Jesuit Refugee Service: The Challenge 25 Years On

John Dardis SJ is the Irish Jesuit Provincial and was formerly Regional Director for JRS Europe

The Jesuit Refugee Service was set up twenty-five years ago by Father Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, at a time when the people fleeing Vietnam in boats were high profile on our TV screens. Now the JRS works in over thirty countries on five continents. Former JRS-Europe Director, Fr John Dardis SJ, who is current head of the Jesuits in Ireland, reflects on the Irish situation and the international challenge.

There are over 45 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide and 80 per cent of these are women and children. In Africa and Asia they live in camps while here in Europe they are frequently detained in detention centres. Human rights organisations worldwide are expressing concern about the increasingly restrictive asylum policy of different countries and the gradual erosion of rights for asylum seekers and refugees.

There are many reasons for these developments. One is what we could call \’asylum fatigue\’. Three decades ago, we were sympathetic to Boat People of South East Asia and just ten years ago to refugees from Rwanda and Burundi and to one or two other groups of asylum seekers in between.

But now it takes a highly visible catastrophe to move our hearts and to convince us that, yes, these are \’real\’ refugees. We are slow to believe in the more subtle forms of persecution that are taking place daily around the globe and from which people flee. Another reason for our lack of concern is what is commonly called the \’asylum-migration nexus\’. This means that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish \’migrant\’ from \’refugee\’, that migrants and refugees arrive in mixed flows and that the grey area between refugee and migrant is hard at both a theoretical and practical level.

On the migration side, numbers are more difficult to pin down. Besides the number of legal migrants, there are also those who arrive \’irregularly\’, that is, with no permission to stay or work. Numbers of these are, inevitably, hard to quantify. We do know, how-ever, that over 700 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in a recent eighteen-month period. Were they migrants? Or refugees? One thing we do know is that they were so desperate that they risked life and limb to get to Europe.

The human suffering and desperation underlying all this is enormous and it points to the major injustice that must be addressed.  The fundamental point is that at a very basic level our world \’system\’ – be it economic, social or political – is not working anymore. Africa is poor, Europe is rich and people are voting with their feet, coming north in search of jobs, money, housing and food. That is a reality, which no amount of visa restrictions or extra boats in the Mediterranean can fully stop. As Europeans, as Irish people with a tradition of hospitality, we need to reflect whether we want a \’fortress Europe\’, ever more determined to keep people out, while migrants, in their turn, will be ever more determined to arrive.

It is clear that there will be no winners here. Increased border restrictions, in addition to having limited effect, play directly into the hands of traffickers because desperate people, no longer able to come on their own, pay traffickers thousands of euro in order to get them through the new array of security systems.

This money is feeding a growing Mafia underworld which treats people unscrupulously and where murder, torture, brutality  are  common  currency. I remember vividly a
conversation I had just two or three years ago with a JRS colleague where I asked her what measures she was taking to protect herself and her two small children. My question arose because I was aware that her outreach to refugees and migrants must be seriously disrupting the Russian mafia which were strong in her Western European area. Could a situation like this emerge in Ireland – or, indeed, is it already happening?

Pointers towards a Solution
Here in Ireland we can play our part in the search for a global solution to the problem.
We need to deal with a number of issues urgently:

·    We need migrants in our economy and we need a better migration policy. The issue of green cards is vital: visas should be held by migrant workers, not by their employers.

·    We need better integration of migrants. Much money is spent on the restriction of migrants crossing our borders but little on the integration of those migrants who do arrive. This is building up a problem for the future. Do we want to see riots here in ten or fifteen years, like those of November 2005 in the French suburbs?

·    We need better human rights protection for those who flee persecution and are genuine asylum seekers. These are among the most vulnerable and must be protected under international law. We should not water down these rights out of a mistaken view that we are thereby solving the wider question of migration numbers. Nor should we narrow the definition of asylum seeker. The UNHCR definition of refugee is restricted to people who flee their country and cross the border for five very specific reasons. Catholic Church documents add to these reasons and thereby broaden the definition of refugee. The Church speaks of people who are fleeing because of economic injustice and because their lives are threatened by such injustice: it calls these de facto refugees. While wider society pretends that it can restrict the number of refugees coming, and interpret the Geneva Convention in a narrow way, the Church is inviting us to a wider interpretation of refugee, which I believe is more sustainable and more just.

·    We need faster processing of asylum claims. The most high-profile asylum and deportation cases here in Ireland have been ones where people have spent some years waiting for their claims to be processed, meanwhile putting down roots, studying in our secondary schools and then suddenly being asked to leave or being threatened with deportation. Public opinion has been swift to come to the support of these people. There is a sense of natural justice which says that if someone has been here two or three or more years, but because of our slowness in processing claims is only now receiving a determination of their status, then they should be allowed to remain, especially if they have made attempts to integrate.

·    Asylum-seekers need to be given  the  right  to  work  in certain defined circumstances. They themselves are frustrated waiting for their claims to be processed. They are given food and shelter but are not allowed the dignity of work. Public opinion unfairly turns against them because they are seen as  \’spongers\’; the reality is that asylum seekers want dignity and want the right to work. This need not create an automatic \’pull factor\’ inducing other asylum-seekers to come to our shores.

·    We need to address development issues on a world basis realising that the north/south divide cannot remain and that for growth in the north to be sustainable we must attend to our neighbours in the south, treating them as real neighbours and not as competitors  in  the  world economy.

·    We need public education about the asylum system so that people really understand it and can appreciate the need to give refugee status to those most at risk. Public education is vital and the JRS is committing itself to informing public opinion about the real situation of asylum seekers.

·    We need political leadership, leaders who stand for values, who stand up for the rights of those who are being tortured and threatened with murder and against those who would deny these rights. We need leaders with the courage to say that this is a right that will be inalienable in Ireland and will not be compromised under any circumstances. Too often, politicians wait to see which way the wind is blowing and asylum becomes a political football.

We in Ireland must stand up and demand of our political leaders that they reach out to the vulnerable, make a stand for them and protect the right to asylum in our country.

·    We need responsible reporting. The media have generally played a positive role highlighting situations such as Rwanda, Burundi and other conflicts and encouraging us to reach out and to make room for refugees and asylum seekers. However, occasionally media headlines have regrettably been negative, speaking, for example, of \’waves\’ of asylum seekers.

Challenge in Global and Local Terms
Ireland is facing a challenging and rich future and migrants are making a valuable contribution to the Irish economy and infrastructure. But we cannot take for granted that this transition from a relatively mono-cultural society to a multi-cultural one will be painless.

I am not calling for unrestricted entry of all-comers. That would be foolish and unsustainable. I am calling for a clearly thought-out policy which addresses the issue at a variety of levels as indicated above. The Government is beginning to take this kind of approach. It is the only viable one for the long term.

My main concern is that at present in Ireland insufficient attention is being paid to positive integration measures. These should be seriously studied and best practice funded. We cannot afford to wait. The issue now is not whether we in Ireland should admit migrants and refugees. That debate is redundant. The issue is how to integrate the new arrivals to ensure a united society of mutual tolerance.

At a global level, the question is whether governments of wealthy countries are prepared to acknowledge that global inequality is no longer acceptable. Trade talks, development aid, debt cancellation: in all these areas wealthy countries need to see that looking out for the interests of poorer countries is, in the end, looking out for their own
interests. This is a lesson they are slow to learn. Meanwhile, time is slipping away.