As the global refugee crisis is at its worst since World War II, Catholics cannot be indifferent to the plight of their brothers and sisters, an official with Catholic Relief Services asserts.
“As Catholics, we believe that we are part of one human family, and when 21 million people are refugees around the world, that is something that impacts us personally,” Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, told CNA June 20 — World Refugee Day.
A United Nations report released Monday showed global displacement numbers at their highest ever recorded, jumping from 59.5 million for 2014 to 65.3 million in 2015. Over 21 million of the displaced are refugees.
“Half of the 60 million people displaced globally today are children,” Catholic Relief Services stated on Monday. The average refugee spends 17 years in a refugee camp, according to the UN, which means that tens of millions of children could grow up homeless and without proper education, creating a “lost generation,” CRS noted.
What is life like for refugees during this time? Some are in refugee camps and have registered with the UN, O’Keefe noted, but many are living in temporary housing.
“There’s this kind of temporary character to it,” O’Keefe said. “It’s a period of limbo, waiting for something to happen beyond your control where you’re really not able to do a lot to advance your own station in life.”
Many of them can’t legally work. This means the breadwinners are either unemployed or paid under-the-table and thus vulnerable to abuse. In Lebanon, for example, the government can deport unregistered refugees without identification papers, or registered refugees who work. Employers threaten to turn refugees in to the government if they complain about their treatment.
Other problems refugees face include lack of proper housing and access to education, and second-class citizen status.
For World Refugee Day, the chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration and Refugee Services — Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle — called attention to not only the refugee crises in the news, but the less noticed crisis areas as well.
While noting that the situations in the Middle East and Central America are both “critical situations,” he added that “it is crucial that we not forget the millions of other refugees and displaced persons all around the world who have been forced from their homes and been placed in precarious situations.”
There are many refugee crises that are not being talked about, O’Keefe told CNA.
For instance, a conflict in Colombia between the government and revolutionary forces has resulted in a quarter-million people fleeing to Ecuador, he said, currently at a rate of 1,000 per month. Millions are already displaced inside Colombia. The whole situation is considered the largest refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere.
Kenya is home to the “largest refugee camp in the world” in Dadaab, he continued, where 350,000 reside. Most of them are from Somalia. The Kenyan government has threatened to close the camp and return the refugees home, but it is against international law to forcibly “repatriate” a refugee.
There are thousands of Syrian refugees living in Egypt, which already has “economic challenges,” he said, and in Greece where they “are unable to move further north.”
Refugees have fled serious political unrest in Burundi to nearby Rwanda and Tanzania, and many Afghan refugees — overall, 2.7 million, the UN has reported — have made their way to Bulgaria because of conflict in their own country.
Faced with an overwhelming global refugee crisis, what more could Americans do in response?
Catholics should “reflect on that need for solidarity” with refugees, O’Keefe maintained, citing Pope Francis’ lament against the “globalization of indifference.” CRS has created a brief video showing the plight of refugees.
The U.S. must also “negotiate an end to the war in Syria,” O’Keefe insisted, where the conflict has created the world’s largest refugee situation. “We cannot re-settle our way out of this, we cannot assist our way out of this.”
The U.S. could also “provide the maximum amount of humanitarian assistance possible” to refugee situations, he said, noting that the appeal for the Syrian crisis is funded less than 30 percent. Americans could also “responsibly take in” more refugees, “particularly the most vulnerable.”