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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 84, December 2000


The Situation of Migrants and Refugees around the World and the Church’s Response* 


Archbishop Stephen Fumio Hamao
President of the Pontifical Council

Ladies and Gentlemen,

         Following Mrs. Ogata’s address on refugees, I wish to reflect on another group of people on the move, who do not have a Geneva Convention for their protection. They are  migrants. Respect for their rights and dignity depends largely on the good will and economic interests of receiving countries. Most lack the qualifications sought after by the high tech companies, and few have exportable managerial skills or capital to invest. These are a central concern of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. They are the millions in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, whose plight qualifies them as “economic refugees” or “economic migrants.” While they may not be persecuted, they are driven by another force, necessity. Among them are also trafficked and smuggled people, exploited for work and even so called “sexual services.”  

1. Migration in today’s globalized society

         International migration is part of today’s often discussed globalization. While its earlier forms included international movement of capital, goods, and labor, today capital and goods move freely across borders, but people are less welcome. Nevertheless all developed countries have received significant numbers of migrants. Enforcing restrictions is limited by factors that lie beyond the control of any single state. Thus, worried citizens are reassured by the appearance of control in symbolic actions, such as vigorous border enforcement, bureaucratic harassment of aliens, and restriction of access to social services. While such visible and concrete actions are generally popular, their effectiveness is questionable, and migration, including its undocumented forms, continues to be on the rise world-wide.

         Despite capital investments from industrialized nations into developing countries and the transfer of many production centers to them, the expected overall result, reduction in migration flows to industrialized countries, is yet to be verified. Obviously the determinants of international migration are more complex and diversified and not reducible to socio-economic push or pull factors. 

2. The Church in today’s international migration

         The community of Jesus Christ, as Vatican II teaches, shares “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way.”[1]  Among them are migrants involved in the phenomenon I have just alluded to. That is why the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People exists. Its mission is to apply “the pastoral solicitude of the Church to the particular needs of those who have been forced to abandon their homeland, as well as to those who have none.”[2] These include migrants, exiles and refugees, international students, seafarers, airport and flight personnel, nomads, circus and fair people, tourists and pilgrims. It works with “particular Churches so that all those who are far from home may be given adequate pastoral assistance.”[3]   

         Thus we encourage and promote opportune pastoral initiatives in dioceses and bishops’ conferences for those who, because of their mobility, “are not adequately catered for by the ordinary pastoral ministry of the parochial clergy or are entirely deprived of it.”[4]  Furthermore, we study the social, economic and cultural questions which usually induce such movements. In our pastoral mandate we come face to face with the great human, cultural and social issues of our day, before which no one can remain indifferent.

         A guiding light in this specific pastoral care is the Holy Father’s annual Message for the Day of Migrants and Refugees. Our experience is that the messages do not only indicate important pastoral orientations but also give a much needed backing to those involved in this apostolate.

3. The 1998 World Congress and its Follow-up

         Our mission led to convening a World Congress in 1998 on the theme, “Migration at the Threshold of the Third Millennium,” to study its contemporary features and reflect on the Church’s presence in it. (I am happy to see several participants at the Congress in the hall with us today.) Among other things, it emphasized positive aspects of migration, such as its contribution to the unification of the human family as its moves towards a greater unity. Discussions included the role of the Church in migrant and refugee receiving communities, collaboration with the international community in migrant and refugee issues, the plight of migrants, and evangelization in the context of migration.

         As an immediate follow-up to the Congress, four meetings of National Directors of Migration Commissions of the Bishops Conferences were held from September 1999 to September 2000. They took place in Kaohsiung, Taiwan for Asia and the Pacific, in Cape Town, South Africa for Africa, in Strasbourg, France for Europe, and Mexico City for America. Last month all National Directors worldwide were invited to a concluding meeting in Rome.

         What came out of these meetings? First, they all arrived at a number of convictions. For example, they agreed on the need to establish a common perspective in reading migration today and putting together a global strategy to address it. While acknowledging the right of every person to emigrate, they noted that the Church,, however, does not encourage its exercise, given the pains and sacrifices it involves. Migration is more an economic and humanitarian “safety valve,” which, when used, requires supporting migrants in many areas. Thus pastoral agents have a duty to reach out to potential migrants, help them understand what their decision entails, and offer them a religious and cultural preparation for the challenges and hardships they will meet, especially in non-Christian countries. It includes formation for evangelization as well as for knowing and safeguarding their rights. All this in turn requires Church-organized advocacy as a tool for a broader and more intense action for their protection at home, on the way, and in their destinations.

