The world’s refugee crisis affects poor nations far greater than the rich West, said Jesuit Father Tom Smolich. Photo by Michael Swan

Refugee crisis is in world’s developing nations, not Europe

  • August 7, 2016

There is a global refugee crisis, but it’s not in the rich west, the international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

Writing from war-torn South Sudan on the eve of the nascent country’s fifth anniversary, Jesuit Father Tom Smolich pointed out how it is poor countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia that house the bulk of the world’s refugees while rich nations fret over a tiny trickle from the world’s 65 million displaced people who make it to their shores.

“Eighty-six per cent of refugees are in developing-world countries. Twenty-five per cent of people in Lebanon are Syrian refugees. That is a crisis, not Europe!” Smolich wrote.

The American priest is particularly disappointed in the U.S. debate over accepting refugees.

“In the U.S.A. especially, we are unwilling to own up to our role in creating refugees in the Middle East and Central America,” he said.

Attitudes toward refugees within the Church are often parochial and myopic, Smolich said.

“We (the JRS) are criticized in Syria and Iraq for helping and hiring all,” Smolich said. “Several bishops would prefer (we hire and help) Christians only — which is against the Gospel and incredibly short-sighted politically. The future of the Church in the Mideast is in a mixed reality. The JRS is trying to build the post-war future now — perhaps a bit like the Kingdom of God.”

JRS offers its services in refugee camps to Muslims and Christians alike, serving them because they are refugees. They hire Muslim teachers, health-care professionals and others who work side-by-side with Christian colleagues. It’s a policy based on the results of the 2010 Vatican Synod on the Middle East where Church fathers urged open, democratic, secular societies as the best way of protecting minority Christian populations. The JRS hopes Christians and Muslims who have worked together when they were refugees will continue to work and live together in the region when the war ends.

With refugees across the globe now waiting an average of 17 years before they either settle permanently in a new home or can return to their old homes, refugees are now the prime example of what Pope Francis means by the “globalization of indifference,” Smolich said.

“At JRS we would say the only way to deal with this is to come to know real people, hear their stories and be guided by the Spirit,” Smolich wrote.

The JRS is uninterested in the legal distinctions that define different refugee populations, Smolich said. About two-thirds of the 65.3 million people whom the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counts are not legally refugees because they haven’t yet crossed an international border. This includes 6.6 million internally displaced people in Syria and 3.4 million in Iraq.

“JRS and others serve them in the same way we serve those who fit the legal (1951 convention) definition of refugees. In a place like Syria they may or may not be better off than those living in camps in Lebanon or Jordan. Yes, it’s more dangerous. But they’re not in a camp, they’re closer to home,” he said. “Staying closer to home usually means a better chance of return or resumption of life after a conflict.”

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