YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – As the world prepares to mark the 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees on Sep. 27, the International Catholic Migration Commission has urged governments to make migration “voluntary, safe and regular.”

Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, the Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission, also said the narrative around migration and migrants should shift from “burden sharing” to “resource sharing,” arguing that migrants are essential building blocks for their host countries, and that they will be critical to overcoming the workforce deficit in Europe.

“Past generations of Europeans, including that of my grandparents, emigrated from Italy to the USA and made that country and many others ‘great because of their resilience, determination, hard work, and a gratitude for the welcome’ they received,” he told Crux.

“Now it is time for Europeans and other high- or middle-income regions of the world to benefit from similar strength, skills, and good will among African and other migrants,” the priest added.

What follows are excerpts of Vitillo’s conversation with Crux:

Crux: Pope Francis has selected the theme for the 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (September 27): “Forced like Jesus Christ to Flee.” How relevant is this theme in the light of today’s realities? 

The Old Testament is replete with admonitions to welcome strangers and foreigners and reminds the people of Israel that they once were strangers in Egypt. In his Gospel account of Jesus’ life, St. Matthew reports that Mary and Joseph were forced to flee to Egypt in the dark of night. One can just imagine the panic and fear they felt as they fled to save the life of their newborn child. Jesus later reminds his disciples that their admission to the Kingdom of Heaven will depend on whether they welcome him when he was a stranger.

Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, the secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission. He is pictured in this July 20, 2012, file photo in Washington. (Credit: Paul Jeffrey/CNS.)

As I hear the stories of refugees whom we serve through local church efforts and through the global work of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), their journeys are motivated by the same search for welcome, protection, promotion, and integration seems motivated by the same forces that caused our Jewish and early Christian ancestors to leave home and familiar life circumstances in quest of freedom, peace, and the basic necessities of life.

Thus, for me the Holy Father’s choice of this theme vividly confronts us with the raw fear and anxiety of Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus, as well as the panic of countless present-day migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons.

Much of the migration happens in Africa and from Africa – so much so that the continent has been described as “a continent on the move.” How big is the migration problem in Africa today? 

Of the 79.5 million forcibly displaced people in the world today, some 26 million are refugees, that is, they are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. The rest are internally displaced people who have stayed within the borders of their respective countries of origin but often are deprived of the special protection available to refugees. In Africa, there are some 6 million refugees and 12.5 million internally displaced persons.

What are the drivers of this phenomenon? 

Forcibly displaced persons fear for the safety and future of themselves and of their children. They desperately want to enjoy their God-given dignity and to escape the horrors of persecution, conflict, and threats to personal safety. While many migrants leave their countries of origin or home regions in search of decent work, others only perceived one choice open to them – that is, to escape abject poverty and to seek access to education, health care, decent housing, and adequate nutrition.

Some African leaders have urged Europe and America to open their doors to African migrants and change restrictive immigration policies. What should be the right policy choices by countries of refuge for both migrants and refugees? 

Many European and other high- and middle-income countries are experiencing a population gap that is expected to worsen over time and that will have a significant impact on the economy and overall wellbeing of future generations.

In fact, the European Investment Bank predicts that Europe will register a gap of 61 million people in working age by 2030 and 130 million people by 2060. While increased migration can mitigate these serious challenges, it is not expected to successfully reverse these trends, since only some 14 million migrant arrivals in Europe are projected by 2030 and 57 million by 2060 (Migration and the EU Challenges, opportunities, the role of EIB, March 2016).

Past generations of Europeans, including that of my grandparents who emigrated from Italy to the USA and made that country and many others “great” because of their resilience, determination, hard work, and a gratitude for the welcome they received. Now it is time for Europeans and other high- or middle-income regions of the world to benefit from similar strength, skills, and good will among African and other migrants.

In my opinion, the migration policy decisions must focus on making migration voluntary, safe and regular and we should refrain from discussing “burden sharing” to receive migrants and refugees but recognize the “resource sharing” that is provided by the arrival of refugees and migrants into our many of our ageing and tired communities, especially those in rural and marginalized areas.

Many African migrants go through the Sahara and on the high seas in desperate attempts to reach America or Europe. How perilous is this journey?

A report, entitled, ‘On this journey, no one cares if you live or die,’ released, in July 2020, by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and to the Mixed Migration Center, estimated that some 1750 refugees and migrants lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea and in the Sahara Desert during 2018 and 2019. Pope Francis consistently has called attention to such tragedies, especially since his visit to Lampedusa, shortly after his election as pope, when he laid a wreath to honor the memories of those buried in this vast “cemetery,” and during his annual Masses to commemorate that historic visit.

What should be the attitude of Christians towards migrants and refugees? 

Jesus taught us what should be the attitude of Christians toward migrants and refugees and internally displaced persons: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me; now enter into the home of my Father.” He sets the bar high for us and also does not want us to miss the blessings and benefits carried with them to their host countries and regions.

What should African governments be doing to turn things around? 

All governments, including those from Africa, have a responsibility to ensure dignified living conditions, freedom, and safety to their citizens or to any who live within their borders. In late 2019 and early 2020, I visited Burkina Faso, Morocco and Côte d’Ivoire and saw and heard for myself the testimonies of young men and women who risked all to be able to support their families back home, who swore that they would not leave the Spanish border area until they found their opportunity to cross it, who thanked local parishes for the welcome and safety extended to them, young unaccompanied children who were keenly aware that their parents sent them on these journeys as the way to keep them alive.

Governments, everywhere, not only in Africa, must promote integral human development and fight the corruption and complicity that makes some of their citizens richer and many more of their citizens barely able to ensure their survival from one day to the next. They must ensure equality and equity for all. Pope Francis sums this up clearly and forcefully in his Message for the 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees: “To preserve our common home and make it conform more and more to God’s original plan, we must commit ourselves to ensuring international cooperation, global solidarity and local commitment, leaving no one excluded.”