Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity

The Christian understanding of solidarity is one of the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching and is often the basis on which action towards, and with, people in situations of need is promoted. Solidarity, in this understanding, goes beyond a \’feeling of vague compassion, or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near or far\’ and calls for \’a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all.1

“Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity 2 (1992)”, a document of the Pontifical Council concerned with refugees, is of particular relevance to Ireland today as we try to respond, at many different levels, to the situation of refugees and asylum seekers. This piece will comprise a brief summary of the content of the document, with emphasis on the aspects most relevant to the topics discussed in this issue of Working Notes.

The document is in five parts:
I. Refugees Yesterday and Today: A Worsening Tragedy;
II. Challenges for the International Community;
III. The Way of Solidarity;
IV. The Love of the Church for Refugees
V. Conclusion: Solidarity is Necessary.
The second and third parts are the main focus here.

The Situation of Refugees
The situation of refugees the world over and in every age is the subject of the first part, which points out that tensions between culturally and ethnically diverse groups, between the rights of the individual and the power of the State, have often led to war, persecution, expulsion and flight. The statistics hide individual and collective suffering. For example, places which gave meaning and dignity to life, and which recall the events of one\’s own history, are lost to refugees. The problems associated with living in camps are highlighted: overcrowding, the insecurity of national frontiers, and policies of deterrence may transform certain camps into virtual prisons. Even when humanely treated, a refugee can still feel humiliated by having no control over his or her own destiny.

The document points out that only those seeking asylum on the grounds of persecution because of race, religion, membership of political or social groups, are explicitly recognised as refugees under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees,3 and its related Protocol. The Pontifical Council supports the view that the right to refugee protection should be extended also to others ‘whose human rights are equally disregarded’, such as victims of armed conflicts, erroneous economic policies or natural disasters. In relation to economic migrants, the document says that justice and equity demand that appropriate distinctions be made and that those who flee economic conditions that threaten their lives and physical safety must be treated differently from those who emigrate simply to improve their position.

Global Interdependence
The Pontifical Council is critical of the fact that despite an increased awareness of interdependence among peoples and nations, some States, \’guided by their own ideologies and particular interests, arbitrarily determine the criteria for the application of international obligations.\’ Some countries, which have in the past been generous in receiving refugees, are now moving towards political decisions aimed at reducing the number of entries and discouraging new requests for asylum. The document recognises that periods of economic recession can make the imposition of certain limits on reception understandable, but says that the right to asylum can never be denied when a person’s life is seriously threatened in their homeland. The efforts of numerous people within various nations who are committed to sensitising public opinion in favour of the protection of the rights of all and of the value of hospitality are recognised.

Challenges for the International Community
Catholic Social Teaching and its emphasis on the fundamental dignity of every human being is the basis for the Pontifical Council’s strong assertion that the refugee is not an object of assistance but the subject of rights and duties. Countries are called on to recognise the rights of refugees and to ensure these rights are respected as much as those of their own citizens.

Protection must not be limited to a guarantee of physical integrity but extended to all the conditions necessary for a fully human existence. Food, clothing, housing, protection from violence, are primary needs to be met. Access to education and medical assistance, and the possibility of assuming responsibility for their own lives, cultivating their own cultures and traditions, and freely expressing their own faith, must be facilitated also. And, since the family is the fundamental unit of every society, the reunification of refugee families must be promoted.

Further, the Pontifical Council states the desirability of all States becoming party to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and to the related Protocol of 1967 and seeing to it that they are respected. The exercise of the right to asylum proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 14,1) should be recognised everywhere and not be obstructed with deterrent and punitive measures.

On the issue of detention of refugees, the position of the Council is very clear. A person applying for asylum should not be interned unless it can be demonstrated that he or she represents a real danger, or there are compelling reasons to think that he or she will not report to the competent authorities for due examination of his or her case. Moreover, asylum seekers should be helped with access to work and to a just and rapid legal procedure.

No to Forced Repatriation
The document strongly opposes forced repatriation:

Scrupulous respect for the principle of voluntary repatriation is a non-negotiable basis for the treatment of refugees. No one should be sent back to a country where he or she fears discriminatory or life-threatening situations (n. 14.). Where the competent government authorities do not accept asylum seekers, arguing that they are not true refugees, they have a duty to make sure they will be guaranteed a secure and free existence elsewhere.

No to the Silence of Indifference
Indifference is not acceptable. The interest in helping refugees often clashes with the fear of an excessive growth in their numbers and of a confrontation with other cultures. The Council addresses specifically the role of the social communications media, pointing out that, by policies based on solidarity and human understanding, they can prevent refugees from becoming scapegoats for the ills of society. The presentation of a clear, positive image of refugees is particularly necessary where their presence is being exploited to intentionally distract attention from serious domestic or foreign problems.

Indifference, the Council says, constitutes a sin of omission. Instead, we are called to solidarity, which helps to reverse the tendency to see the world solely from one\’s own point of view. Recognition of the global dimension of problems emphasises the limits of every culture and urges us towards a more sober lifestyle with a view to contributing to the common good.

The Way of Solidarity
This section of the document points out the growing sense of interdependence which finds expression in international institutions such as the United Nations and international non-governmental organisations, and associations of volunteers, lay or religious. Alongside this, there is the painful confirmation of political, social, and economic hostility, racial and ideological antagonism, illustrated in the unresolved problem of refugees. Special recognition is given to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees created in 1950 to ensure \’international protection\’ for refugees and to search for \’durable solutions\’ to their problems. (18)

The spirit of solidarity challenges any indifference on the part of citizens and institutions of democratic and economically developed States and requires action on the causes that are the source of the growing numbers of refugees. The structures that keep so many people in a condition of extreme marginalisation need to be changed if the aspiration to have human rights universally respected is to be made real. In this context, legitimate interventions by the international community to protect human rights cannot be seen as violations of sovereignty.

Solidarity towards refugees supports voluntary repatriation and requires joint initiatives of humanitarian assistance and co-operation for development. The Pontifical Council acknowledges that the entry of refugees into a country can create inevitable inconveniences but points out that their arrival can also stimulate the development of local societies given suitable political and economic decisions by the host country. For their part, refugees are called to help one another, placing their resources, human and spiritual, at the service of the search for valid solutions.
The overcoming of selfishness and of fear of the other are also required by solidarity, as well as long-range action of civic education which can contribute to the elimination of some of the causes of the exodus of refugees. Prevention mechanisms and a better, concerted action between international institutions and local authorities are needed also.

The Role of the Church

Holding the dignity of the human person, with all his or her needs, in first place is the priority. The tasks of the local church and the parish are spelled out in terms of the responsibility to offer refugees hospitality, solidarity and assistance at many different levels: personal contact; defence of the rights of individuals and groups; denunciation of injustices and action for the adoption of laws guaranteeing their effective protection; education against xenophobia; creation of groups of volunteers and emergency funds; pastoral care.

The mutuality of solidarity is reflected in the call to the local church to instil in refugees respectful behaviour and openness towards the host country. Benevolence, respect, trust and sharing are practical expressions of a culture of solidarity and hospitality. The spiritual needs of refugees are to be met and any form of proselytism is deplored. Particular priority is to be given to children, and to providing specific moral support to women who constitute the largest percentage of the refugee population throughout the world. Refugees too are called to join with volunteers and participate in the discernment and expression of their needs and aspirations. Co-operation within the church, and between the churches of the countries of origin, of temporary asylum,and of permanent resettlement, is necessary.

Finally, cultural institutes, universities and seminaries are asked to play their part by reflecting on the plight of refugees, contributing to the formation of public opinion, and by developing analysis that will help enhance a sense of hospitality. The document concludes with a restatement of the need for solidarity and the assertion that human solidarity, as witnessed by any community that welcomes refugees and by the commitment of national and international organisations that care for them, is a source of hope for the real possibility of living together in fraternity and peace.

The problems faced by refugees in Ireland today and by those who work with them, as demonstrated in the preceding articles, are many and complex. Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity offers not only a clear statement of the values underlying the Christian perspective but also practical ways to proceed if we are to take solidarity seriously. This perspective suggests that engagement with the plight of refugees, at whatever level is possible for groups and individuals, is required by both basic humanity and Christian solidarity. Much is needed both at the structural level, which deals with causes, and at the personal level, which deals with effects on particular individuals and groups. Response at individual and group level in the areas of hospitality, action for justice, education against xenophobia, are just some of the ways suggested for people to engage and show true solidarity with refugees and those seeking asylum. Indifference, we are told, is a sin of omission. Doing nothing is not an acceptable option.

1. Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Encyclical Letter, 30 December 1987, London: Catholic Truth Society, n. 38.
2. Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, 1992 (
3. The Convention defines a refugee as one who \’owing to 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 or, owing to fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.\’ Article 1, A.2.