YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – According to the website Missing Migrants, over 1200 people have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe so far this year.

In one of the most recent incidents, 54 migrants left the Western Sahara on August 3 for the Canary Islands in Spain, but their engine failure resulted in the boat going adrift for two weeks. The vessel was found August 16 by the Mauritanian coastguard, and only seven people were rescued.

Many Western governments have adopted a hostile attitude towards migrants trying to enter their countries from over-water routes, arguing such policies will deter people from using such dangerous means.

However, Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission, says such policies won’t solve the problem.

“We must better appreciate the lived reality, both at present and in the past, that, when people are forced to flee because of war, discrimination, persecution, or abject poverty, walls will not stop them,” he told Crux.

Following are excerpts of that conversation.

Crux: When you hear stories of African migrants dying on the high seas and from hunger and thirst in the Sahara, what thoughts come to your mind?

Vitillo: These stories often are unfolding before our very eyes, due to the instantaneous coverage of these tragedies by the mass media.

I ask myself how and why so many people could simply observe these tragedies as uninterested bystanders? how they could lack concern for our sisters and brothers in the human family? how they could allow the “walls” between “us” and “them” to shield them from outrage against these tragedies inflicted on women and girls, men and boys, the babies, children, the  elderly, and many others with significant vulnerabilities who have fled from unbearable violence, discrimination, abuse, suffocating poverty, and indecent work conditions in their countries of origin, only to be subjected to the horrible pain of drowning, hunger, and thirst during their search for security, freedom and new opportunities.

And, most of all, I am shocked and ashamed that many people, including believers in the one true God of mercy and justice, would pressure their governments to make rescue at sea illegal and to close their ports to survivors at the brink of death.

The justification by those engaging in these perilous journeys is the usual narrative that they are looking for “greener pasture” in Europe and America. Have they been sold an illusion? How green are these pastures really?

I do not agree with this “greener pastures” narrative. As the Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission, I have spoken with, and constant messages from, refugees and migrants all over the world. The vast majority does not have a fantasy of “streets paved with gold.” They desperately want to find a place of welcome and acceptance, where they could escape extremist violence because they once worked for an organization like the International Catholic Migration Commission, where they and other family members will not be subjected to sexual violence used as an instrument of war, where their children could have access to education and learning, where they can offer their own skills for decent pay and a dignified workplace, where they will be accorded freedom of belief and religious practice in the faith tradition in which they have been raised or which they have discerned as the one to which God is calling them.

I also find that these migrants and refugees have good practical understanding of the challenges they will face in the country where they have sought asylum or to which they might be afforded the rare chance of permanent resettlement. Let us not forget that only one percent of all refugees are ever given the chance to be resettled to a third country.

They know it will not be easy to learn a new language, appreciate a new culture while also trying to hand on their original culture and language to their children, to journey through massive bureaucratic “hoops” of applications for asylum, proving one’s past life history (at times, having fled without documents), of suspicious security checks, of learning how to engage in a job interview in a new country, of watching your children adapt more readily to a new way of life, etc., etc.

At the International Catholic Migration Commission, we provide Cultural Orientation and Education and cover all these and many other questions, so, once again, I could assure that very few, if any, such migrants and refugees are harboring illusions of “greener pastures.”

Some African leaders have urged Europe and America to open their doors to African migrants ,arguing that it is just right and fitting that the West that has for far too long exploited Africa’s natural and human resources ,thereby limiting the continent’s development agenda, begins to absorb desperate Africans who can’t find jobs and wellbeing in their home countries. They say this could be a form of justice. Is this a valid argument, or are these leaders just escaping from their own failures?

 Since its founding by the Venerable Pope Pius XII, seventy years ago, the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) has been active at field level in complex migrant and refugee movements in literally every part of the world and in networking with Catholic Bishops’ Conferences and other Catholic-inspired and faith-based organizations, which often serve as first responders to migrants and refugees at the local community. In the latter case, I think of the partnerships that ICMC has developed with the Bishops’ Conference of Burkina Faso to provide safe educational and recreation spaces for children of the one million internally displaced persons in that country and of our partnership with the Catholic Bishops of India to respond to the millions of informal and domestic migrant workers who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 restrictions.

So, ICMC prefers to advocate on issues identified by the beneficiaries of our services rather than on more technical and political arguments. At the same time, we fully recognize that our organizational mission and mandate is rooted in, and continually nourished by the Teaching and Tradition of the Catholic Church, which recognizes the unique dignity and rights of every person, from conception to natural death, which affirms that the good of this earth are gifts to be by all God’s family, not just to be hoarded by a “privileged” few, while the vast majority of the human family is deprived of their most basic necessities.

In fact, an American layman, Mr. James Norris, was one of the founders of the International Catholic Migration, together with then-Archbishop Montini, later to become Pope Paul VI and now proclaimed as a saint. He addressed the bishops of the world, gathered at the Second Vatican Council and appealed that the Church dedicate more attention and action to poverty in the world. Thus, ICMC knows only too well the link between abject poverty and forced migration, and, to this day, we are deeply engaged in convening civil society actors to advocate with governments, in the annual sessions of the Global Forum for Migration and development and in efforts to implement the Global Compacts for Refugees and for Safe, Voluntary, and Orderly Migration. We also promote a multilateral approach to humanitarian assistance, protection, and integral human development, as has been taught and practiced by the Catholic Church for many centuries.

