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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 93,  December 2003, pp. 49-53

The Situation and Challenges 

of the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees 

in Asia and The Pacific

Bishop Leon Tharmaraj

President, Office for Human Development

Federation of Asia Bishops’ Conferences

The Asia-Pacific Story of Sweat and Tears of People on the Move

The phenomenon of migration in the Asia and Pacific has been in the past, often associated with adventurism and looking for the good life outside one’s own land and peoples. But today it has taken on new but frightening and painful dimensions. This has been the result of a number of very complex and diverse forces that are radically affecting almost every aspect of society and all communities in the world today. There is a growing awareness today, that there exists an intimate relationship between the impact on the People on the Move and the growing power of process of globalisation. It is bringing along with it very vital and crucial alterations to both the human person and human communities. Migration as seen from the Asia-Pacific perspective is beginning to become a stark picture of cries of anguish rather than one of experiencing a fullness of life. The world of People on the Move is the heart-rending mosaic of the countless stories of broken families, inhuman conditions in prisons, dehumanising treatment in detentions centres, unhealthy refugee camps and dangers and hardships faced by women and children trafficked for prostitution and forced labour. This picture does not in any way reflect, the emergence of a civil and civilised society but sad to say, the emergence of a new culture of death.

What is even more frightening is our conviction that these are just symptomatic of a deeper malaise that is gradually infecting every level of society. Various forces in society are causing serious damage to the very foundations on the society today, by the gradual and subtle erosion of the pillars of our civilisational norms and heritage and our religio-cultural values and ways of life. When people move, they are uprooted from the very environment that gave them life’s essential meanings often associated with self-dignity, self-identity and a sense of belonging to a community. Thus the People on the Move; the migrants, the refugees, internally displaced persons, victims of trafficking and even the victims of mass tourism are the new pawns of the liberalised market and the States that move labour to meet profit targets, as if they were commodities. Market driven economies that promote free-market and liberalisation of trade and services has no place for People on the Move, they are mere pawns to be moved. People in desperate situations are in search of their dignity, and seek their rights to food, shelter, education, health and freedom but are denied to them. They as human persons and as families are marginalised and thus unable to participate participating fully in all the plenty that God has created for the good of the whole human family.

Over the centuries the peoples of the Asia- Pacific have considered their land sacred and people have been struggling and trying to live in relative peace and harmony both among themselves and with others and with nature. There has been continuity and a sense of permanency. Today, not only are millions of people forced to move out for various reasons but that they can no longer be rooted in a permanent place once associated with the sense of the sacred. Their land was closely affiliated to their identity both as individuals and as a community. Not only the firm ground below them is giving way and that their very life is being threatened by the forces of homogenising globalisation. Now their cultural identities are also being threatened especially, with their dislocation from their traditional homelands, as a result of aggressive land acquisitions by governments and business corporations, especially of the land of tribal and indigenous communities. They are ready to move for economic reasons but in the process, they realise that they have to make sacrifices that will bring radical changes to their core meaning in life. 

Leaving home as migrants and refugees, has not been a joy but has brought along many sorrows and pains. The International Labour Organisation has placed the number Asian migrant workers at 15 million. Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees disclosed that it is taking care of 7,458,500 refugees, asylum-seekers, returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Asia. Over the years the numbers of refugees and internally displaced peoples has grown. The Church in Asia is very aware of the realities of the People on the Move. We know we cannot be silent witnesses to this modern day human tragedy, and close our eyes and walk away on the other side. In other countries, the problems related to trafficking are emerging and is linked to the increasing numbers of those involved in illegal drugs and prostitution. This is basically due to unemployment and loss of traditional rural agriculture, local wars and conflicts and rise of organised crime syndicates in the Region. It seems strange that some of the more Developed countries in the Region have some of the most draconian laws regarding the undocumented migrants and least hospitable towards refugees.

The sad plight of domestic workers, mainly women from both South and South-East Asia to foreign countries continue to be a source of serious concern. The lack of proper laws and procedures for recruitment and employment often makes them vulnerable and subject to various forms of abuse. There is also the increase in the number of contract labourers, who have been cheated by Recruitment Agencies. They charge exorbitant fees but do not offer a certain permanency of contract and regular wages that will enable them to work to repay their original fees. Thus unpaid debts bring untold misery even to the rest of the family, sometimes resulting in suicides and serious disruption of family life. Workers in search of a better life outside their own countries, ironically put themselves in very difficult situations and unable to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

The Challenges for the Church in Asia-Pacific – From Fear to Solidarity with Migrants and Refugees

It has always been assumed that the priority of the Local Church is to look after its Catholic faithful and see to their pastoral and other needs. Being a minority Church in the Region, we are as a community of the People of God often struggling to maintain our parish structures and services. At the same time, we are also involved in the many educational and health services for the members of society, who happen to be our own citizens and have thus a responsibility to them, as well. Unfortunately, many of our traditional educational and health services conducted by the Church are being market-driven and profit-oriented and thus have little to offer in terms of its contact with them, much less offer their services.

