European leaders have been called to act. More than 1,750 people have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in Europe from their conflict-torn homelands throughout Africa and the Middle East. These are mothers and their children, fathers and their families, young people and old: human beings, each with a name and a hope for a life.
Despite who we are or where we find ourselves in history, ours is a refugee story. We can look back to our most ancient family and recall their banishment from the Garden. We can recall the wanderings of Abraham, our father in faith, or our brother Moses and his exodus from peril in Egypt. And how can we forget the plight of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt? In every age, our brothers and sisters have sought refuge.
What makes this current “crisis” different?
This current refugee crisis has been called a “tragedy of epic proportions” by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Representative for International Migration and Development, and the Director-General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in a joint statement released April 24. This statement is true, but its desperate cry is too late for the hundreds who lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea on April 19. The real tragedy is that the recent increase in deaths is the result of policy decisions to do less about the dangers.
What makes the current Mediterranean refugee crisis particularly challenging is that Europe is also in crisis. The European Union is being challenged to its core, as a union of independent states bound together by the common principles of humanity, solidarity and respect for human rights. How the European Union responds to this current crisis will give insight into its future.
In our time, the United Nations defines refugee in its 1951 Refugee Convention as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” These are people who flee their homeland because their government cannot or will not safeguard their life or liberty. Today’s refugees indeed face immediate and real life-threatening danger from a myriad of places around the world where peace can seem like a distant dream.
Others who flee their homeland feel like opportunities for a dignified and sustainable future are only an elusive ideal. These “refugees” are of a different sort. These people are those policymakers term “economic migrants” who choose to migrate to improve their future prospects. Regardless of the severity of depravation, these “refugees” are considered very differently under international law—despite the fact that they are dying in the same boats.
Our Christian view
In Pope Benedict XVI’s 2005 Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est, we are reminded that love rises above all boundaries and distinctions: “The Church is God’s family in the world. In this family no one ought to go without the necessities of life. Yet, at the same time caritas-agape extends beyond the frontiers of the Church. The parable of the Good Samaritan remains as a standard which imposes universal love towards the needy whom we encounter by chance, whoever they may be.”
Although there has not yet been an encyclical letter specifically on the subject of refugees, there are two organs of the Roman Curia responsible for the Church’s response to refugee issues: the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrant and Itinerant People and the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. Together in 2013, these two bodies provided pastoral guidance to the Church on these very challenging issues through their document titled Welcoming Christ in Refugees and Forcibly Displaced Persons. These instructions strengthened and reinforced the previous teachings of their 1992 document titled Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, which presented the Church’s teachings on refugee issues as the world then marked the 40th anniversary of the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Solidarity: What the Church makes clear
In the 1991 Papal Encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II taught that “the theological dimension is needed both for interpreting and for solving present day problems in human society.”
So to understand and solve the “epic tragedy” of the European refugee crisis, we look to these most basic principles offered in Welcoming Christ:
- Love: We are reminded in 1 John 4:20 that “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
- Humankind is One Family: The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “because of its common origin, the human race forms a unity.” (CCC 360) In this way, humankind is one family. Therefore, human solidarity and charity must not exclude any person, culture or people.
- The Mystical Body of Christ: Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 explains that “as a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” Therefore, as baptized Christians, we have ties that are closer than even those of our human family.
- One Bread, One Body: Pope Benedict XVI explains in Deus Caritas Est that “in sacramental communion I become one with the Lord, like all the other communicants … Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own … We become “one body,” completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself.”
- Jesus Christ Present in Refugees and Other Forcibly Displaced Persons: The Gospel of Matthew teaches us a sobering reality, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” (Matthew 25:37-39). The truth is: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). Likewise those who will be sent away will ask: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?” (Matthew 25:44). The response to the omission will be: “What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45).
Facts are facts
Between January and June 2014, UNHCR offices reported an estimated 5.5 million new forcibly displaced persons from either within or outside their own countries. Although imprecise, this means that by most recent statistics, there are over 46.3 million “refugees” suffering throughout the world. Sadly, this figure is up from the 42.9 million counted at the end of 2013.
By mid-2014, Syria had the largest refugee population, totaling more than three million. Other areas of significant refugee populations include Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Iraq, Colombia, and the Central African Republic.
Let us not forget the almost 21,000 Burundians who have fled to Rwanda this month to escape electoral violence, or the islanders who are fleeing to Djibouti to escape the fighting in Yemen, or the over 39,000 refugees in Cameroon who fled the violence of insurgents in Nigeria. They are all our brothers and sisters.
What is to be done?
In his Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI stressed that “it is not enough to recall principles, state intentions, point to crying injustice and utter prophetic denunciations; these words will lack real weight unless they are accompanied for each individual by a livelier awareness of personal responsibility and by effective action.”
Indeed, this current European crisis has many dimensions. With pressure from the world community, Europe is being pushed to act. Its 10-point plan has promised to increase resources for Triton, the operation run by Frontex, the EU’s border control agency charged with combatting the dangerous and chaotic human smuggling problem that has led to so many refugee deaths. However, this plan says nothing as to whether nor not there will be emphasis and/or resources for search and rescue: the direct effort to save human lives.
As for the many millions of other refugees around the world, we must continue to seek justice and pray for peace. Pope John Paul II, in his 1991 speech to the Third World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, reminded the world that the Catholic Church believes that the effort towards international solidarity is “based on a broader concept of the common good, is the way which can guarantee everyone a truly better future. In order for this to happen, it is necessary for a culture of solidarity and interdependence to spread and deeply penetrate the universal conscience and in this way sensitize public authorities, international organizations and private citizens to the duty of accepting and sharing with those who are poorest.”
As long as there is conflict, boats, and there is hope ashore, there will be refugees. “I just hope this latest mass killing will shake the consciences of the international community,” said Vice-Admiral Felicio Angrisano, Italy’s coastguard commander.
Dawn Carpenter is currently working toward a doctorate in Liberal Studies at Georgetown University where her research interest is the intersection of philosophy, theology, business and work. She has previously earned a M.A. in systematic theology from the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, a M.P.M. in public finance from the University of Maryland, and a M.A./B.A. in political science from American University.