by Hannah Brockhaus
On Tuesday Pope Francis said that it is our duty to defend the dignity of migrants, particularly by enacting just laws that offer protection to those forced to flee from dangerous or inhumane situations.
“Defending (migrants’) inalienable rights, ensuring their fundamental freedoms and respecting their dignity are duties from which no one can be exempted,” the Pope said Feb. 21.
“Protecting these brothers and sisters,” he said, “is a moral imperative which translates into adopting juridical instruments, both international and national, that must be clear and relevant; implementing just and far reaching political choices.”
Although sometimes it takes longer, we must also implement timely and humane programs that fight against human trafficking, since migrants are an especially vulnerable population, the Pope observed.
Pope Francis’ speech was addressed to participants of the sixth international forum on Migration and Peace at the Vatican. The meeting, which runs Feb. 21-22, is titled “Integration and Development: From Reaction to Action.”
It was organized by the Vatican’s Congregation for Integral Human Development, the Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMIN) and the Kondrad Adenauer Foundation.
In his speech, Francis noted that our current millennium is characterized by migration involving nearly “every part of the world.” The forced nature of this phenomenon, he added, “amplifies the urgency for a coordinated and effective response” to challenges.
“Unfortunately, in the majority of cases this movement is forced, caused by conflict, natural disasters, persecution, climate change, violence, extreme poverty and inhumane living conditions,” he said.
This is why it is more necessary than ever to affirm the dignity of the migrant as a human person, “without allowing immediate and ancillary circumstances, or even the necessary fulfilment of bureaucratic and administrative requirements, to obscure this essential dignity.”
During the meeting, Pope Francis heard the testimony of three people and their families, all of whom have emigrated from their homelands to a new country.
One woman, her husband and their young son were migrants from Eritrea. They fled across the Red Sea to Yemen, but because of the war, they later fled to Jordan, where they were again confronted by “dangerous conditions” on their journey to Italy, including a perilous journey from Libya across the Mediterranean before landing on the island of Lampedusa.
After sharing their story, the woman raised “a heartfelt appeal” to Pope Francis for better legal channels of entrance so that others seeking asylum will not have to “risk their lives in the hands of traffickers” or by crossing the desert and the sea.
Another woman then told her story of migrating to Chile in 1997. Although she had been a professor in her home country of Peru, when she arrived in Chile she was forced work in domestic servitude to support herself, sleeping in the metro station on the weekends when she had nowhere to stay.
She said that one day after seeing fellow migrants arriving at the metro station, she was inspired to help people in her situation.
“I am sure that this inspiration was God’s providence,” she said, because soon after she went to a parish in Santiago and a priest there invited her to be the director of the center for integration of migrants that they were launching.
She has now worked there since 2000, helping to provide various services to migrants including healthcare, food, professional formation and psychological and religious support. In the past 17 years, the woman said more than 70,000 women have come to Chile as migrants to rebuild their lives, with more than half passing through the center she directs.
The third family was Italian, but has lived in Canada for more than 50 years. The brother immigrated to Canada when just 14-years-old, joining his father to work in construction in order to save money for the rest of the family to eventually join them.
“We are truly blessed as immigrants that we went to Canada,” the sister of the family said. “With God’s help, with a lot of faith, determination and perseverance…we today have realized a universal dream of all migrants to fulfill the dreams of providing a better home, a better life for our family and our loved ones.”
For the past 40 years they have volunteered with the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles, also called Scalabrinians, to assist fellow migrants.
After hearing their testimonies, the Pope in his speech used four words to explain what our shared response to the contemporary challenges of the migration issue should be: to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.
To welcome the migrant, he said, we must change our attitude of rejection, “rooted ultimately in self-centeredness,” in order “to overcome indifference and to counter fears with a generous approach of welcoming those who knock at our doors.”
A responsible and dignified welcome begins with offering decent and appropriate shelter, he said.
Large gatherings of refugees and asylum-seekers, such as in camps, has created more issues, not fewer, he said, noting that more widespread programs which emphasize personal encounter have appeared to have better results.
We protect the migrant when we enact just laws, especially in recognition of the fact that migrants are more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and violence, he said, referring to a point previously made by Benedict XVI.
Development, according to the social doctrine of the Church, is “an undeniable right of every human being,” the Pope said.
As such, development “must be guaranteed by ensuring the necessary conditions for its exercise, both in the individual and social context, providing fair access to fundamental goods for all people and offering the possibility of choice and growth.”
This takes a coordinated effort from everyone, he said, placing specific emphasis on the political community, civil society, international organizations and religious institutions.
On the point of integration, Francis emphasized that it is not the same as “assimilation” or “incorporation,” but is rather a “two-way process.” This, he said, means it requires joint recognition on the part of both the migrant and the person in the receiving country.
We must beware of a sort-of cultural “superimposing” of one culture over another, he said, and also cautioned against a “mutual isolation” which has the “dangerous risk of creating ghettoes.”
Above all, policies should favor the reunion of families, the Pope said, but stressed that those who arrive in a new country are “duty bound not to close themselves off from the culture and traditions of the receiving country, respecting above all its laws.”
Through welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating, we discover the “sacred value of hospitality,” he said. “For us Christians, hospitality offered to the weary traveler is offered to Jesus Christ himself, through the newcomer.”
And in the duty of solidarity we find a counter to the “throwaway culture,” he said, adding that “solidarity is born precisely from the capacity to understand the needs of our brothers and sisters who are in difficulty and to take responsibility for these needs.”