The planet is experiencing a “movement of peoples” unseen in decades, if not centuries.
The UN recently (20 June) observed World Refugee Day in recognition of this problem. People are fleeing oppressive regimes, climate change induced droughts, floods and loss of land, wars and other forms of what the United Nations calls “drivers of emigration.” Although Europe and North America receive the greatest amount of media attention regarding the problems they face as new people try to enter, their migration problems are dwarfed by countries such as Jordan and Lebanon where refugees form up to 20 percent of the overall population. For comparison, 20 percent of the population of the U.S. would be 66 million people!
CNEWA has been in the middle of this movement of peoples — helping refugees, internally displaced people and those suffering from war and persecution in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and India. We have helped people in refugee camps obtain what they needed to get through winters, in addition to providing health, social and educational services.
It is important to note that this movement of peoples involves many types of people, leaving their homes for many different reasons and under a variety of circumstances.
There is often confusion in terms when speaking of refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, etc. Terms often have a specific, legal meaning. Putting all groupings together, the UN speaks of “populations of concern” and “forcibly displaced people.” The terminology and legal structure is, however, evolving. And the distinctions are important.
The UN estimates there are 68.6 million people in the world who have been forcibly displaced. Of these, 40 million are internally displaced people, who have been driven out of their homes and forced to live in other places in their home country. For example, many Christians in Iraq were forced to leave Baghdad for the Nineveh Plain and then driven from there to Iraqi Kurdistan. In Syria large numbers of people—Christian and Muslim—have been driven from their homes to live in other parts of the country.
The internally displaced are, however, only part of the present crisis. Millions of people are leaving their native countries entirely. And the numbers are overwhelming.
It is estimated that, legally speaking in terms of international law, there are 25.4 million refugees, 3.1million asylum seekers and 10 million stateless people in the world. The problem is unprecedented and is putting tremendous economic, cultural and political pressure on target countries throughout the world. Although countries in Europe and North America are often loudest in bemoaning the crisis, the top refugee hosting countries in the world according to the UN are Turkey (3.5 million), Lebanon (1 million), Pakistan and Uganda (with 1.4 million each) and Iran (979,000). In countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, the refugee population is so large — up to one fifth of the people— it can cause incredible— indeed existential—economic, social and political problems.
But it’s important to note that the UN differentiates between refugees, migrants, stateless persons and asylum seekers. Let’s look how the United Nations defines these terms.
According to the UN: “Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk. Refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection. The refugee definition can be found in the 1951 Convention and regional refugee instruments, as well as UNHCR’s Statute.”
The UN says of migrants: “An international migrant is someone who changes his or her country of usual residence, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status. Generally, a distinction is made between short-term or temporary migration, covering movements with a duration between three and 12 months, and long-term or permanent migration, referring to a change of country of residence for a duration of one year or more.”
Likewise the international legal definition of a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” In simple terms, this means that a stateless person does not have a nationality of any country. Some people are born stateless, but others become stateless. Statelessness can occur for several reasons, including discrimination against particular ethnic or religious groups, or on the basis of gender; the emergence of new States and transfers of territory between existing States; and gaps in nationality laws. Whatever the cause, statelessness has serious consequences for people in almost every country and in all regions of the world.”
Finally, while asylum seekers form a distinct category, their legal rights are not clearly delineated. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (old/broken link: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html) (1948) holds that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” And “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, it is not worked out what limitations sovereign states may impose on these rights, since the UN clearly recognizes that sovereign states have control of their borders. An initial attempt at dealing with migration is the UN Global Compact on Migration (2017), which attempts to deal with the complexity of the problem. Archbishop Bernadito Auza, the Permanent Observer (Ambassador) of the Holy See to the UN, has been very active in developing and promoting the Global Compact on Migration.
Pope Francis and his representative at the UN have been advocates and voices of justice and compassion for the millions of people displaced by violence all over the world. Recent discussions at the UN recognize that these people are forcibly displaced, i.e. the do not want to leave their homes. There is an emerging notion of “the right to remain,” that recognizes that the “drivers of emigration”—war/violence, poverty, persecution of minorities, climate induced changes such as droughts, disappearing island nations, etc., need to be addressed in a just and equitable way, if the problems of the contemporary movement of peoples is to be alleviated. Moreover, there is a growing recognition that people have a basic right to demand that governments do everything possible to remove the drivers of emigration which are causing the global problem.
And the Church, in part through the work of CNEWA, is seeking to bring compassion and hope to many of these people on the move.
As Pope Francis said, marking the World Day for Migrants and Refugees this year:
“Every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected strangers of every age (Matthew 25:35-43). The Lord entrusts to the Church’s motherly love every person forced to leave their homeland in search of a better future. This solidarity must be concretely expressed at every stage of the migratory experience — from departure through journey to arrival and return. This is a great responsibility, which the Church intends to share with all believers and men and women of good will, who are called to respond to the many challenges of contemporary migration with generosity, promptness, wisdom and foresight, each according to their own abilities.”