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Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 90,  December 2002, p. 129-134

Crisis among couples

in Migration and itinerancy”*


Dr. Nilda M. CASTRO,

Official of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care

of Migrants and Itinerant People

On the occasion of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in 1993, celebrated as the International Year of the Family, Pope John Paul II sounded out this appeal: “I would like to ask all those who at all levels are concerned with promoting the authentic well-being of the family, to consider carefully the problems of the immigrant family, precisely in the light of the particular difficulties which it faces today, sometimes tragically.”1

Following the thought of this invitation, I shall try to describe to you some of the most evident problems facing the migrant family today which, as in all times, are enormous and many. For our purposes, however, I shall limit myself to the difficulties that can be a source of crisis for the married couple and thus put their marriage in danger. I will try to touch the plight of  “the families of migrant workers; the families of those obliged to be away for long periods, such as sailors and all kinds of itinerant people; the families … of refugees and exiles; … families that have been uprooted from their cultural and social environment or are in danger of losing it.”2 These are the categories mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio that form part of the solicitude of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People where I work.

The importance of the subject merits a far more in-depth study than the time at my disposal allows me to do, but I hope what I will have to say will help you in your discussions.

1. As the Holy Father mentioned in his Message for the Day of Migrants and Refugees in 1986, one has to note the persistence and even the growth of conditions which force husbands and wives to live separated from each other in the context of migration, whether voluntary or forced (this includes refugees and exiles). Workers, and not only those seasonally employed and those without proper documents, are obliged to live far from their spouses for months and even years. This makes the migration experience more traumatic and has a direct impact on families which are greatly affected by this separation and the prolonged absence of key members. Some of its effects on the life of the couple are the following:

a. A serious negative impact on marital stability. To illustrate this point, allow me to cite a study of migration and the family in Indonesia.3 A case study in East Flores showed that many married men migrate to support their wives and children, thus causing a separation of husband and wife for extended periods. In an earlier study, Hugo4 observed that induced separations for extended periods due to international labor migration can lead to marital instability and the consequent permanent break-up of the family unit. The study in East Flores confirmed this finding. In fact, one of the most frequently voiced comments about the impact of migration in Sabah (East Malaysia) was marriage break-up. The study stated that some men and, to a lesser extent women, have taken an extra or substitute spouse in Malaysia. In the early 1990s concern over this issue was so great there was a local government move to initiate a transmigration scheme to resettle the wives and families of (Indonesian) men working in Malaysia to West Kalimantan so that they could visit more frequently. This did not succeed because the local matrix of extended family, community and church support is an important source of support to the women left behind.5

A similar situation could arise for refugees who, for political or ideological reasons, are forced to flee their homeland and live in a foreign country, even in refugee camps, far from their families and loved ones.6

Likewise, the loneliness that the seafarer feels in the absence of his family is a very concrete temptation to infidelity. He misses his loved ones, his wife, his children… Unfortunately, the long separation of the seaman from his family will most probably continue in the coming years.7

b.  Another effect of prolonged separation is that the wife, left behind with the children, has to assume unaccustomed roles, like becoming the head of the household. She does most of the decision-making in the family, which she might have wanted to share with her husband. She becomes more independent, perhaps because she has no other choice. At the same time, this separation loads all the household work and responsibilities on the wife and children. This leads to marital conflict, as many wives hold their husbands responsible for their overburdened lives. Even the children have to do more in the house to compensate for their father’s absence. Especially when wives are working mothers, household chores could be overwhelming for the children and could cause resentment towards both parents.8

This situation could make the husband and father lose his authority over the children and when he comes home, he has to be reintegrated in the family and this requires adjustments from all members.9

This is applicable for families left behind by both migrant men and seafarers.

