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A shameful wound for our time

In our world there are millions of people who have been forcibly uprooted from their homes or native lands and cannot return due to persecution, war, or generalized disorder. Their lives and well-being depend on the protection of the community of nations. These are refugees. In addition to them are the internally displaced people, refugees in everything except being outside their homeland. They are, however, generally worse off, for international law makes practically no provision for them. The situation of all such people is in the words of John Paul II "a shameful wound of our time" (25.6.1982).

Refugees and Migrants

The media and political talk commonly confuse refugees with migrants who leave their homes or lands to earn their livelihood elsewhere. Although the majority come from poor countries, most emigrate voluntarily. But among them, those "who flee economic conditions that threaten their lives and physical safety must be treated differently from those who emigrate simply to improve their position" (Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, 4). Such economic migrants question our distinctions "between the concept of refugee and that of migrant up to the point of making the two categories coincide under the common denominator of necessity" (John Paul II, 31.7.1992). 

People become refugees in many ways. Some escape repressive governments or insurgent groups. Others flee war and violence that make life impossible in their home countries. Still others become part of war that aims at making people refugees. The recent civil war of the ex-Yugoslavia and the events of Kosovo and East Timor in 1999 all involved making people refugees, depriving them of their homes and sending them into exile. Victims of war, they are also pawns in its strategies.

Clandestine and Undocumented

Persecution and violence do not allow their victims the luxury of getting passports and visas before a forced departure. Some have little choice but to use traffickers and arrive irregularly in safe countries. This should question any equation of migrants or refugees with criminals. The rhetoric of "zero tolerance" for illegally entering a country means the destruction of the already fragile international asylum regime and betrays the ignorance of its proponents.

Refugees and Church

The Lord, who walked with the refugees of the Exodus in search of a land free from slavery, accompanies today's refugees in order to accomplish his loving plan together with them. 

The Church's solidarity is a sign of God's presence. It is expressed by lay people, religious, priests and bishops as they offer hospitality, a listening ear, assis-tance, and protection - often at great risk. Pope John Paul II reminds us that the Catholic Church considers help for refugees as an essential work, for which it strongly urges its Christian sons to collaborate, for the Bible in general and the Gospel in particular do not allow us to leave unaided the foreigners who seek asylum. This also includes defending refugees' rights and lives, denouncing injustices, promoting laws that protect them, creating volunteer groups and emergency funds, and - the principal concern of the Pontifical Council - many forms of pastoral care. 
The International Catholic Migration Commission, Caritas, and the Jesuit Refugee Services are but a few of the organizations that assist local Churches in their mission of welcoming the stranger. Other Christian Churches and communities have similar activities and challenges. The last few years have also witnessed excellent examples of ecumenical cooperation that has served refugees and brought many Christian denominations closer together. There are also good experiences of Christians with refugee agencies of other religions in a "dialogue of life."


The drama of forced migration was felt so deeply following the Second World War that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was es-tablished fifty years ago. It remains the main inter-governmental agency for the protection of refugees. To carry out this task, it uses its own special-ized personnel, non-govern-mental organizations, and implementing partners, some of whom are Catholic Church based. The Holy See is a member of its Executive Committee and tries, in contact with governments and other groups, to assure the defense of the lives and dignity of refugees.

The Future

In December 1996, the Bishops of Africa's Great Lakes Region appealed "to our States and to the international community so that they take the option: 'A new century without refugees' .... May the dynamic of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 breathe into our Churches new energies for a new evangelization." Four years later, however, the refugee pheno-menon is worsening while the political will to protect them declines. As believers we must persevere in prayer and never despair, for God will hear the cry of those who cry to Him day and night (Lk 18,7). That means trying to be Good News and announce it among refugees and displaced peaople in the confidence that God will bring all these efforts to perfection on the Day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1,9)