A woman from Myanmar feeds her child in a U.N. clinic for severely malnourished Rohingya children Oct. 28 in the Balukhali Refugee Camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. More than 600,000 Rohingya have fled government-sanctioned violence in Myanmar for safety in Bangladesh. CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

Catholic agencies adapt to refugee crisis

  • March 16, 2018
The global refugee crisis is transforming Catholic outreach, as agencies and the communities they serve struggle to bring basic services to 66 million people displaced by war, famine and natural disaster and another 258 million voluntary migrants seeking a better life outside their home countries.

At a Rome conference organized by the International Catholic Migration Commission March 6-8, delegates discussed the booming business of human trafficking and emerging refugee crises including the seven million Rohingya in Bangladesh, South Sudanese in Uganda and a wave of Venezuelans in Brazil. But looming over Catholic efforts to relieve the suffering is a rising tide of populist politics based on fear of outsiders, refugees included, delegates said. 

Whenever people begin to flee for their safety, women and children are particularly vulnerable, said International Catholic Migration Commission secretary general Msgr. Bob Vitillo.

“In many cultures they have little control over their lives and future,” Vitillo said in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “As the Holy Father pointed out in his World Day of Peace Message, women can and should play a special role in peacemaking — because of their sensitivity and ability to identify practical ways to promote peace.”

But in most cases, vulnerable refugee populations simply cannot wait for peace and safe passage home, Carol Batchelor of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and UN Refugee Agency told the ICMC crowd in Rome.

“The average time for a refugee child to be in displacement is 17 years. That’s the entire childhood gone,” Batchelor said.

While getting services to the world’s 22 million official refugees and millions more internally displaced is always a logistical problem, global xenophobia and the politics of fear are making the job harder, said ICMC director of operations Walter Brill.

In the past the Catholic organization was able to resettle an average of 7,000 refugees in the United States every year. 

“For the last year now, unfortunately, this resettlement has almost come to a standstill,” he said. “After Trump, things changed.”

Europe’s mood has also changed, said Batchelor.

“The greatest single challenge is the rise of populism and the demonization of migrants and refugees,” said Michele Klein Solomon, director of the Global Compact for Migration at the International Organization for Migration and the UN Migration Agency.

While politicians obsess about keeping or throwing foreigners out, they fail to make practical plans to deal with the reality of migration, she said. 

“Most migration takes place by choice, through legal channels and is of fundamental benefit, not only to the migrants and their families but also to the communities that they come to and their communities at home,” Klein Solomon said. “People seeking to improve their lives and the lives of their families are not criminal. They’re not evil, but simply doing what you and I would do to protect the well-being of our families.”

The Catholic Near East Welfare Association was never set up as a refugee agency, but as a means to help the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of the East. But over the last decade, with wars in Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Ukraine, famine in Ethiopia and communal strife in Pakistan, India and Egypt, CNEWA has increasingly found itself serving people on the move, said CNEWA Canada national director Carl Hétu.

“Our program needs to be rebuilt because new needs are arising.”

Working specifically with churches, religious orders and bishops, CNEWA looks for ways to ensure that refugees are not robbed of their identity and community.

“CNEWA is not an emergency organization,” Hétu said. “What we are is we’re mandated to work with the Eastern Churches wherever they are, in good times and in bad times.”

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