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