c. Moreover, even when a migrant family is reunited after years of separation, the precarious condition of jobs and residence permits undermines the stability of the migrant family, which often suffers discrimination. This may be in terms of housing, since they are often relegated to the poorer neighborhoods in the locality; in employment, where they often have to take jobs that local people do not want to accept, including long hours of work and shifts that render the healthy and harmonious growth of the nuclear family very difficult.  The situation of families in refugee camps is even more dramatic because they are totally dependent on the good will of others.10

d. Yet, even when the whole family migrates together, migration still collects its toll. The cultural differences which the family is forced to confront without any preparation, the difficulties of learning other languages, the intergenerational problems often tied to the difficult mix of traditions and customs of the countries of origin and those of the land of arrival, psychological trauma, the sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the future: These are some of the problems that must be faced by a family in migration.11 Depending upon the capacity of husband and wife to cope with the situation, harmony between the couple may be either be reinforced, or fall into pieces.

e. Another difficult situation that confronts migration is the question of mixed marriages, or, even with greater difficulty, marriage between a Catholic and a follower of another religion.12 The differences in language and culture that often accompany a difference in religion are factors that need to be seriously considered when a Catholic has to decide on a marriage of this kind, whether he be a migrant in a non Christian country or a native in a country of a Christian tradition who wishes to marry a non Christian migrant.

f. Allow me just to mention here the delicate situations of marriages contracted with “mail-order brides” or simply to be able to cross the border of the desired destination country and acquire that country’s residence permit. This is a matter that needs to be treated separately given all the issues involved, included ethical questions.

2. The motherly solicitude of the Church obviously includes the pastoral care to migrant, refugee and other itinerant families.13 This pastoral care is entrusted to the whole Christian community, although specific structures should be present to facilitate this mission, both in the Church in the country from which migrants originate and in the Church of the migrant’s destination country.14

a. The first pastoral care and primary antidote to family crisis in migration lies in the hands of the formators of migrants: their parents, particularly the mother who is presumed to spend more time in giving her children human and Christian formation; their teachers, especially in

elementary schools, during the early formative years of the child; their catechists or religion teachers, who give them religious education and moral formation; their leaders in religious groups and associations if they participate in one of these; their parish priest, or his delegate, who prepares them for marriage and all those who in one way or another contribute to their faith formation and, consequently, the principles they imbibe that guide their decisions and actions.

The first pastoral care for migrants takes place long before they decide to migrate. The migrants’ capacity to cope with difficult situations and to hold on and not give up when relationships in marriage seem unbearable is strongly influenced by the meaning that has been given to struggle and suffering in their formative years.  If they value the cross in the Christian way and believe that it leads to resurrection, then they will have the strength to go on in spite of the hardships that they will have to face.

b. The Church in the country of origin15 has its role to play in preparing potential migrants and itinerants for departure to another country. It has the task of making them aware of the difficulties they will meet in their destination country, particularly of the loneliness that they will feel far from their family, and give them the necessary moral and spiritual nourishment to be able to face bravely such a situation.

c. Part of pastoral care is the carrying out of the social doctrine of the Church. It is thus the task of the Church of origin to instruct the potential migrant or seafarer regarding his human and labor rights so as not to fall victim of exploitation, discrimination and marginalization.16

d. It is also the Church of origin’s duty not to abandon the families of migrants, refugees and seafarers who have left their homelands alone and are separated from their families, maybe for quite a long period of time.

e.  It is important that all components of the Church of origin share in the fulfillment of these tasks: pastors, pastoral agents, ecclesial movements, lay organizations and associations, etc. Associations of seafarers’ wives in the Apostleship of the Sea, for example, have been very effective in sustaining the physically separated couple by giving peer support to the wife left alone to cope with her daily problems.

f. On the other hand, the Church in the destination country is called to give pastoral care to the migrant, refugee and seafarer. It is in the destination country that all these people will have to really face and struggle against all the difficulties we mentioned above. It is here that they will have to fight against loneliness, physical and moral hardships, discrimination and marginalization. Here, too, the role of pastors, pastoral agents, ecclesial movements, lay organizations and associations, etc. cannot be stressed enough in sustaining migrants and itinerants and in upholding their human and labor rights in line with the social doctrine of the Church.17

g. It is necessary to make a special mention of the Church’s duty, whether it be at the migrant’s origin or destination country, to struggle for the reunification of migrants and itinerants with their families.18 In line with this principle, in fact, are all efforts made to have the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and the Members of their Families (1990) ratified and implemented. Unfortunately, most States prefer to ignore it with, so far, the ratification of less than twenty States in twelve years.

