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Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

Presentation of the Pontifical Message
for the World Day of 
Migrants and Refugees 2002

Archbishop Stephen Fumio HAMAO
President of the Pontifical Council

The phenomenon of migration

The phenomenon of migration has dramatically increased over the last decades. Nowadays more and more people are moving from one country to another, from one continent to another.  More than 190 million people actually live outside the country where they were born.   International migrants, for economic reasons, are calculated at some 175 million. In addition to them, there are 16 million refugees under the mandate of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East). There is also an increase in the number of people forced to leave their homes and areas of residence without crossing national boundaries, the so called “internally displaced persons.”  These amount to some fifty million people. Half of them are in refugee-like situations and would qualify for refugee status if they would cross the border of their country; the other 25 million have been displaced by natural disasters.  In these figures are not included millions of internal migrants, persons who migrate within their own country to earn a living. 

Among migrations there is need to make an important distinction between voluntary and forced migration. Voluntary migration in fact is seen as related to offers of work and the demand for laborers. Forced migration, on the other hand, originates in conflicts, human rights abuses and political or religious repression. While this distinction has some validity, it can be difficult in practice to distinguish between the two. The element of free choice is often not the principle reason that pushes a person to move abroad.  Beyond the conflicts, oppression and abuses of power mentioned above, there are unfortunately other elements that leave little margin to the free choice between putting up with or fleeing conditions of life that have become unsustainable.  I refer to extreme poverty, a disastrous economy, degradation of the environment, demographic imbalances, lack of minimum provision for safety, health and services in times of crisis or also absolute lack of citizens’ participation in political decisions.

We now present some notable changes in the field of migration in respect to the past.

1.  I think first about the entry of many women in this movement. Formerly it was mainly men who left their homes, the land of their ancestors, to go for work in another country.  More recently migration movements are more and more marked by women, who go as wage earners and not any more only to accompanying family members.

2.  Another characteristic element are the bonds among migrants today. Though migration represents drastic changes of life because of being away from the country of origin, many migrants today are more connected with it, thanks also to easier travel and means of communication.

3.  There are furthermore climatic changes that are becoming a factor of migration. In this regard, in the coming years these will enormously increase of population movements.  Perhaps tens of millions within 25 years will be forced to emigrate owing to desertification or a rise of the sea level.

4.  New political problems as factors for migration are not lacking either. The political climate has also changed, unfortunately, for the worse for migrants and refugees. After 11th September 2001, the fear of terrorism has increased, so that governments and political parties are issuing new and ever stricter laws for maintaining order and security.  Stricter checks are done, rendering more restrictive the very norms on asylum, an institution of great tradition in international legislation.  In many minds, then, immigration is often linked to the idea of growth in criminality.  It follows that the general attitude towards persons of other cultures and religions living close to us has become more hostile, even xenophobic and racist. Added to this are ignorance about the other, prejudice, and political manipulation, which make migrants, refugees and asylum seekers suffer unnecessary among us.  And they have already had enough of that.

5.  Finally there is, in this our provisional list, the necessity of immigration in some regions, also because the population of many countries is ageing, a fact that means forming new migration and economic policies.  The impact that all this will produce will be of further interest to international ethics.

In fact, when we report numbers and establish classifications among persons involved in the phenomenon of migration, we have to remember that we are speaking about “human beings,” each one of whom has a face, a history, persons loved and who love, having problems, joys and sorrows.  Each one of them is an individual with rights and duties, with requirements, aspirations, qualities, and fragility like our own.  And precisely here enters the issue of personal and international ethics.  The substantial difference with us, however, is that their life has been dramatically marked by their place of birth.  All, therefore, especially if we profess to be Christians, have to understand and help to understand that to be born in a disadvantaged country or in an oppressive State should not for ever compromise rights, duties, opportunities and – especially – dignity, whether we speak about a citizen, a migrant or a refugee, whose documents are in order or not.