Martin Maier SJ
World Refugee Day
In 2000 the UN declared June the 20th for the World Refugee Day. Thus it directs also in this year the attention of the world public to the fate of at present at least 40 million people who are on the run. Wars, crude human rights violations, environmental disasters and economic hardship drive them from their homeland. With their homeland they have lost their basis of existence and their social relationships. They are uprooted, strangers, helpless and without prospects. 75 percent of those people are women and children.
International law defines a refugee as a person who out of reasonable fear of persecution is outside the country the nationality of which s/he has or who has fled because of war or internal conflict. The 20 to 25 million internally displaced persons worldwide, mainly in Sudan, Colombia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the states of the former Soviet Union are not recorded with it.
The refugee problem is a seismograph for the situation of our world. Above all the unequal distribution of life and development prospects induces people to choose migration and flight. In his Berlin speech of 1 October 2007 President Horst Köhler pointed to Europe's responsibility for the structures that cause poverty and misery in the countries of the South and become reasons for flight: "Europe too, erects trade barriers against developing countries, floods them - at the expense of the taxpayers here - with food at dumping prices and thus destroys the foundations of earning a living of rural societies. Europe too fishes the coasts of Africa empty and refers critics with a cold smile to treaties concluded. And then Europe reacts with amazement, compassion and a feeling of nuisance when more and more Africans in their cockle-shells cross the sea, in order to find something better than poverty and misery."
With it the President drew our attention to the tragedy which currently takes place especially on the seas at the EU's external borders. In recent years thousands of refugees from Africa drowned, without any country or international organisation doing something against it up to now. Every day the number of victims increases but nothing happens. According to Spanish authorities in 2006 alone 6000 people died between West Africa and the Canary Islands. The Geneva Convention of 1951, signed also by Germany and its European neighbours, guarantees protection and asylum to people on the run. But Europe seals itself more and more off.
With a budget of 31 million euros from EU subsidies and the Schengen countries Frontex, the European Agency for operational cooperation at the external borders, controls the maritime boundaries of Europe.
The increasingly restrictive policy towards the refugees is also reflected in dealing with the fundamental right to political asylum. The number of asylum applications made in the countries of the European Union fell since 1992 from 672 000 to 201 000 in 2006, while the number of those who illegally live in our societies is increasing.
Is there at all an authority that defends the rights of refugees? Apart from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Red Cross the churches as global communities have a special responsibility. In his message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2006 Pope Benedict XVI called migration a "sign of the times" in the sense of the Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes" of the Second Vatican Council. That means the plight of refugees proves to be a call of God challenging the church to action. The pope particularly denounced the "scourge of the trade in human beings", by which mainly women and children are affected.
In view of the restriction of the fundamental right to political asylum the church asylum wins new relevance. Asylum seekers still become the victims of arbitrary measures of the state and are deported into life-threatening conditions. In a joint appeal of Asylum in the Church (inc.) Berlin and the Jesuit Refugee Service Germany the church communities are called upon further to support the asylum in the church (see www.jesuiten-fluechtlingsdienst.de).
Also in his address to the participants of the 35th General Congregation of the Jesuit Order on 21 February 2008 Benedict XVI took up the refugee issue. Here he reminded of the founding of the Jesuit Refugee Service by the former Father General Pedro Arrupe SJ in 1980, which he described as "prophetic intuition." Arrupe at that time responded to the plight of Vietnamese boat people. Meanwhile the Jesuit Refugee Service is active in more than 50 countries in the work for refugees and migrants. More than 450 000 people are directly reached by its projects. In Germany the pastoral care in the detention and lobbying on migration and illegality have priority.
In biblical and spiritual view a special attention has always been given to the refugees. In the Old Testament for instance God demands in memory of Israel as stranger in Egypt to treat refugees as locals. In the New Testament the refugees belong to those people with whom Christ identifies in the great speech on the Last Judgment in St Matthew's Gospel, "I was a stranger and homeless and you took me in" (Mt 25, 35). They are his deputies in the world. Our behaviour towards them decides our eternal salvation. In that sense Pedro Arrupe called it a privilege and a blessing to be together with refugees.