The Church has continually insisted on a policy which favours and gives priority to family reunification. Pope John XXIII defined the separation of families because of working conditions a “painful anomaly” and stressed that “each one has the obligation to be aware of this situation and to do all in his power to eliminate it.”19 Pope John Paul II pointed out that work should not destroy the family. Emergency conditions which lead to the temporary separation of husband and wife should not become permanent because “man rather than mere production or profits is the main object of labour legislation.”20

 3. There are fundamental values, common to all persons of good will, which should be gradually realized and given the possibility to continue to grow. “One of these is the unity of the couple and of the nuclear family and also the harmony of the mutual integration of the couple from a moral and affective point of view and with regard to the fruitfulness of their love; a harmony which requires… wide ranging solidarity and readiness to make sacrifices… These values impose clear‑cut obligations on those who have the duty to foster the common good with regard to all who want to respond to the profound desires that the Creator has placed in the human heart.”21 To overcome the “objectively difficult” situations of the families of migrants, refugees, seafarers and other itinerant people,22 efforts must be taken by all: governments, social and economic groups and migrants themselves.23

Let me close with the thought that the Holy Family was a migrant and a refugee family, tried by poverty, persecution and exile, harassed with anxieties and worries. May its indisputable unity be a guiding light for all those who are struggling to be faithful to their marriage obligations in the difficult condition of migration and itinerancy.

* Paper presented at the XV Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Sacrofano (Rome), 19 October 2002. 

1 Pope John Paul II, Message for the Day of Migrants and Refugees 1993 (DMR93), no. 1.

2 Familiaris Consortio (FC), no.77.

3 Graeme Hugo, “Effects of International Migration on the Family in Indonesia”, Asian and Pacific Migration Journal (APMJ), Vol. 11, No. 1, 2002, pp. 13-46.

4 cf. Graeme Hugo, “International Labor Migration and the Family: Some Observations from Indonesia,” APMJ, Vol. 4, Nos. 2-3, pp. 273-301.

5 Graeme Hugo, “Effects of International Migration on the Family in Indonesia”, APMJ, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2002, p. 23.

6 Mathias Sie Kam, “Familles dans le contexte de la migration et de l’exil”, Actes de la Réunion de Consultation: Pastorale des Réfugies, Personnes Déplacées et Migrants en Afrique de l’Ouest et du Nord, Yopougon, Cote d’Ivoire, 17-21 janvier 1994, Vatican 1994, p. 82.

7 cf. Ricardo Rodriguez Martos Dauer, “The Professionals of the Sea”, People on the Move, April-August 2002, p. 95.

8 cf. Yen Le Espiritu, “Filipino Navy Stewards and Filipina Health Care Professionals: Immigration, Work and Family Relations”, APMJ, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2002, pp. 52-53.

9 Ibid.

10 Pope John Paul II, Message for the Day of Migrants and Refugees 1986 (DMR86), no. 2.

11 cf. Caritas Internationalis, “Family a Resource for Church and for Society: A Framework for Action”, Rome, 1999, p. 47.

12 DMR93 4.

13 Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Pastoralis Migratorum Cura, 15 August 1969; cf. Congregation for Bishops, Instruction on the Pastoral Care of People Who Migrate (DPMC), Rome, 22 August 1969, no. 15.

14 cf. DPMC.

15 cf. DPMC 26, 52.

16 cf. DPMC 57; cf. Michael Blume, SVD, “Migration and the Social Doctrine of the Church”, People on the Move, April-August 2002, pp. 305-318.

17 cf. DPMC  29-50.

18 cf. DPMC 57.

19 Radio Message for the opening of the “World RefugeeYear”, 28th June 1959, Discorsi, Messaggi, Colloqui del Santo Padre Giovanni XXIII, Primo Anno del Pontificato (28 ottobre 1958-28 ottobre 1959), Vaticano, 1959, p. 396.

20 cf. Pope John Paul II addressing workers in France, at Saint‑Denis, on the 31st May 1980, Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, III‑l, (1980), p. 1567

21 cf. DMR86 3.

22 cf. FC 77.

23 cf. DMR86 3.