Pope Francis, Migration, and the Journey to Human Development and Peace

On February 21 and 22, the Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN) hosted its biennial International Forum on Migration and Peace, titled this year “Integration and Development: From Reaction to Action.” The event took place in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and was co-sponsored by the newly created Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, the German think-tank and political foundation. In a pre-conference audience, Pope Francis laid out his vision of refugees, migrants, and just societies, which has assumed extraordinary significance at this historical moment. The event occurred in the midst of the global crisis in refugee protection, a flurry of executive orders in the United States targeting immigrants and refugees, and rising nationalism and nativism in many European states.

For the last decade, the Scalabrini Congregation, a religious community of Catholic priests, sisters and lay people, has used this event to promote a moral vision of migration, and policies and practices that respect the dignity of migrants and that benefit their communities of origin and destination. The event featured migrant families, institutions on the front lines of refugee and migrant protection, United Nations and European institutions, and officials from three developed states — Germany, Italy and Canada — that have distinguished themselves in responding generously to refugees and migrants in recent years.

Responsibility Sharing

In his address to conference participants, Pope Francis stressed the need for “person-centered,” not politically-driven, policies and responses to migrants and refugees. “Today more than ever,” he said, “it is necessary to affirm the centrality of the human person.” He characterized international migration not as a problem, but as “an expression of that inherent desire for the happiness proper to every human being, a happiness that is to be sought and pursued.” Many religious traditions revere migrants, recognize the hand of God in this timeless phenomenon, and, in the words of the Holy Father, view “all human life” as “an itinerant journey towards our heavenly homeland.”

Pope Francis also underscored the need for a “coordinated and effective response” to forced migration. He devoted most of his address to the elements of a shared response; i.e., “to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.” He contrasted this response to the “rejection” of refugees and migrants, which he described as a shared attitude “rooted ultimately in self-centredness and amplified by populist rhetoric” that “‘makes us see our neighbour not as a brother or sister to be accepted, but as unworthy of our attention, a rival, or someone to be bent to our will (Address to the Diplomatic Corps, 12 January 2015).’” The antidote to rejection, he said, “is a change of attitude, to overcome indifference and to counter fears with a generous approach of welcoming those who knock at our doors.”

Many conference participants characterized the record level of forced displacement not as a refugee or migration crisis, but as a crisis in responsibility sharing, solidarity, imagination and leadership. Dr. Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, called it a crisis in values. Developing states host nearly 90 percent of the world’s forcibly displaced persons, while developed states – with only a small number of exceptions – adopt the language of responsibility sharing, but reject this ethic in practice. Benedict Göbel, Coordinator for Integration Policies of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, pointed out, for example, that Ethiopia hosts 700,000 refugees, while Europe debates opening humanitarian corridors to allow the admission of just 500 refugees from Ethiopia.

Yet, developed states need immigrants. Dagmar Schineanu, Senior Economist and former Adviser for the Italian Development Cooperation on Migration and Development, reported that, by 2030, the European population will have decreased by 20 percent, and the need for immigrant laborers will have increased accordingly. He expressed hope that these demographic realities could help to reorient public opinion.

Luigi Maria Vignali, Principal Director for Migration Policies for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, set forth Italy’s vision of responsibility sharing. Human mobility, he said, has been a constant in human history and has enriched humanity; no country can address this challenge on its own; and partnerships and dialogue between sending and receiving states are central to an effective response. Italy’s goals, he said, were to invest in countries of origin through leveraging private investment; to protect vulnerable migrants by promoting legal migration; and to enhance the contributions of migrants to their new societies. Vignali ended his presentation with a pointed quote from Winston Churchill: “The price of greatness is responsibility.”

Faith communities have assumed a leading role in championing protection, education, employment, and legal migration opportunities for refugees. Daniela Pompeii, who coordinates services to migrants for the lay Christian Community of Sant’Egidio spoke of the work of her community (”without borders”) and the Federation of Evangelical Churches to create humanitarian corridors to Italy for Syrian and other refugees in Lebanon, Morocco and Ethiopia. Fr. Flor Maria Rigoni c.s., a Scalabrinian Missionary and Director of the Scalabrinian Casa del Migrante in Tapachula, Mexico who has worked in migrant shelters in Mexico for 30 years, described the significant programs of protection and integration provided by the network of Scalabrinian Casas del Migrante that annually serve more than 800,000 migrants, asylum-seekers, trafficking survivors, and deportees in Mexico and Central America.

