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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

Problems and Challenges of Migrants and the Response of the Church*

Archbishop Stephen Fumio HAMAO

President, Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant People

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

On the occasion of the inauguration of the Catholic National Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migration and Tourism in Sri Lanka, I was requested to speak to you on the problems and challenges facing migrants and the response of the Church to these issues.

Why do people migrate?

A migration expert of the International Labor Organization (ILO) recently pointed out that it is not so much the absolute differences between countries that make people move, but rather, when their situation and that of their families are such that they can no longer live according to local norms of safety, dignity and well-being.[1]

Of course, there are different degrees of tolerability of the situation in one’s home country, bringing about the notion that the “classical” distinction between voluntary and forced migration are two poles of a continuum.

It is true that at times migration is voluntary, as in the case, for instance, of high-skilled workers who go abroad for better opportunities or for specialization purposes. It is also voluntary, but maybe to a lesser extent, for seasonal and cross-border workers, or contract laborers for unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, who can earn more or get a job in another country, but not in their own. In the second case, voluntariness is somehow accompanied by a need that pushes them out of their homeland. Already, we can see that “voluntariness” is not always to the same degree for everybody. 

Further along the continuum are “those who flee economic conditions that threaten their lives and physical safety,”[2] the so-called “economic migrants”. Their movement is obviously more forced than voluntary.

In the event of ecological disasters, whether natural or man-made; violence, war, terrorism and violation of human rights, migration becomes forced. This produces refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people and those in need of temporary protection.

When people migrate without proper documents, it is not always easy to distinguish between a refugee or asylum seeker and a labor migrant. Also, regular and irregular migration are often two aspects of the same phenomenon. In fact, it frequently happens that properly documented migrants give logistic and other kinds of support to irregular migrants, who are often their relatives or friends.

The experience of the majority of migrants

It is therefore easy to see the difficulties that can arise. When a person in need is in a strange country, where he does not understand the language and much less know its culture and legislation, he is in a very vulnerable position. Even in the country of arrival, where he had high hopes of a better life, he can easily fall victim again to the abuse of his human rights. Moreover, when survival is at stake, it is easy to give up one’s labor rights, especially if no one helps him/her to defend them. Migrants and refugees are in fact easy prey to exploitation, and, in extreme cases, also to human trafficking.

They are therefore often victims of violence, maybe not always physical, but very often psychological and moral, as in cases of marginalization, discrimination, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance. They are often made “scapegoats” for local unemployment or criminal activities.

Women and families in migration

Another important characteristic of contemporary migration is the high proportion of women involved in it, a large part of whom are hired for domestic services. These are very vulnerable jobs given the impossibility to draw a line between working and non-working hours while in the employer’s house. In many countries, domestic services are not ruled by labor laws like other kinds of jobs. There are still many parts of the world where women’s rights need to be defended. Thus, a migrant woman’s rights have to be safeguarded twice.

Family separation is another difficult problem in migration. This entails problems for the stability of the couple and of the family, as well as for the education of the children. When the absent spouse is the woman, it is even more difficult, especially because, normally, it is mainly the wife and mother who takes care of the home and the upbringing of the children.

The Chruch’s response

What is the response of the Church to all this? It is at several levels, including its pastoral charity, formation and teaching, advocacy and its institutions and structures.

First of all, the Church wishes to be there where the migrants are, to share with them the joys and the hopes, as well as the grief and the pains of migration.[3] The humanitarian aid that refugees and migrants need, social action and advocacy to defend their human and labor rights according to the social doctrine of the Church, initiatives of training and Christian formation are all part of the Church’s mission among those involved in the phenomenon of human mobility. However, all these are but various expressions of one mission: the proclamation of the Good News that God is love and, out of love, He became man, and by His death and resurrection, He restored man’s lost unity with God. In doing so, He also gave back to every person the dignity of being a child of God and revealed every human being’s worth, for he must be so important in the eyes of God to gain such a great Redeemer.[4]

Second, especially in emigration countries, like the Philippines, for example, that has exported its labor to practically every part of the world, the Church is called to accompany potential migrants in their decision-making process and to prepare them for migrant life abroad. (The Philippine Church is, in fact, doing much in this regard.)

Naturally, the formation of a migrant starts very much before he/she decides to migrate: from the cradle at home, to his lessons at school, in catechism classes, in the parish, in the ecclesial groups and associations he might choose to follow, etc. Already at this stage of the potential migrant’s life, the Church wishes to be present.

Then when he or she starts toying with the idea of migrating, it is important to provide him/her with correct information regarding the possible destination countries: their laws, and not only labor legislation, their customs, etc. Since employment agencies or even relatives and friends are not always dependable or objective sources of information in this regard, it is important for the Church, through its networks, to be able to furnish reliable pre-departure data.    

When a person finally decides to migrate, then it is necessary to direct him/her to the Church and its related structures and organizations in the destination country, where it is possible to avail of pastoral care, including social and legal assistance, if necessary.

 Third, the responses of the Church obviously requires cooperation among local Churches. Thus, while it is the task of the Church of arrival to offer pastoral care to all the faithful in its territory, it is important for migrants to be accompanied by priests and/or other pastoral agents from or has carried out missionary work in their country of origin. They understand not only their language, but also their culture and mentality. This is capital in helping them live and grow in the faith and face, as mature Christians, all the vicissitudes they encounter in their life as migrants, refugees and itinerant people. This is why close collaboration between the Church of origin and the Church of arrival is necessary.

An example of cooperation between two Bishops’ Conferences that are confronted with intense migration is the work done together by the Bishops of Mexico and the United States. They came up with a joint pastoral letter entitled “Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope” (January 2003).

Such collaboration will also help migrants and refugees become part and parcel of the community of the local Church, where no one is a foreigner, where even those who profess a different religion are welcome, because Jesus Christ died for each and every person.

The Church of arrival will then become a model of truly multicultural societies, where everyone is really an integral part, whatever may be his color, race, nationality or creed, where differences are not a reason for conflict but an enrichment for all. Then, universal brotherhood, where all people are members of one family and the earth a truly global home for all, will no longer be a dream but will start becoming a reality.

Fourth, an important factor in the quality of the Church’s response is formation – of seminarians, priests, religious and lay faithful – for the pastoral care of migrants, refugees, and other people on the move. Attitudes, responses and initiatives need to be based on well-informed reflections and plans of local Churches. For that reason, formation at all levels is necessary. As an aid to that, I leave you with a still valid letter from 1986 concerning “The Formation of Future Priests for Human Mobility”.

 May Mary, Mother of the Church and Mother of all mankind, herself a refugee and a migrant, guide us in this arduous task.

* Inauguration of the Catholic National Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migration and Tourism in Sri Lanka (2003, March 7), Colombo, Sri Lanka.

[1]Patrick A. Taran, “Human Rights of Migrants: Challenges of the New Decade”, International Migration, Vol. 38, No. 6, Special Issue 2/2000, p. 13. 
[2]Pontifical Councils “Cor Unun” and for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity (Vatican, 1992), no.4.
[3]cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 1
[4]cf. Redemptor Hominis, nos. 9-10.