ROME – As the United State’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) continues to increase the number of deportations, Pope Francis said that collective and arbitrary expulsions of migrants and refugees don’t resolve the world’s immigrant crisis.
He also called for programs fostering family reunification, including grandparents, children, and siblings.
Quoting his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, Francis also said that the centrality of the human person “obliges us to always prioritize personal safety over national security.”
The pope’s words came in a message for the Vatican-sponsored “World Day of Migrants and Refugees,” set for January 14. The message was released by the Vatican’s press office on Monday.
From early on in his pontificate, Francis was profiled as the “immigrant pope” both due to his arriving in Rome from “the ends of the earth,” as he said on the night of his election, and because of his strong advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees. And he reflected on this in the message, signed August 15, the day when the Church marks the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary.
He calls the “lamentable situation” of migrants and refugees fleeing war, persecution, natural disasters and poverty a “sign of the times,” adding that he’s tried to interpret it, “with the help of the Holy Spirit,” ever since his July 2013 visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a gate of entry for many migrants reaching Europe.
Francis also notes that he decided to create a section within a major Vatican office dedicated to migrants and keep it under his personal direction as a way to express the Church’s concern for migrants, displaced people, refugees and victims of human trafficking.
“Every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected strangers of every age,” the pope writes.
The theme of the message is “Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating migrants and refugees,” and each verb is broken down with concrete examples of what countries and communities can do to help migrants and refugees.
Considering the current situation, Francis writes, “welcoming means, above all, offering broader options for migrants and refugees to enter destination countries safely and legally.”
To this end, the pope urges nations to make a concrete commitment to increase and simplify the process for granting humanitarian visas and reunifying families. He also says he hopes more countries will adopt private and community sponsorship programs, and open humanitarian corridors.
In Italy, Francis has sponsored a humanitarian corridor sponsored by the Federation of Evangelical Churches from Italy, the Tavola Valdese, which is a Reformed Christian Church, and Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay movement. He’s also welcomed several Syrian families in the Vatican, and urged Catholic institutions across Europe to do the same.
On welcoming migrants and refugees, Francis also writes that “collective and arbitrary expulsions” are not “suitable solutions, particularly where people are returned to countries which cannot guarantee respect for human dignity and fundamental rights.” He then calls for “alternative solutions” to detention for those who enter a country “without authorization.”
Protecting, Francis writes, “may be understood as a series of steps intended to defend the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees, independent of their legal status.”
This responsibility does not fall exclusively on the country of arrival, but also on the country of origin, which is responsible for offering reliable information and for providing safety from illegal recruitment practices. Countries of origin should also, to the extent that it’s possible, offer consular assistance.
Migrants should also be given the possibility of opening personal bank accounts, have fair access to justice and a minimum sufficient to live on. According to a recent report from The Guardian, in the United Kingdom some 39,000 asylum seekers in Britain are not allowed to work while their claim is decided, and they either live out of savings, which most of them don’t have, given the situations they’re fleeing from, or the estimated $50 a week allowance they receive from the government.
When it comes to the protection of underage migrants, Francis refers to the provisions made by the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. He also writes that they must be “spared any form of detention related to migratory status, and must be guaranteed regular access to primary and secondary education.”
Promoting, the pope says in his message, means trying to ensure that all migrants and refugees, “as well as the communities which welcome them, are empowered to achieve their potential as human beings.”
Among these, he highlights the value of the religious dimension, urging countries to ensure that foreigners are given the freedom of religious belief and practice. He also calls for the abilities of displaced persons to be recognized, saying that the possibility of employment, language instruction, and active citizenship must be guaranteed.
He also calls for “greater assistance” for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees with disabilities.
When writing about the final verb, integrating, Francis quotes St. John Paul II’s 2005 message for this day, saying that it’s not “an assimilation that leads migrants to suppress or to forget their own cultural identity.” On the contrary, integration is a “lengthy process that aims to shape societies and cultures, making them more and more a reflection of the multi-faceted gifts of God to human beings.”
The process of integration, the pope goes on to say, can be accelerated by waving financial or linguistic requirements in the citizenship process.
“I reiterate the need to foster a culture of encounter in every way possible – by increasing opportunities for intercultural exchange, documenting and disseminating best practices of integration, and developing programs to prepare local communities for integration processes,” he writes.
Much as he did with his encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, which he acknowledged he’d hope would help influence the Paris accord on climate change, towards the end of his message Pope Francis appeals to the United Nations and to politicians alike.
This time, he’s urging them to uphold the 2016 commitment to take “decisive action in support of migrants and refugees to save their lives and protect their rights, sharing this responsibility on a global level.”
To this end, the pontiff writes, the states have “committed themselves to drafting and approving, before the end of 2018, two Global Compacts, one for refugees and the other for migrants.”
Urging Catholics to get involved in civic life and in light of the process already underway, he urges them to advocate and support the concrete actions “which I have described with four verbs. I invite you, therefore, to use every occasion to share this message with all political and social actors involved.”
The World Day of Migrants and Refugees
Despite his strong advocacy, Francis is far from being the first head of the Catholic Church in modern times to advocate in favor of migrants and refugees. As if to provide a reminder, the Argentine pontiff quotes heavily in his message from his predecessors, particularly Benedict XVI, but also popes Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul II.
The Church has celebrated the World Day of Migrants and Refugees each year since 1914. Though the actual date changes from year to year, it’s been marked every January since Pope Pius X instituted it.
In his message for this occasion back in 2007, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that says that shortly after Jesus’ birth, the Holy Family was forced to leave for Egypt by night, in order to flee the persecution of King Herod.
Benedict quoted his predecessor Pope Pius XII, who in 1952, reflecting on this same passage, had written that the family of Nazareth in exile is “the model, the example and the support of all emigrants and pilgrims of every age and every country, of all refugees of any condition who, compelled by persecution and need, are forced to abandon their homeland, their beloved relatives, their neighbors, their dear friends, and move to a foreign land.”
It’s worth noting perhaps, that during the 1939-1958 papacy of Pius XII, an estimated 80 million people were forcibly displaced, half of them during World War II. The post-war era was so dire, that in 1950 the Allies set up the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, which has since sought to provide relief for people fleeing conflict.
According to that 2007 message from the German pope, in the misfortune of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, “we can catch a glimpse of the painful condition in which all migrants live, especially, refugees, exiles, evacuees, internally displaced persons, those who are persecuted.”