Human Development and the Right Not to Have to Migrate

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, c.s., spoke of how refugee and migration challenges cannot be resolved in a policy vacuum. Migration policy, he said, cannot be credible without addressing the development needs of communities of origin, and refugee protection demands a strong response to the violence that produces refugee flows.

Pope Francis said that “the promotion of an integral human development of migrants, exiles and refugees,” occurs by “‘attending to the inestimable goods of justice, peace, and the care of creation (Apostolic Letter Humanam Progressionem, 17 August 2016).’” He described the right not to have to migrate as follows:

“The human promotion of migrants and their families begins with their communities of origin. That is where such promotion should be guaranteed, joined to the right of being able to emigrate, as well as the right to not be constrained to emigrate (cf. Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 12 October 2012), namely the right to find in one’s own homeland the conditions necessary for living a dignified life.”

Among other factors, income inequality subverts this right and forces persons to migrate. “One group of individuals cannot control half of the world’s resources,” he said. “We cannot allow for persons and entire peoples to have a right only to gather the remaining crumbs.” The “duty of justice” requires that societies reject “unacceptable economic inequality, which prevents us from applying the principle of the universal destination of the earth’s goods,” and embrace “processes of apportionment which are respectful, responsible and inspired by the precepts of distributive justice.”

Fr. Mussie Zerai, co-founder of the Agency for Cooperation and Development (AHCS), attributed forced migration to the asymmetries in economic clout between sending and receiving states. He argued that migration should be “prevented,” not by building walls and laying barbed wire, but by creating conditions that allow persons to stay at home and prosper. Africa, he said, loses $190 billion in natural and human resources and loan servicing each year, but receives only a fraction of that amount in official development assistance. He proposed that developed states keep their development aid, but allow Africa to keep its resources, particularly its migrants and children.

Fear and Identity

In a conference pre-meeting, Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ, Executive Director of the Jesuit Refugee Services, said that fear too often drives state responses to refugees and immigrants. However, fear cannot be the basis of how states, religious communities and individuals care for refugees. The best way to dispel fear, he said, is through human encounter. Sarita Bhatia, Canada’s Director General for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said that “people are not afraid of change. They’re afraid of the pace of change. They’re afraid of losing control.”

This fear can also be found in religious communities. As Bp. Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn put it: “There still exists in our parishes a sense of loss and insecurity among some long-term parishioners who feel that the parish they built no longer belongs to them.”

Yet, immigration need not lead to a loss of identity. Pope Francis evoked “the duty of civility” which can give rise to a sense of fraternity that “‘does not threaten us, but engages, reaffirms and enriches our individual identity (cf. Benedict XVI, Address to Participants in an Interacademic Conference on “The Changing Identity of the Individual”, 28 January 2008).’”

Integration and Communion

Refugees and migrants seek communities where they can live in safety, contribute, and develop their human potential. Manuela Tomei, Director of Working Conditions and Equality for the International Labour Organization, characterized integration as “the most effective protection for refugees and migrants.”

Pope Francis defined “integration” as “neither assimilation nor incorporation,” but “a two-way process, rooted essentially in the joint recognition of the other’s cultural richness: it is not the superimposing of one culture over another, nor mutual isolation, with the insidious and dangerous risk of creating ghettoes.” It requires “’a change of attitude towards migrants and refugees … on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world (Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 5 August 2013).’”