While ICMC hears from many forced migrants and refugees that they would prefer to remain in their countries of origin, we also learn from them that they feel forced to leave for a wide variety of reasons. We believe that such persons forced to flee from their home countries because of political, ethnic, social, and religious persecution, should be accorded the right to claim asylum in another country and to be offered international protection if their situations conform to the definition of “refugee” according the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees. We also believe that internally displaced persons who have fled to other regions in their home countries should be provided with protection and assistance.

Pope Francis has indeed reaffirmed and even deepened the teaching of his predecessors on the solidarity, respect for natural resources, and services to, and action with, all people on the “peripheries,” including the poor, marginalized, minority populations, disabled, and migrants and refugees, in all parts of the world. His prioritization of migration-related issues is perhaps most practically experienced in his own sponsorship and resettlement of refugees through new and alternative pathways opened up to refugees and migrants due to advocacy and programming by Catholic-inspired organizations, including the International Catholic Migration Commission.

The response from many western countries has been to build legislative and administrative walls and barriers. What is your reaction to this response?

Pope Francis is very clear on this issue – an adequate response to migrant and refugee movements is found, not by building legislative and administrative, or even physical walls and barriers, but by welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating migrants and refugees at all stages of their journeys, in countries of origin, transit and destination.

We must better appreciate the lived reality, both at present and in the past, that, when people are forced to flee because of war, discrimination, persecution, or abject poverty, walls will not stop them. The human spirit drives them to seek safety, freedom and dignity for themselves and their families, as they have done throughout human history. But we also must overcome the false concept and attitude that migrants and refugees are a “burden” to high income countries.

The fact is that most forcibly displaced people seek refuge, protection, and new opportunities in low- and middle-income countries. Most often, they are welcomed and integrated by local communities where they first arrive and contribute to these host communities. On the other hand, many higher-income countries have been deeply affected by a decline in population growth and by a progressive ageing on the native population. Thus, we promote recognition of the gifts and economic growth potential brought by migrants and refugees being received by these higher-income countries.

ICMC is noting a change in attitude among rural municipalities in Europe as refugees and migrants are resettled or integrated there and begin to re-open bakeries, village stores, provide medical care, that previously was lacking at the local level, because of low birth rates and out-migration to cities by younger generations.

Pope Francis devotes this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees to the theme “Towards an Ever Wider We”. How do you think this theme should play out in the way migrants are treated globally?

I am deeply grateful for Pope Francis’s theme chosen for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees. This theme should help us overcome the false notion that migrants and refugees present a burden to locals and especially to people with high economic means. If we truly try to discern and pray over the appeal “Towards an Ever Wider We”, we should be able to open ourselves to integration as a two-way process, as Pope Francis often reminds us.

Host communities might share some initial resources, provide welcome and guidance about their local customs and opportunities, but the migrants and refugees also bring their talents, their skills, their beliefs, their culture, their cuisine, their music and their art. As Pope Francis often reminds us, we must get to know migrants and refugees and to share mutual hopes, dreams, faith, and challenges with them. That is the only way to overcome the harmful trends of nationalism and exclusion that is far too prevalent in today’s world.

At the very beginning of my priestly ministry, more than 40 years ago, I was assigned by my diocesan bishop to coordinate resettlement of refugees coming at that time, from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Latin America, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Eastern Europe. By getting to know them, I received a great gift of God since they shared the dignity and unique characters and values with which God had blessed them. I was privileged to learn the lesson of “Towards an Ever Wider We” many years ago and hope that I have been able to preserve that lesson to the present day.

What should governments, particularly African governments be doing to turn things around?

I believe that governments in Africa, and all over the world, should abide by the age-old values and teachings promoted by every major faith tradition, over the course of millennia. Those values proscribe greed, corruption, violence at all levels of society, discrimination, and hatred, and, more importantly, they promote welcome of the “stranger,” care and respect for all, but particularly of the most poor, vulnerable, and marginalized, respect for God’s creation, fair business practices. All those tenets are quite evident in the Old and New Testaments and in many other sacred books.

They also have been strongly reaffirmed by Catholic Social Doctrine and by many of the organized development, peace and reconciliation efforts, humanitarian, and promotion of universally recognized human rights efforts by our own Catholic-inspired and many other faith-inspired organizations. Think, for example, of Pope Francis’ appeal, in his second encyclical, Laudato Si’, to deepen our relationship, with God, each other and the earth and his later appeals that we provide the three “ts” – techo, tierra, and trabajo (housing, land, and decent work) to all people, especially the most marginalized. But these are tasks not just for governments but for all members of the human family.

Change does not come only from the “top-down” but also from the “bottom-up. If we could achieve these goals among all members of the human family, and if we could succeed in building peace among all peoples, then we could eliminate most of the root causes behind forced displacement of peoples.

Let us pray that realistic and practical efforts “Toward an ever wide ‘we’” will help governments and the entire human family to build that which makes possible the full enjoyment of rights and dignity, of peace and solidarity, and integral human development.