CNEWA Connections: The Pope’s Principles for Welcoming Migrants and Refugees

On 27 September 2020, the Catholic Church observed the 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. Pope Francis published a letter to mark the occasion. The theme he chose was “Like Jesus Christ forced to flee. Welcoming, promoting and integrating internally displaced persons.”

On 27 June 2018, we published the first of two blog pieces on “The Movement of Peoples.” In those pieces, we noted that (two years ago) the UN estimated that there were 68.6 million people in the world who had been forcibly displaced, of whom 40 million were internally displaced, i.e. force to leave their homes and go to another part of their country. Although there is no need again to go into details, International (Humanitarian) Law has legal definitions differentiating the displaced from the internally displaced, the refugee and the asylum seeker.

In the two years since the original blog post, the situation of displaced people around the world has not improved. There have been conflicts around the world and increasing environmental degradation due to climate change. The rise of xenophobic and authoritarian regimes in all parts of the world has made the movement of peoples more difficult and any meaningful solutions to the problem of migration less likely.

Still, there have been significant events that have impacted migration — most notably, the emergence and rapid spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, now a global pandemic.

The pandemic has had a major impact on the movement of peoples —refugees and migrants. The pandemic prompted quarantines of differing intensities throughout the world. Many countries closed their borders to prevent the spread of the disease. What was always difficult for refugees and migrants became, almost overnight, impossible. The coronavirus is especially dangerous, since it can be spread people who are infected but who have no symptoms. Refugees and migrants often found themselves in camps where the virus could spread easily.

Even in the developed world, medical resources, equipment and hospital beds came increasingly under stress. The quarantine involved closing schools, restaurants and businesses large and small. The global economy went into a steep recession. All of these counter measures — to say nothing of the high number of fatalities — have caused incredible suffering to people from China to Germany, Italy to Brazil. The impact the virus has had on settled populations has been huge. The impact it has had on non-settled populations — migrants, refugees, displaced persons (internally and otherwise) — has barely been studied. However, it has without a doubt made the lives and futures of millions of people increasingly precarious.

“Pope Francis is setting forth a simple but profound description of how we are to respond practically to the social magisterium of the Church — what spiritual attitudes are necessary and what real-time commitments are involved.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

In his letter, the pope is confronted by an incredibly complex set of problems. He chose to focus on two: the pandemic and internally displaced people. There was no way that he could overlook the pandemic. Why, however, he chose to focus on “the tragedy of internally displaced people” is less clear. Several questions arise and remain unanswered: why single out internally displaced? Does internal displacement required different analyses and/or solutions? Pope Francis does not explain this.

However, the pope offers several descriptive/prescriptive principles which, while certainly not limited to internally displaced persons, are helpful in articulating a moral and Christian response to the overall movement of people.

Those principles are:

  • You have to know to understand. Here the pope stresses the importance of knowing migrants, etc., not as mere statistics but as real people to be encountered in all their complexity.
  • It is necessary to be close in order to serve. Francis sees fear and especially prejudices—“all too many prejudices”—preventing us from becoming neighbors and serving others.
  • In order to be reconciled, we need to listen.
  • In order to grow, it is necessary to share. Always mindful of  earth, “our common home,” Francis says God “did not want the resources of our planet to benefit only a few.” “To grow truly,” he writes, “we must grow together, sharing what we have….”
  • We need to be involved in order to promote. The poor must  be involved and made “agents of their own redemption.” Here Francis draws a lesson from the pandemic which reminds us “how essential co-responsibility is, and it is only with the contribution of everyone — even of those groups so often underestimated — (that we can) face this crisis.”
  • It is necessary to cooperate in order to build. “To preserve our common home…we must commit ourselves to ensuring international cooperation, global solidarity and local commitment, leaving no one excluded.”

Anyone familiar with the letters of St. Paul knows that he sometimes gets sidetracked and goes off on a tangent. Occasionally the tangent ends up more important than the original topic. I have the feeling that this may be the case with Pope Francis’ letter. It is easy to get distracted with the topic of the pandemic and the “internally displaced” and to wonder how this all comes together and what it has to do specifically with them.

In fact, in his six “principles” Pope Francis has moved to a much broader topic. He is setting forth a simple but profound description of how we are to respond practically to the social magisterium of the Church — what spiritual attitudes are necessary and what real-time commitments are involved.

I suspect these principles could be rich soil for implementing the much-overlooked social magisterium of the Church — no small contribution!

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