized by rampant individualism, egocentrism and materialistic consumerism, weaken social bonds, fuelling that ‘throw away’ mentality which leads to contempt for, and the abandonment of, the weakest and those considered ‘useless’. In this way human coexistence increasingly tends to resemble a mere do ut des which is both pragmatic and selfish”9.
Solidarity demands that we recognise that “we are all one family in the world. Building a community that empowers everyone to attain their full potential through each of us respecting each other’s dignity, rights and responsibilities makes the world a better place to live”.10
Solidarity with the refugees demands an overcoming of selfishness and fear of the other. Progress in the capacity to live together within the universal human family is closely linked to the growth of a mentality of hospitality and solidarity which helps to reverse the tendency to view the world solely from one’s own point of view. Acceptance of the global dimension of problems urges us to a more sober lifestyle in order to promote the Common Good; it makes it possible to provide an effective response to the just appeals of refugees and opens up pathways to peace.
Each of us is responsible for his or her neighbour: we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they live. Concern for fostering good relationships with others and the ability to overcome prejudice and fear are essential ingredients for promoting the culture of encounter, in which we are not only prepared to give, but also to receive from others. Hospitality, in fact, grows from both giving and receiving.11
What can we do? As citizens we can reach out to refugees with both words and gestures. We can speak to politicians and lobby the government to increase the quota of the numbers of refugees we take in as a nation. As Christians, we can be part of the wider Church’s mission or a national project to do practical things in hosting the new comers. A good place to start is to bring an awareness of the humanitarian problem to fellow parishioners, and to sensitise them to the plight of refugees, reminding them that Jesus Himself was a refugee: “After they had left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you and escape into Egypt’. So Joseph got up and taking the child and his mother with him left that night for Egypt”.12 Furthermore reaching out to the refugees is a great witness to the teachings of Jesus: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”.13 We can also help to allay the fears of those who may felt threatened by the coming of the refugees by helping them to see it as an opportunity to walk together with our new brothers and sisters who are themselves rich in particular gifts. We can also use our already ethnically rich dioceses and parishes to celebrate unity in diversity. There is much we can do, and should do. All it takes is an ounce of compassion.
As the world shrinks, the globalisation of trade, nance and communications creates new opportunities for the mass movement of people. They carry with them their race, ethnicity, culture and religious experience. Thus the whole world becomes a vast melting pot of humanity in all its fullness and richness, giving each of us the opportunity to build the kingdom of peace and justice for all of God’s Children in Aoteoroa New Zealand. The acts of accepting, welcoming and reaching out to refugees are not only demonstrations of solidarity. They are the very essence of what makes us human.
St Alban, patron saint of refugees, pray for us. Pray for the refugees.
- www.unhcr.org. Retrieved 5 November 2015
- Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, NO 4-5 John Paul II’s address in Nairobi, Kenya. 6th May 1980, no. 8; Paul Vi, Octogesima Adveniens, 1971, No 17, John Paul II Annual address to the Diplomatic Corps, 1983, no.6
- Ponti cal Council for Justice and Peace (2004), Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Burns and Oates: London. Para 505
- Ponti cal Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People & Ponti cal Council ‘Cor Unum’, (1992) Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity. Liberia Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City.
- UNHCR (July 2015), Total number of Syrian refugees exceeds four million for rst time. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/559d67d46.html, 21 October 2015
- John Paul II (1984), Message to The Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa
- ‘New Zealand is to take in an extra 600 Syrian Refugees’, retrieved 6 November 2015 from http://stuff.co.nz/national/politics/71820234/New-Zealand- is-to-take-an-extra-600-Syrian-refugees
- John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987)
- Pope Francis’ Message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2014
- John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987)
- Pope Francis World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2015
- Mt 3:13-15
- Mt 25:35