One of the Church's Best Kept Secrets

International Catholic Migration Commission Reaching Out to Jesus in Strangers

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By Edward Pentin 

ROME, MARCH 8, 2012 ( John Klink, president of the International Catholic Migration Commission, describes the organization he heads as «one of the best kept secrets of the Catholic Church.»

In today’s increasingly globalized world of more than 200 million migrants, this worldwide Catholic humanitarian organization provides many of them with assistance, from integrating refugees into society and resettling migrants, to offering them legal protection and lobbying governments on their behalf. 

The organization has also latterly reached out to care for some of the world’s 27 million trafficked persons — a staggeringly large number of people who, despite their innocuous label, could more accurately be described as modern-day slaves.

«The whole issue of migration — the whole theology behind it — is based on the fact that not only did Christ take on the mantle of humanity by being born of the Virgin Mary, but that within several weeks of his birth he became a refugee,» Klink explains, recalling how Pius XII referred to Jesus as the archetype of all refugees. 

«Having taken upon himself not only humanity but also the poverty and status of a refugee, how can the Church not mention this and not reach out to them?» 

The Commission was established by Pius XII in 1951 at a time when Rome was filled with refugees from World War II. The Pope led by example, throwing open the doors of the Vatican and religious congregations to shelter them and, in 1952, issuing an Apostolic Constitution, «Exsul Familia Nazarethana,» that contained guidelines for their pastoral care.

«Cardinal Montini [later Pope Paul VI] was the guiding hand behind this [creation of the Commission,» says Klink, who served as a diplomat for the Holy See at the United Nations for 16 years. «Cardinal Frings of Cologne was another key figure because of his connection with the needs of German refugees at that time.» 

Today, the Commission works directly with migrants and refugees in more than 40 countries. It has an office in Geneva so that it can defend the dignity of migrants at the UN. And it works closely with bishops’ conferences, other Catholic entities, non-governmental organizations and governments to advocate and defend the dignity of migrants and refugees in the most effective way possible. The Holy See, in a sign of its continued support and concern for the cause, granted the Commission canonical status in 2008. 

«Most of our work over the last 61 years has been associated with resettlement,» Klink explains, adding that most of this work is achieved in close collaboration with regional Catholic organizations. «We’ve resettled over a million refugees in the US alone — quite a significant achievement.» 

Since 1999, it has also devoted itself to tackling human trafficking. Working closely with female religious congregations and other organizations, the Commission has helped provide temporary shelter, psychosocial counseling, legal aid and protection for this vulnerable group whose number of victims, Klink stresses, «is huge». It’s also establishing networks and cross-border counter-trafficking task forces. 

«When you hear of trafficking you often think of women who are forced into prostitution but it’s also women who are desirous of making extra money for their families to send back home but instead find themselves as prisoners wherever they happen to be,» Klink explains. «The employer takes away their passport, doesn’t allow them to leave the house, many are abused and there’s no place for them to repair to and find safety.»

One Commission initiative aimed at tackling such criminal activity has been to establish a safe-house in Beirut, Lebanon. The facility has served an important purpose, providing refuge for some «extraordinarily tragic» cases. Klink recalls one Filipino woman who thought she was going to be employed as a domestic worker but once she arrived, her employers confiscated her passport, didn’t pay her, imprisoned her, accused her of stealing, and then started to beat her regularly. «When she said she hadn’t been stealing, they upped the punishments, put her in a bathtub and started trying to electrocute her,» Klink recalls. «And when that didn’t work, they started burning her with an iron.» 

The woman managed to escape, heard about the Commission’s safe-house and sought refuge there. «At the safe-house, we provide psychological care for such women and legal assistance to help them get out of their situation,» Klink explains, adding that the Filipino woman later found out her predecessor had been subjected to the same violence, but her only escape was to jump over the balcony. 

But the safe-house only answers the symptom, not the cause, and the Commission would prefer to see policies that prevent women who are potential victims of trafficking from falling prey to such a crime. That means including guarantees for legal protection of workers in the host countries, and finding employment through agencies who won’t exploit them with extortionate charges. 

One major difficulty is being able to identify the trafficking in the first place. «What’s so fascinating is that very often you can have trafficked people right next to you and you don’t know it,» says Klink. He recalls a talk he had heard from a Protestant pastor who recounted that a San Francisco restaurant chain he had often eaten at had been closed down because of involvement in slavery practices. «He realized the women who had waited on him were trafficked people,» Klink says. «Even though he was an expert he didn’t recognize them.» 

Compared to other large organizations dedicated to serving migrants such as the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, the Commission is «generally far cheaper», Klink says, because although those organizations have «an important mandate,» they are «highly bureaucratic.» 

The Commission’s president, once a candidate to be an Assistant Secretary of State in the Bush administration, also rejects any notion that helping migrants is a «Leftist» issue. «This is part of the evangelization of the Church,» Klink says. «That isn’t to say everyone should just be able to be received into a country — there have to be clear regulations, but they have to be fair regulations. People have to have the opportunity to become productive citizens, and if they do follow the law, then that law should be able to provide a pathway for them to integrate.»

Looking to the future, Klink is keen that bishops, laity and NGOs bring to the Commission’s attention cases where it can offer advice and assistance. One strength of the Commission is to be able to contact governments involved and mediate on behalf of migrants. Such an incident happened recently when a bishop contacted the Commission, which then was able to have fruitful discussions with the Ethiopian government over the plight of a group of boat people. «The bishop might not have been able to do that just within his own country,» Klink says. 

A former country director of Catholic Relief Services, Klink has an obvious passion for this work, which he sees as deeply Christian. 

«In the Gospel of Matthew, in his final mandate, the Lord states very clearly unless you welcome the stranger you will not be allowed into heaven,» the Commission president says. «He also made it very clear, as with the poor, that when you feed and clothe them, you are touching Christ himself.»

«It is He who is there and so it is a dual ‘reaching out,'» Klink explains, «because not only are you helping them and being Christ for them, but you are finding Christ by so doing.»

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