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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 97, April 2005 




Rev. Fr. Frans THOOLEN, S.M.A., 

Official of the Pontifical Council for the 

Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People 


1. Introduction

The flight of a refugee or an asylum seeker, is on the one hand, an act of fear and desperation, and, on the other, an act of confidence and hope in the goodness of their fellow human beings who are waiting to receive them and help them begin life anew. How many have seen their confidence and hope justified? How many have been bitterly disappointed? What can we do to help them?1

Airports have increasingly become places where asylum seekers arrive in our countries. The human tragedy behind this exodus of individuals and families challenges the entire international community. Pope John Paul II stated last year: “Every situation in which human persons or groups are obliged to flee their own land to seek refuge elsewhere stands out as a serious offence to God. ... The dramatic plight of refugees demands that the international community do everything possible not only to treat the symptoms, but first of all to go to the root of the problem: in other words, to prevent conflicts and promote justice and solidarity in every context of the human family”2. It requires due attention to all the social, political and economic factors which have contributed to this "festering wound which typifies and reveals the imbalances and conflicts of the modern world" (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 24). Key in all this is always the political commitment of states. 

It is important that asylum seekers and refugees are put at the centre of our attention and guide our decisions. The first point of reference should be the human person. We are reminded that each refugee is an individual human being, with his or her own dignity and personal history, with his or her own culture, experiences and legitimate expectations. Refugees are not statistics, but human beings with dreams, wishes and expectations.  

2. The Position of the Holy See 

The Holy See is a member of the Executive Committee of the UNHCR and supports the existing Executive Committee Conclusions on International Protection3. Without doubt the ones with regard to non-acces to asylum procedures, detention, return and refoulement will be covered more in detail by some other organisations present here. The Holy See regards these Conclusions however as the minimum guarantees and considers that “a strict, narrow and legalistic way of interpretation of the Convention, sometimes with restrictive measures, also does not come to the assistance of people in despair, nor does it strengthen the international protection regime. This changed situation requires additional solutions and political will”4. The Holy See “expresses the hope that the spirit of 1951 will be revived, leading to an open-minded policy to answer integrally the problems of today. ÂÂ… Protection is a dynamic and action-oriented function rather than an abstract concept”. Detention of asylum seekers or creating detention-like situations5 should, in general, be avoided, and if necessary, only for the briefest possible period for limited purposes of establishing their identity or the very basic elements of the asylum claim. Alternatives to detention should be explored and developed. 

Pope John Paul II on 29 July 2001 expressed the hope that “the fundamental right to asylum for all these in need will be not lost”6. The concept of asylum constitutes a major acquisition of modern international legal culture. We must all work to safeguard, consolidate and, where necessary deepen the regime of asylum and protection and to strengthen its application in todayÂÂ’s world7

In November 2003, the World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees appealed to governments, legislative bodies and international organizations “to respect and protect the human dignity and human rights (ÂÂ…) of migrants and refugees, be they in a regular or an irregular situation, and not to make international terrorism a pretext to reduce their rights”8. Moreover, they should “admit that policies which are only repressive and restrictive towards migrants and refugees are unable to control migratory flows”. 

3. Pastoral presence

Asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in airports form part of the pastoral concern of airport chaplains and should not be considered alien to their ministry. After all, documents of the Holy See are clear about those to whom their ministry should be geared and which persons are entrusted to their pastoral care. Their primary concern is for people “who are employed or give their services at the airport and on airplanes” (Pastor Bonus, 150 §3); and, “when necessity demands or usefulness requires it, the ministry is also directed to passengers and to special categories like refugees in airport holding centers, stranded people, homeless people taking refuge in the airport, and the like”9.

“The responsibility to offer refugees hospitality, solidarity and assistance lies first of all with the local Church. She is called on to incarnate the demands of the Gospel, reaching out without distinction towards these people in their moment of need and solitude. Her task takes on various forms: personal contact; defense of the rights of individuals and groups; the denunciation of the injustices that are at the root of this evil; action for the adoption of laws that will guarantee their effective protection; education against xenophobia; the creations of groups of volunteers and of emergency funds; pastoral care”10

In some airports this has been taken up. Some chaplains make it a point to visit asylum seekers regularly, to talk with them, to listen their enquiries and to provide them, when possible, with the essential needs of daily life. Services are also provided. In another airport the chaplaincy set up a group of volunteers and some permanent staff members to offer information, advice, counselling and practical help in confidence. Through maintaining good relations with the airport security personnel, they try to make conditions as human as possible.

