ROME – For centuries, Catholicism’s sprawling worldwide network of priests, nuns, missionaries, and lay activists — meaning people who are in the trenches, and in the know, almost everywhere on the planet — has represented a unique resource in taking the pulse of current events.
When it comes to immigration especially, from Bangladesh to Uganda, Catholics are intimately involved in facing migration flows, resource supply issues and sometimes even hostile governments.
A sampling of those religious and lay experts on immigration met Tuesday for the annual plenary meeting of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) taking place March 6-8 at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Rome.
Today, immigration is on the agenda of every meeting with authorities that takes place at the Vatican’s Secretary of State, according to the pope’s most senior aide, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who spoke during the opening remarks at the meeting.
“Migration is seen today only as an emergency or a danger, even though it has become a characteristic of our societies,” he said, adding that “this delicate time calls for unhesitant guidance” by the Church.
One point to emerge clearly from the Rome gathering is that situations concerning migrants and refugees differ from one country to another.
While clergy working in countries such as Uganda and Thailand reported harmonious collaboration between the state and the Church, and a positive overall mindset toward immigrants in their communities, other countries, such as Bangladesh and Kenya, must address issues such as depletion of resources, xenophobia and religious and social conflicts.
Youth, Families and Church come together in Uganda and Thailand
When South Sudan became riddled by civil war and famine, entire families moved to nearby Uganda in seek of refuge and a better life. During the past twelve months, the United Nations estimates that roughly one million South Sudanese have flooded across the border.
According to Father Francis Ndamira, the director of Caritas Uganda, who attended the conference, the Church collaborates with the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other international groups to offer resources and to care for the incoming immigrants.
Many households and communities from South Sudan settled into the northern part of Uganda, particularly since June of last year. Nearly 24,000 of these have been helped by Caritas, which has provided food and education, while local authorities have given land to the families.
“The government of Uganda has been extraordinary, and is being recognized all over the world, including by the United Nations, for its very hospitable policies,” Ndamira said. “Ugandans as a whole feel that way … this isn’t the first time this has happened, people have been coming in and out since the 1960s, and in general, Ugandans receive them.”
The Church has brought in experts in agriculture and microfinance, the priest added, so that families could start working on the land.
“Fortunately, the weather is very good,” he added jokingly.
The remaining number of people escaping South Sudan have been cared for by other international and non-profit organizations, and the UNHCR has brought in maize, flour and beans.
“There is no real question of hunger … they’re able to work and to produce their own food on this small piece of land, which at the same time is supplemented by what they get from the UNHCR,” Ndamira said.
He added that while it’s not likely that South Sudanese will return soon to their own country, “at least they’re hopeful in that they have people looking after them.”
The fear of diminishing resources, in Uganda’s case especially water and firewood, remains relevant and the government responded by deploying 30 percent of the refugee budget to the communities that welcome them, which are invested in agriculture and market projects.
“The government itself has a law and a policy of accepting refugees, who can now be found all over Uganda from so many countries. Automatically, that creates good will,” Ndamira said.
Moving the magnifying glass to Thailand, a country with over 100,000 immigrants and refugees from bordering Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, a local Catholic leader said Tuesday the goal remains building “unity and peaceful coexistence in the country.”
In the view of Bishop Joseph Pibul Visitnondachai of Thailand, where Catholics are a minority, the message of the Church on immigration has successfully reached the population.
“The social teaching of the pope is being read and taking effect, so that it’s a guiding principle that we can follow, especially to help the migrants and refugees in the country,” he said.
The Thai government estimates that between two and three million immigrants from Myanmar, many of them of the Muslim Rohingya minority, are currently living in Thailand, fleeing persecution and in search of work opportunities.
Visitnondachai said that the Church has been cooperating with a network of bishops from neighboring countries and Aid to the Church in Need in Germany to provide for their needs.
In the bishop’s opinion, the problem regarding the large numbers of Rohingya refugees in the country has been diminishing throughout the years, as they have begun working in small businesses or have migrated to other places.
“Concerning the Rohingyas, in this country there is no problem, but some two three years ago because of the lack of collaboration between the Rohingya and police there was human trafficking,” he said.
“Now, those involved in human trafficking have been caught and put in jail.”
Visitnondachai also pointed to a “culture change” in younger generations, who are strongly opposed to the persecution of minorities, including Christians, and are open to a more multicultural and dynamic society.
Immigration: Between Church and State
While Rohingya refugees may no longer be a problem in Thailand, Bangladesh is currently in the middle of a crisis, with over one million Rohingya settled in its southeastern region.
“They are in a bad situation, even though they are given small shelters and food supply is good enough, I would say, they are in a bad place,” Bishop Gervas Rozario of the Rajshahi diocese told Crux in an interview.
With its already dense population, Bangladesh has been operating under the assumption that ultimately the Rohingya will be retuning to their country, something that is easier said than done, the bishop said.
“The Bangladeshi government, as well as [the Church], want them to go back home. We want that they go back and live in their own homes in peace and with dignity and other rights of the citizens,” Rozario said.
But the military, which holds the power in Myanmar, has set out to keep the Rohingya out of the country and the bishop also condemned the “ethnic cleansing” perpetrated against the Muslim minority. He added that not long ago, Myanmar military forces on the country’s border bared arms to “to create fear, panic among the Rohingyas so they do not dare to go back.”
“The situation is really bad because of the numbers and small concentration space. They are in concentration camps! and the [Myanmar] government does not allow them to come in to the country,” Rozario said.
Since August 25, 2017 when a large wave of Rohingya escaped across the border into Bangladesh, the Church has been active in caring and providing for them and one third of all refugees are under the Caritas umbrella.
“The Catholic Church is very small [in Bangladesh], only 400,000 people in a population of 160 million, not even two percent! Still our help was the very first one,” the bishop said.
Though some Muslim public figures in Bangladesh have accused the Church of having a secret agenda of conversion, Rozario said that the aim of Catholics is to “go there for humanity” and provide love, care and charity.
Interreligious tensions in Bangladesh are not rare, and the bishop stated that indigenous, tribal and Christian minorities are often victims of persecution.
“We have our own Rohingya,” Rozario said. “We don’t talk about it because the government directly does not do it, but there are powerful forces, evil forces there who [persecute] religious minorities.”
In a different way, a sense of insecurity also plays into the immigration experience of Kenya, where the flux of people coming into the country has increased fears of letting in religious extremists.
“They’re slipping in, entering through the back-door and around the corner ways. Most are men coming from Somalia. That raises the question of the danger of attacks, of these people coming here to do al-Shabab business,” said Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi, Kenya.
The government in Kenya has taken steps to force people to re-enter their country of origin in an effort to fight illegal immigration, the cardinal said adding that though “it seemed like a very heavy step for some,” it was nevertheless “necessary.”
Njue said that Kenyan authorities are concerned over any illegal or violent actions that might occur if immigrants do not go through the normal regularization process. “Welcoming is a kind of generosity, out of respect for the dignity of the human person. But when this welcome, this respect, turns into a destruction of the harmony of the society, then it doesn’t make sense,” he said.