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ROME – This week civil and ecclesial leaders gathered in Rome for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees to explore constructive solutions to an increasing global flow of people. The discussions took place just days after Italy elected a new government that is expected to adopt hardline anti-migrant policies.
On Sunday – the World Day of Migrants and Refugees – Italians flocked to the polls and, by a large margin, elected Italian politician Giorgia Meloni and her rightwing “Brothers of Italy” party.
In the past, Meloni has opposed “irregular” and “illegal” immigration and voiced support for a naval blockade refusing vessels carrying migrants to dock on Italian shores. She has also proposed an agreement with Turkish and Libyan authorities that would vet migrants before they are allowed to cross, and she has been accused of racism.
Speaking to journalists during a press conference Thursday, Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny responded to a question about Meloni, who will now likely be named Italy’s new Prime Minister, saying the church in Italy is doing a lot to “protect the most basic and minimal rights of those who are at sea.”
“These are rights that are thousands of years old. If someone is in trouble at sea, you are morally obliged to help them,” he said.
Czerny also spoke on the opening day of an international conference on “Initiatives in Refugee & Migrant Education,” which took place Sept. 26-28 and culminated with an audience with Pope Francis on Thursday.
A separate conference on migration was also held Sept. 26-27, and organized by the International Catholic Migration Commission and the Canadian Embassy to the Holy See: “Building the Future Through Community Sponsorship of Refugees – Comparing Experiences and Learning From Each Other.”
The conference, attended by church and government officials from around the world, including Julieta Valls Noyes, assistant secretary of state for Population, Refugees, and Migration and the former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy to the Holy See, explored the role of community sponsorship as an effective and positive solution to the issue of migrant welcome and integration into local communities.
Mark Wiggin, CEO of Caritas in the Diocese of Salford, England, said in the opening session Monday, “community sponsorship holds up a light for humanity and how ordinary people can become part of the solution for how to settle people.”
“It builds intimate forms of community relationships,” and generally has a personal impact on both the refugees and those who assist them, he said.
Several others, including Bill Canny, director of Refugee and Migration Services for United States Conference for Catholic Bishops (USCCB); Andreas Hollstein, the former mayor of Stadt, Altena, Germany; and Alessandra Santopadre, refugees’ sponsorship coordinator for Archdiocese of Montreal, Canada, all praised community sponsorship as helpful in terms of immigration and in forming closer ties with the local government.
Oliviero Forti, from Caritas Italy, spoke Monday about the humanitarian corridors initiative, which allows for the safe and legal passage of vulnerable and at-risk refugees, saying, “Until yesterday, humanitarian corridors have been a good opportunity to open dialogue with institutions.”
“The only way to manage migration in a positive way is to promote legal avenues,” he said, saying, humanitarian corridors “are an example of how to promote the phenomenon at a global level,” but they could be at risk with Italy’s new government.
Speaking to Crux about engagement with leaders seen as anti-migrant, Czerny said, “It’s not labels and trends that count, but how newcomers are received.”
“By helping to protect and welcome them, the church makes an important contribution and persuades by good example,” he said, recalling how Pope Francis in 2015 amid the European migration crisis asked all parishes, religious communities, monasteries, and shrines to take in a family of refugees.
While those who heeded this call “rarely make the news,” Czerny said, “they really are doing so. And we can do more.”
In comments to journalists during a Sept. 29 media roundtable, Valls Noyes said Italy is a long-term partner, friend, and ally of the US government, and as such, “we look forward to working with whatever government Italy ultimately forms.”
In terms of migration and the potential adoption of policies seen as at odds with her office’s priorities, Valls Noyes said “we will look at the policies and actions of any government that gets formed, and the response will be with regard to the actions, not to campaign rhetoric.”
“We will look at the actions of the government of Italy and raise our interests and concerns based on that,” she said.
Valls Noyes herself is the child of refugees. Her parents entered the U.S. from Cuba before she was born, making the topic of migrants and refugees not just an agenda issue, but a personal one.
“I feel like it’s the culmination of my career now to be in a position to manage the support to refugees and vulnerable people around the world through the benefit of humanitarian assistance,” she said.
She noted that there are now 100 million forcibly displaced people throughout the world, amounting to “more than one percent of the world’s population, and it’s the highest number in recorded history of people who are forcibly displaced, much more than after the Second World War.”
“The needs are great and growing,” especially in the wake of Russia’s “unprovoked, naked aggression” against Ukraine, she said, noting that her office during last week’s United Nations general assembly announced over $2 billion of additional humanitarian assistance “for a variety of different responses around the world.”
Valls Noyes traveled to Rome for the conference on community sponsorship, but she said she also met individually with several different NGOs during the visit, including Caritas and the Sant’Egidio Community, which is the primary sponsor of the humanitarian corridors’ initiative.
Asked by Crux about the potential of community sponsorship for refugees seeking entry into the United States, Valls Noyes said that U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to resettle 125,000 refugees in the U.S. for the coming fiscal year, and that community sponsorship is an option her office is trying to bolster.
She said her office has nine different partners for resettlement, including the USCCB, and is hoping to do “a lot more community sponsorship.”
“We had some community sponsorship initiatives already, but we’re looking to really beef those up in the coming months and to have great complementarity by community sponsors to the more traditional resettlement model that we had recently,” she said.
“I think it’s really going to innovate and make the program better, stronger, and more flexible when you can have communities and not just traditional resettlement agencies trying to find people apartments, find people jobs, get their kids enrolled in schools, find them English classes, show them where the local clinics are,” she said, saying the role of faith-based organizations is essential in this regard.
Churches, synagogues, and mosques are helpful, she said, because religious communities generally “are very, very committed to this work and have been one of the central supporters of refugee resettlement in the United States.”
Speaking of Pope Francis and his leadership on the migration issue, Valls Noyes said that for her, “it’s always inspirational to see people who elevate moral requirements above political or partisan concerns, and I think the world needs people like that.”
“The papacy of John Paul II was so critical to the end of the Cold War. There are moments in history when moral leaders can take stances or concentrate world attention on these issues, and I admire the commitment and the dedication that Pope Francis has brought to vulnerable people, to refugees and migrants around the world,” she said.
In a speech to participants on the conference on migrant education Thursday, Pope Francis encouraged attendees to continue their efforts specifically in the areas of research, teaching and “social promotion.”
Everyone must “work together with migrants and refugees to build a better future,” he said, and stressed the role that universities can play through programs and scholarships, saying, “Every educational institution is called to be a place of welcome, protection, promotion and integration for all, to the exclusion of none.”
Speaking on the changes that have happened in global migration patterns since the major migrant crisis of 2015, Czerny told Crux that the COVID-19 pandemic and the many wars waging throughout the world, including the war in Ukraine, have had a major impact on the migrant and refugee community.
Yet despite the concerns that have arisen, “an encouraging trend is community sponsorship available in more and more countries, where local parishes and other grass-roots groupings take responsibility for welcoming refugees and help them to settle in their first year or two,” he said.
Nearly everyone involved with community sponsorship “testifies with joy, ‘This has been a great blessing!’” he said.
On the conflict in Ukraine, Czerny said the “very tragic and destructive invasion of Ukraine” has sparked a new and enormous wave of displacement.
“One terrible consequence is an increase in trafficking and enslavement,” he said, but added that one “great grace” to emerge both within Ukraine and neighboring countries has been “an extraordinary response of hospitality and support.”
“This will hopefully translate into an ongoing and greater openness, in Eastern Europe and other areas, to other people in flight,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen