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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 87, December 2001


Refugees and Immigrants. 
Today and Tomorrow[*]

Archbishop Stephen Fumio HAMAO 
President of the Pontifical Council 

The title ‘Refugees and Immigrants. Today and Tomorrow’ is a timely choice. We are in a world where 150 million people, or about one person in forty-five, fit into one or both of these categories.

This year we also celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1951 Geneva Convention. It was the answer to the European refugee crisis after the Second World War. Efforts are under way in Geneva at the Global Consultations on International Protection which are aimed at promoting the full and effective implementation of this Convention and at developing new approaches, tools and standards. It will lead to a Ministerial Meeting of State Parties on 12 December 2001. However, there is little optimism for joyful celebrations, for refugees and other displaced persons exist in all continents.

They desperately leave their countries, taking great risks to enter western countries.

Dreaming of a new beginning, they come, for example, at night, huddled in unlighted motor boats, lurching through the swells, trying to avoid the supertankers plowing through the Strait of Gibraltar.Every night, dozens--often hundreds--of Africans make the treacherous crossing to Europe's southernmost tip in search of a better life in Madrid, Paris, Berlin and other places north. In just one week in early July, 28 boats were caught bringing in an estimated 1,500 people.Many migrants have been washed up dead on the beaches after attempting the voyage.And similar scenes can be seen at the Channel Tunnel. More than 40,000 migrants are believed to have traveled illegally across Europe to Calais in the past 18 months. They try to board the Eurostar: hidden under freight trains or on trucks, or jumping on a moving train heading for Britain.

The same thing happens in many other places. Mexicans try to enter the United States by crossing the Arizona desert.But in three years time 1000 migrants died crossing the US-Mexico border.

What is experienced there is the same for many other countries. People flee because of war, drought or because they simply want to have a decent human life. They flee subsistence farming or wages that barely buy food. In short, economic circumstances. They will go a long way to achieve this, sometimes to the point of doing desperate things.

The Holy See hopes that the existing international instruments which give protection and assistance to asylum seekers will not be weakened. However, today it is more difficult to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary migration, migrants and refugees, since the element of free choice is hardly the principal reason for people’s deciding to move abroad. Armed conflicts, political oppression, poverty, the degradation of the environment, demographic imbalances, the lack of safety nets for basic needs in moments of crisis and the lack of people’s participation all lead to migration as a way of escaping conditions of life which have become unbearable.

Or to put it differently, we are talking about human rights. The right to food, the right to education, the right to life, the right to an adequate standard of living. Human rights are violated. Human rights are not fulfilled, and that is why people move.

The Roman Catholic Church is concerned about the dignity of the human person. Already in 1961 the Encyclical Pacem in Terris stated: «We see that every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life; these are primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and finally the necessary social services».

It is important to put the human person at the centre of our attention and let his well-being guide our decisions. The first point of reference should be the human person, and not the interests of the State, or national security, or economic interest. People living in poverty must be placed at the very centre of our concerns. There exists a duty to give every person the same right of access to the indispensable minimum to live on. It requires the creation of an environment centred upon respect for humanity, and the rights of each person and group.

Is this not in line with what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is asking? 

“Preventive strategies include monitoring of human rights situations, building national and regional capacities in the field of human rights, ensuring accountability and strengthening economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development. The last aspect is of particular significance at a time when the achievements of Beijng and Copenhagen are being reviewed and when the Commission has decided to appoint new special rapporteurs on the right of food (Resolution 2000/10) and on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living (Resolution 2000/9).”

In the same document she states:

«.....Human rights are central to a concept of development that is people-oriented, participatory and environmentally sound. This concept stresses not just economic growth, but equitable distribution, enhancement of people’s capacities and enlargement of their choices. It gives highest priorities to eliminating poverty, integrating women in the development process, self-reliance and self-determination of people and Governments, including respect for the rights of indigenous people» (Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Economic and Social Council. 29 June 2000. E/2000/83).

It demands far more than what the Geneva Convention and its Protocol, developed for a certain group of people, are asking for. Could this be one of the challenges of our times which has to be answered?

«Today the effective universalization of human rights depends to a large extent on the capacity of the developed nations to make that qualitative leap which brings about a change of structures that keep so many people in a condition of extreme marginalisation. It is not only a case of binding up wounds:» (Refugees: A challenge to solidarity. 1992. No. 20). 

The Holy Father stressed this already earlier in his Migration Message of 1988: “Structures of sin are all those negative factors that operate against the common good, obstruct mankind’s way towards its development, and humiliate the dignity of the human person. Removing them forms part of the permanent conversion of Christians. ....I am inviting everyone to reflect on and be actively engaged in removing the root causes of the uprooting of many millions of people from their lands of origin; may everyone practise Christian welcome towards migrants and refugees..”

It will lead us to implementing proposals like: debt relief, donating 0.7% of our GNP, trade access to European markets, paying stable and guaranteed raw material prices, controlling weapons exports, exporting employment and setting up factories in the South. These are tools for conflict prevention, recovery and peace-building and mechanisms that require our support to address the root causes of migration and the pressures leading to refugee movements.

Most people would not move if they could enjoy decent living conditions at home.

[*] Address to the participants in the 51st International Congress of the Association for the World Refugee Problem (A.W.R.) held in Rome on September, 24-25, 2001