We need to learn from these good examples, also to deal with a certain hesitancy felt among some Catholic airport chaplains. They feel overwhelmed by the tasks and the responsibilities they face, especially when airport ministry is part time. They have the impression that they are not prepared for these tasks and fear that an involvement could jeopardise the good relations with the authorities. These arguments are not entirely new and can be heard in parishes and dioceses in reference to other special pastoral issues.

However they cannot be the last word. One of the conclusions of the Third World Congress on Migrants and Refugees thirteen years ago stated: “Until local Churches are convinced that the pastoral care of migrants which the Church insists on is a real duty and not simply one of many means of helping them, there will always be dioceses evincing good reasons for evading the job of providing that specific or extraordinary pastoral care that migrants have a right to expect”11. The Holy See, and particularly our Pontifical Council, is concerned with the plight of refugees and asylum seekers at airports and would like to see an active pastoral presence of airport chaplains among them, naturally in collaboration with assistants in the chaplaincy and organisations specifically dedicated to asylum seekers. Pope John Paul II said: “One can never say too often that pastoral policies will have to be revised so that each particular Church can offer the faithful more personalized religious care, and strengthen the structures of communion and mission”12. Indeed being close to refugees and asylum seekers and then organizing pastoral care for them is a necessity. How? That is the responsibility of each local Church and the airport chaplaincies within it and our Pontifical Council has a task of helping them to fulfillsuch pastoral responsibilities. 

4. Conclusion

It is the ChurchÂÂ’s duty to welcome immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees and practise solidarity towards them. May all members of the Church, especially those with pastoral responsibilities be reminded of Pope Paul VI words: “Migrants are not only entrusted to their [the bishopsÂÂ’] pastoral ministry on an equal footing with the rest of the faithful; owing to the special circumstances they live in, they require particular solicitude in accordance with their needs” (Motu Proprio “Pastoralis Migratorum Cura” 1969). (Since this document, the Instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi has updated the pastoral care of migration, and it would, at present, be more appropriate to consult it, especially numbers 41, 49, 53 and 70, and (Art. 1 § 2) of the Juridical Pastoral Regulations. 

Pope John Paul II stated it this way: “I make a pressing appeal that these people [refugees and displaced persons] be given material help and offered pastoral support wherever they may be”13.

This is an action programme, a programme to be implemented. In order to remain faithful to Our Lord Jesus Christ, the stranger in a certain sense, in our midst.

1 Jerry Martinson SJ, ‘A Refugee EncounterÂÂ’, Progressio, March 1982
2 ANGELUS, 15 June 2003
3 International protection is included as a priority theme on the agenda of each session of the Executive Committee. The consensus reached by the Committee in the course of its discussions is expressed in the form of Conclusions on International Protection (ExCom Conclusions). Although not formally binding, they are relevant to the interpretation of the international protection regime and often serve to guide governments, non-state actors, national judiciaries and UNHCR itself in the protection of refugees.
4 Intervention by the Holy See at the Ministerial Conference of 140 Signitatory States of the Convention of 1951 on the "Status" of Refugees, Geneva, 12-13 December 2001
5 UNHCR considers detention as: confinement with a narrowly bounded or restricted location, including prisons, closed camps, detention facilities or airport transit zones, where freedom of movement is substantially curtailed and where the only opportunity to leave this limited area is to leave the territory . UNHCR Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers, 1999.
6 ANGELUS, 29 July 2001
7 See Intervention by the Holy See at the Executive Committee Meeting of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2 October 2001
8 Fifth World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees. Final document, at: hmt or People on the Move,N° 93, December 2003, p. 370.

9Catholic Civil Aviation Pastoral Directives, (Vatican City 1995), no 5, in ci_directives_en.html

10 Pontifical Council “Cor Unum” and Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, (Vatican City 1992), no 26
11 Final Document. Proceedings of the III World Congress for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, (Vatican City 1991), p. 216, no. 32
12 Address of  Pope John Paul II to the Bishops of BrazilÂÂ’s Southern Region II on their ad limina visit, 31 August 2002
13 Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, no. 119