         Offering formation for migrants is possible only if priests and other pastoral agents themselves have a solid academic and practical preparation for it. Our Council considers this a crucial point for the future of the Church’s presence among migrants. It has to penetrate every level: seminaries, parishes, pastoral councils, priests, and religious congregations.

         Second, all these activities require an institutional basis to give them stability. Structures for pastoral care were therefore taken up. Where immigration is not something new, local Churches have a long experience in this area and generally well-developed structures, as found in Australia, New Zealand, western Europe, Canada, and the United States. Where immigration is a more recent phenomenon, for example, in the poorer countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Church structures are often not developed or even non-existent. If they are operating, they need solidarity from abroad, and financial and human resources for them to do their job.

         Third, globalized migration requires a globalized response, that is, collaboration between the Churches of origin and destination, as well as among the Churches in the different host countries. Sharing pastoral and other resources is urgent, for no local Church can face migration issues in isolation. A good example is the collaboration of the U.S. Bishops Conference with migrants’ Churches of origin, especially those sharing its borders. I am also grateful to the U.S. Bishops for their collaboration and exchange of information with the Pontifical Council. We learn much from this experience.

         Fourth, migration in a globalized world requires a greater collaboration with other international institutions and NGOs, such as Caritas and the International Migration Organization. One in particular, the International Catholic Migration Commission, deserves special mention. Founded in 1951, it is owned and operated collectively by ninety-five Catholic Bishops Conferences and has been the Church’s instrument for concrete projects affecting migrants, refugees, and displaced people. I wish to thank the U.S. Bishops Conference for its support of the ICMC, including efforts to assure that its service continues beyond its fiftieth anniversary celebrations next year. 

4. A Jubilee Concern

         I would like to draw this talk to a conclusion by mentioning a factor in migration that is not directly related to globalization but has started receiving more attention recently at the level of the United Nations and also in an international convention on migration held last July in Rome, in connection with the Jubilee. I refer to population ageing in most developed countries and the consequent need for “replacement migration.” In Italy, for example, many industrialized areas of the north seek migrant labor, without which they will have trouble competing and surviving. In the U.S.A. too, there has been recent legislation that allows the issuing of six hundred thousand high tech visas over the next three years. Whatever scenario we wish to adopt for the next fifty years, there is no way to escape the fact that more migrants are needed in the developed world to keep the economies going and internationally competitive. Besides the serious ethical questions this raises regarding the “purchase” of labor from the developing world, developed societies are going to have to face larger inflows of migrants. Migration has often been a source of tensions among cultures and even racist and xenophobic movements. It is difficult to imagine that the future will be exempt from such experiences. That calls for a special pastoral role of the Church, as mediator and place of dialogue among cultures. It is to be an agent of reconciliation, a central concern of the Great Jubilee, which will continue to be a need for the foreseeable future. The Church in the developed world will be able to carry out that role if the great concerns of the 1998 World Congress are taken seriously: a pastoral reading of the situation, institutions to support that reading, formation, cooperation among local Church and with our many partner organizations. 

           To these I wish also to add the Holy Father’s appeal during the World Congress for consideration of appropriate amnesties for undocumented migrants as a gesture of the Great Jubilee, similar to that of the cancellation of international debt. I repeated this appeal in connection with the Jubilee for Migrants and Itinerant People celebrated last June. Some bishops conferences have recently echoed the same appeal. It is a gesture of reconciliation, that gives people the chance to start life again as the ancient biblical tradition of Leviticus 25 foresees.

         Migration is here to stay, and the Church is permanently called to be part of it and to make its contribution as a house of prayer for all nations, a place where they meet and where God’s of reconciliation of all in Jesus Christ happens.

*Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., 13 November 2000. 

[1]Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes n. 1 

[2]Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus 149; henceforth PB. 

[3]PB 151 

[4]Vatican II, Christus Dominus 18