It is sometimes presumed that Catholics a minority in most of our countries, are unable to reach out effectively to those People on the Move who happen to be people of other faiths and cultures. In the case of migrant contract workers, most of them are from a lower socio-economic and educational status and thus few in the Church would want to be working in close contact with them. There is also the risk of being associated with them, since many of them are undocumented and would not like to face the displeasure of the civil and political authorities. It is also not just our attitude of indifference and fear of the foreigner but also fear of the authorities that prevents us from moving as Church to those on the margins of our very own societies and nations.

It is obvious that if we are talking about being in solidarity with the People on the Move, we are working against the tide of both global and local trends within the Church and in our own societies. Thus our reasons for our involvement with the marginalised People on the Move must be clear. The call for a serious commitment has to come from a firm belief that our services to our neighbours in need, is indeed a faith response. This is only possible, if all the members of the People of God grow to the awareness that Pastoral Care of People of other Faiths and visitors from other countries, is also an integral dimension of the vocation of the People of God. 

Commitment to our Vocation

It is in this context that we can see the wisdom of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter, “At the Beginning of the New Millennium” who calls for a firm commitment to live more faithfully our vocation to holiness in a community. Being Community in communion, is the very nature of being Church and this is the mode of its evangelising mission. This is our vocation to Communion and Mission of Solidarity by being leaven and salt in society. Furthermore, in Ecclesia in Asia No: 5, he reminds us that our self understanding as Church is intimately related to our critical awareness of the complex and diverse realities of the world today It is this responsibility to mission that moves us to counter the numerous dehumanising forces that are both breaking up our family units and distorting the inherent dignity bestowed on human persons. Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees is indeed our path to being an evangelising Church. 

Pastoral Care of People on the Move in the context of Asia-Pacific has for many of us has thus to be a journey that is both ecumenical and interreligious. We as Church in Asia, have committed ourselves to promoting new and creative ways of addressing the pastoral needs of the migrant people who have to move from their homeland. Our universal mission as Church is what places priority on the need for Pastoral Care to be inserted in the milieu of Church as Local and Universal Communion. Being away from home and being welcomed into a another home for the Asia-Pacific people is to offer hospitality as our witnessing to love that reigns in the hearts of the People of God. A foreign government and people may not care but the Church cares for the least, the lost and the last and this we believe is the best way to make Jesus known and loved and bring the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus to the People on the Move. 

Conversion to Charity as our commitment to Solidarity

How can we as Church touch the lives of People on the Move, including the People of other Faiths, when they enter our Local Church; their New Home? The journey of the Church in Asia, with migrants in the recent past has also been for many of us a source of hope and offers us some models for emulation. One such example, is the commitment of the Church in Japan that as a result of the AISA (Asian Institute for Social Action) initiated by the Office for Human Development of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences) Series. This programme organised by the Diocese of Yokohama began a process of pastoral planning that resulted in the setting up of a number of service centres by the Church in Japan that welcomed many migrant workers of all faiths from many countries. Till today, these Centres serve as a home for migrants where they are not only welcomed but offer legal, social and counselling services that assures them that the Church is in solidarity with them. Other such initiatives are also evident in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, which are also Receiving Churches. It is also interesting to note that many of these programmes are collaborative ministries that involves the Local Church as the made up of clergy, religious and laity in the various aspects of the ministry of pastoral care of migrants and refugees.

The Church in Asia, is inspired and encouraged by invitation of Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II to commit ourselves to a “new creativity in charity”. “Without this form of evangelisation through charity, and without the witness of Christian poverty the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications. The charity of works ensures an unmistakable efficacy to the charity of words. (NO. 50 ABNM)

Thus a commitment to our missionary vocation as translated into a conversion to solidarity is indeed the main challenge for all the People of God and especially for those involved in the Pastoral Care of Migrants in the Asia-Pacific, indeed for the whole Universal Church. Our presence we hope during this Congress will be the source of strength to continue to deepen our commitment to our missionary vocation and conversion to love and service to People on the Move in the context of Asia-Pacific.