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Encounter refugees, embrace them 

Fr. Cedric Prakash sj

During his Angelus message on Sunday June 18, Pope Francis reminded those listening to him that June 20 is the UN World Refugee Day and that “today more than ever we have to support refugees. We remember those, women, men, and children fleeing conflicts, violence and persecution and those who have lost their lives in the sea or in extravagant land trips. Their stories of pain and hope can become opportunities for fraternal encounter and true mutual knowledge. Personal encounter with refugees dissipates distorted fears and ideologies, and becomes a growth factor in humanity, capable of giving space to feelings of openness and building bridges.”

Pope Francis has consistently voiced his concern for the refugees and the displaced. In a landmark address to the ‘6th International Forum on Migration and Peace’, on February 21 he said, “Before this complex panorama, I feel the need to express particular concern for the forced nature of many contemporary migratory movements, which increases the challenges presented to the political community, to civil society and to the Church, and which amplifies the urgency for a coordinated and effective response to these challenges.”

He went on to add that, “Our shared response may be articulated by four verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.”

He further said, “One group of individuals cannot control half of the world’s resources. We cannot allow for persons and entire peoples to have a right only to gather the remaining crumbs. Nor can we be indifferent or think ourselves dispensed from the moral imperatives which flow from a joint responsibility to care for the planet, a shared responsibility often stressed by the political international community, as also by the Magisterium.”

Pope Francis makes a clear case that the global community needs to look at the endemic issues which have resulted in the refugee crisis today and that the responsibility and the response has to be a shared one. He has not spared the military-industrial complex and the role it plays in fomenting and exacerbating conflicts all over.

It is not without reason that Pope Francis’ universal prayer intention for the month of June is to cry halt to the arms trade; he says, “It is an absurd contradiction to speak of peace, to negotiate peace, and at the same time, promote or permit the arms trade. Is this war or that war really a war to solve problems or is it a commercial war for selling weapons in illegal trade and so that the merchants of death get rich? Let us put an end to this situation. Let us pray all together that national leaders may firmly commit themselves to ending the arms trade which victimizes so many innocent people.”

In September 2015 Pope Francis told the US Congress, “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.” The plain truth is that most are unable or do not have the courage to see the big picture.

The refugee crisis is conveniently relegated to despotic leaders or to a particular fundamentalist or fascist group. Just last month the US and Saudi Arabia signed a whopping $110 billion arms deal. Saudi Arabia is well known for its human rights violations and it’s on record that there were mainly Saudis responsible for the 9/11 attack in the US some years ago. So who gains from such a deal? Who are the ultimate beneficiaries of these deadly weapons?

Xenophobia, jingoism, racism and discrimination are on the rise in several countries. Some leaders want to ‘build walls’ to keep others from coming in. The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently condemned rising xenophobia and “aggressive nationalism” in western democracies, calling for greater social cohesion saying that, “it is essential to not just address the humanitarian crises, but to build resilience – of populations, of regions and countries – to create the conditions for those humanitarian crises not to be repeated,”

The refugee crisis has gripped the world as never before! Sometime ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pegged the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people around the world as 65.3 million. This means that one in every 113 people on earth has now been driven from their home by war, persecution, human rights violations or climate change (which is erroneously and conveniently referred to as ‘natural disasters’).

To put it more graphically each minute about 24 people around the world have to flee their home for no fault of their own. With the escalation of violence in several countries like Yemen, DRC, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria and that more than 20 million people are affected across Africa because of war, drought and hunger- the actual figures of refugees and the displaced might be much more.

The focus of World Refugee Day is ‘to honour the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence’. There is the obvious danger that such a day may water down to mere ‘photo-ops’ and cosmetic events unless the world wakes up urgently to the endemic causes, which create forcible displacements and ultimately refugees.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) launched last June, a global campaign through the #WithRefugees petition demanding that world leaders and governments work together and do much more for refugees.

Speaking to the European Confederation of Jesuit Alumni last September, Pope Francis stressed that, it is important to move beyond the statistics, and realize that migrants and refugees “are no different than our own family members and friends; each of them has a name, a face, and a story, as well as an inalienable right to live in peace and to aspire to a better future for their sons and daughters.”

We need to ensure that the decision-makers of this world have the sagacity and the political will to respect the rights of the forcibly displaced and above all, to tackle the endemic issues which are responsible for the refugee crisis! It is a day on which we need to look into ourselves for a reality-check on our attitudes and actions towards refugees. Above all, we need to stand up with refugees, to accompany them, to realise that like us, they have a name, to encounter them, and to embrace them!

(Fr Cedric Prakash sj is a human rights activist and is currently based in Lebanon and engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and communications. Contact cedricprakash@gmail.com )

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