He said that integration places responsibilities on newcomers, host societies, and faith communities, and stressed the importance of family in this process:

“Concerning those who arrive and who are duty bound not to close themselves off from the culture and traditions of the receiving country, respecting above all its laws, the family dimension of the process of integration must not be overlooked: for this reason I feel the need to reiterate the necessity, often presented by the Magisterium (cf. John Paul II, Message for World Migration Day, 15 August 1986), of policies directed at favouring and benefiting the reunion of families. With regard to indigenous populations, they must be supported, by helping them to be sufficiently aware of and open to processes of integration which, though not always simple and immediate, are always essential and, for the future, indispensable. This requires specific programmes, which foster significant encounters with others. Furthermore, for the Christian community, the peaceful integration of persons of various cultures is, in some way, a reflection of its catholicity, since unity, which does not nullify ethnic and cultural diversity, constitutes a part of the life of the Church, who in the Spirit of Pentecost is open to all and desires to embrace all (cf. John Paul II, Message for World Migration Day, 5 August 1987).”

Canada’s integration philosophy, said Sarita Bhatia, is that immigrants should be treated as permanent residents from their initial encounter with the country. Canada’s program of private sponsorship of refugees represents a global best practice that should be widely emulated. According to Bhatia, private sponsorship enhances public confidence, contributes to a culture of encounter, and results in stronger sponsorships. Bhatia made the important point that refugee resettlement requires a whole-of-society approach and that government’s role should be to facilitate the work of the society, not to resettle refugees itself. To the extent that resettlement is viewed as a government function, it loses community engagement and support.

From the perspective of Catholic teaching, integration requires “communion” between persons of diverse cultures. “The experience of communion is achieved,” Bishop DiMarzio said, “when people feel a true sense of welcome, belonging and ownership. Attitudes and activities promote these stepping stones to communion.”

Autonomy, Agency and Responsibility

Pope Francis spoke of the need for development programs that “involve migrants as active protagonists.” Yet, refugee, development, and even pastoral initiatives too often ignore the autonomy, agency, and gifts of migrants and refugees. Many participants believed that employment and education should be central priorities in the UN global compacts on refugees and on “safe, regular and orderly migration,” which are expected to be adopted in 2018. Professor Alexander Betts, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, said that refugees viewed work and education as essential needs, like food and shelter. Fr. Mussie Zerai spoke of Eritrean refugees in camps in Tigray who despaired: “We are here all day, every day. What is our function?”

On the first night of the event, conference participants visited Casa Scalabrini 634 in Rome, where migrants prepared a dinner for their guests. The Casa prioritizes “active citizenship”: residents pick up litter in their neighborhood, provide clothes and donations to the poor, and the Casa offer its services to the broader community. A young man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo described his past experience as a refugee as “bad” because “you weren’t like a person, you weren’t understood, and those helping did not have the time to understand you.” At the Casa, he said that he had been treated like a person and made to feel like he was at home.

Religious institutions must also respect the agency of refugees and immigrants if they hope to integrate them into their faith communities and promote their integration into the larger society. Immigrants are not “logistical problems to be solved,” said Bp. DiMarzio, but a “theological reality.” And, pastoral planning must occur “with the people, and not merely on behalf of the people.” Immigrants are not “guests who are expected to leave at a designated time” or “‘Father’s helpers’; rather their baptismal vocation makes them partially responsible for the mission of the Church.”

What Walls Can’t Do

Conference participants viewed the United States’ turn toward isolationism and ethno-cultural nationalism as a crisis for the global refugee protection system, for other challenges that demand an international response, and for the nation’s identity. Fr. Rigoni, c.s., said that a wall could not be built without cracks or fissures. An impenetrable wall, he said, would kill compassion, charity, justice and love.

Rosario Marin, former Treasurer of the United States and an immigrant from Mexico, made the point that peace, economic opportunity, and respect for human rights had traditionally drawn immigrants and refugees to the United States. The loss of this infusion of talent and drive, she said, would be disastrous to the nation. Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies, she noted, were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, and the six US Nobel Laureates in chemistry, physics and economics in 2016 were immigrants. She implored the group not to “give up” and vowed to “work every day of my life to fight racism and prejudice.” She said: “The US is my home and I will protect us from those forces that want to take it back in time …. We must not allow fear to define who we are as a nation … [and] must not scapegoat entire nations in the name of security.”

In closing the conference, Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said that disasters created villains and heroes. Many heroes attended the event and many more need to emerge from every walk of life and region of the world to close the man-made breach created by rejection and indifference.

Donald Kerwin, Contributor Executive Director, Center for Migration Studies