2011-06-20 12:49:30

The Church on World Refugee Day

On June 20 every year countries and regions across the globe observe International Refugee Day, establised by the United Nations.
This year UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, in its 60th year, will mark World Refugee Day with a rich and varied programme of events in locations worldwide and the launch of a new global awareness campaign. UNHCR will start rolling out the multimedia "One" campaign next week. Over the next six months it will increase awareness about the forcibly displaced and stateless by telling their powerful personal stories. The campaign will carry the message that "One Refugee Without Hope is too Many."

On this important occasion Vatican Radio interviewed His Grace Antonio Maria VegliĆ², President of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

Q: World Refugee Day this year coincides with the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the adoption of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees. What has been done and how much still has to be done in the humanitarian engagement?

A: UNHCR has been assisting millions of refugees over the last sixty years. The organisation has also developed solution s so that they could become citizens in the country where they resettled or proposed opportunities to settle in another country. Most refugees were assisted to return home, and were helped to reconstruct their lives again.
The existence of UNHCR already indicates that the problem is far from over. The organisation was first established to remain in function for three years. This has been extended and only a few years ago, UNHCR became a permanent organisation. The problems faced are also changing and its mandate broadened. In the beginning the organisation was exclusively European oriented, dealing with 19 million uprooted citizens, displaced before 1951 related to the world war. The first broadening was the situation of Hungarian refugees in 1956 during the uprising. The following years, different situations like Algeria, Cambodia and Tibet, obliged the High Commissioner to intervene in other continents.
This has led to a situation that UNHCR became responsible for refugees worldwide. This mandate has been expanded by the General Assembly of the United Nations to groups of people who were not covered, like stateless people and persons displaced by military conflicts. During the past few years UNHCR took responsibility for certain groups of internally displaced people, namely those displaced by military conflicts or human rights violations.
New challenges are waiting. Who will take responsibility for those people who will be forced to leave their country for climate induced reasons?
One has to remark that the political climate also has changed. There is a hardening attitude of countries so that it seems that refugees are the problem and not the reasons why they have to flee.

Q: How is the engagement of the Church towards refugees and asylum seekers expressed today?

A: The Church is present with refugees and the internally displaced in many different ways. It depends very much on the involvement of the episcopal conference or the local bishop. Priests and sisters are staying with refugees in camps. In some places a bishop made the camp a parish, and treats it in the same way as other parishes. In addition, many religious congregations got individual members involved, while others joined the Jesuit Refugee Service. This service was founded in 1980 by Father Arrupe, Superior Generalof the Jesuits to respond to the needs of the Vietnamese boat people, refugees fleeing from Vietnam.
A special role is played by the International Catholic Migration Commission. They have become specialists in the resettlement of refugees to third countries. More than one million people have been resettled. In addition, they are involved in different socioeconomic projects, like micro-credits.
In addition, Caritas, both at diocesan level or national level, is assisting in many different ways, from emergency aid to directly involved in managing refugee camps. They also got involved in counselling of traumatic refugees, and the reintegration of child soldiers.
One of the new challenges will be to have a presence among the urban refugees, a new phenomenon. An increasing number of refugees, at present half of them, settle down in cities. One of the questions is how to reach them as they have become invisible in the crowds of others, especially in slum areas.

Q: Are there particular humanitarian situations, perhaps without too much attention of the international community, which are of concern to your Dicastery?

A: The Dicastery follows with great concern the refugees and internally displaced persons. This varies from policy research, following emergency situations, and discussion how to develop pastoral care. One concern is for children who grow up in refugee camps. Many do not know any other reality, since they were born in the camps. Example of such forgotten situations are the camps in Thailand, where about 150,000 people are living for twenty years in such situations. Another one, with enormous displacement, of more than 1,7 million is in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This coincides with many people who died in the conflict. Over the last 12 years 5,5 million people died, with ongoing military violence and many women get raped.
Another concern is on the situation in Sudan. The ongoing conflict in Abjei, where planes are still bombarding. And the situation in Darfur where hundred thousands are living in camps. In addition, it is not yet clear what the future will be for the many southerners in the North and northerners in the South. Are they going to get citizenship of the new nation? Do they still have the right to remain citizens of the Sudan?
In addition, South Sudan will face many people returning from the north. Their integration process is quite a challenge.

Q: Since the beginning of the year, and especially the last weeks, many people lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Many of them were arriving from Northern Africa, many fleeing the conflict in Libya. One notices that Europe does not develop a common strategy to confront this situation. What do you think about it?

A: The real challenge is in northern Africa, especially in Tunisia and Egypt. More than one million left Libya, of which 15,000 Libyans arrived in Italy. One has to see the problem in proportion. Tunisia, welcomed half a million persons of which 290,000 are Libyans. Egypt faced the arrival of 340,000 persons of which 161,000 are Libyans.
In addition, one has to note that the arrival of 15,000 Libyans who ask for asylum should not be a problem for a country as Italy. Other industrialised countries face similar problems, while many countries in the South are hosting large numbers of refugees. Liberia welcomed around 200,000 Ivorians in the same period.
Nations from the North are then stating that the refugees should stay within the region. That is exactly what is happening with Libyans arriving in Italy or other European countries. It is a tragedy that people have to flee on not seaworthy and overloaded boats, and that they should lose their life. With the present electronic means, and Frontex in place, the European Union should be able to monitor these boats and come to their assistance, before they are in need.
Closing borders is not the answer. Countries should guarantee the rights of the refugees and act according to the spirit of the 1951 Convention, to assist those in need, to welcome them, and treat them on the same level as citizens.

Listen to the interview... RealAudioMP3

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