Protecting Families and Facilitating Their Integration

Linda Rabben
University of Maryland

Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Protecting Families and Facilitating Their Integration

“Our shared response may be articulated by four verbs: welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating migrants and refugees.”
– Pope Francis I, August 2017

Who Are the Migrants? Where Do They Come From? Where Are They Going?

Individuals and families around the world flee from their homes every day because of war or civil conflict, natural disasters, climate change, persecution, discrimination, and dire poverty. In response, governments are developing two Global Compacts, one on refugees and the other on “safe, orderly and regular migration,” under United Nations (UN) auspices. These agreements are nonbinding, aspirational documents intended to set the parameters of governmental and intergovernmental actions and policies in the coming years. Both compacts are supposed to be adopted by the end of 2018.

Meanwhile the recent crisis in the United States, with the government separating migrant children from their parents and then proposing to detain them together indefinitely, has drawn increasing public attention to the often-dire situation of migrant families. As they become aware of the immediate problem, more and more people are asking what they can do to protect vulnerable migrant families from mistreatment and help them integrate into their new societies.

For citizens and migrants to understand and address the crisis, it is necessary to get a grip on its character and magnitude. At the end of 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Of those, 24.5 million were classified as refugees; 19.9 of the 24.5 million were under UNHCR’s mandate; and 5.3 million were Palestinians under UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine’s (UNRWA’s) mandate. Internally displaced people numbered 40 million, and 3.1 million were asylum seekers. UNHCR could account for 3.9 million of the estimated 10 million stateless people around the world.

Developing countries hosted 85 percent of refugees. The top eight refugee host countries were: Turkey (3.5 million); Uganda (1.4 million); Pakistan (1.4 million); Lebanon (998,900); Iran (979,400); Germany (970,400); Bangladesh (932,200); and Sudan (906,600). Major western receiving countries in 2017 included France, the United States, Greece, and Canada.

Almost 2 million new asylum claims were filed in 2017. The United States received 331,700 asylum applications, followed by Germany, with 198,300; Italy, with 126,500; and Turkey, with 126,100. Only Germany had fewer new applications than in 2016. Some 3 million asylum seekers were waiting for decisions. Because of a huge backlog of cases, US immigration courts handed down only 65,600 decisions. The highest numbers of asylum applications came from Afghans (124,900), Syrians (117,100), Iraqis (113,500), Venezuelans (111,600), and Congolese from the Democratic Republic of Congo (104,700). Central American and Mexican asylum seekers were nowhere near the top of the list.

Syrians comprised the largest forcibly displaced population: Out of a national population of 20 million, 6.3 million were refugees living outside the country, and 6.2 million were internally displaced. Some 4.8 million Afghans were refugees or asylum seekers, and more than a million were internally displaced. A long line of countries followed, each with more than 2 million internally or externally displaced people. The top seven exporters of migrants in 2017 were Syria, Colombia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, and Somalia. Most refugees flee to neighboring countries, but more than a million have arrived in Germany from developing countries since 2015 (UNHCR 2018c).

Children under the age of 18 comprised 52 percent of the world’s refugee population in 2017, and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated 50 million child migrants worldwide. One out of every 200 children was a refugee, and one out of four asylum applicants in the European Union was a child in 2015-2016. During the first half of 2016, some 60,000 children arrived by sea in Greece from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq (EFRC 2016/2018). Unaccompanied and separated children numbered 138,700 in 2017.

It is very difficult to determine exactly how many families have recently sought refuge outside their home countries,  particularly in states without a strong, accurate, and continuous registration system (GMG 2017, 55). In Europe the predominant pattern has been for young males to arrive alone and try to bring their families later. In 2016 the German government issued 105,000 visas to family members (mostly wives) joining (mostly male) relatives already in Germany, but its migrant family-reunification program was much larger than those of other receiving countries (Deutsche Welle 2017). Many families probably entered host countries without authorization, and so their numbers are under-recorded. One can only estimate that hundreds of thousands of families — perhaps millions of people — have fled to safety around the world in recent years.

Although numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants entering some host countries (such as Germany, Austria, Sweden, and the United States) have decreased since their height in 2015-2016, medium- to long-term issues of resettlement and integration are demanding greater attention and resources. The traditional approaches of voluntary repatriation, resettlement and local integration “have proven inadequate…as a growing number of people…remained in precarious situations and with little hope of a durable solution in the future” (UNHCR 2017, 24). Thus the magnitude of the challenges to be addressed by the Global Compacts continues to grow.

What Do Refugee and Migrant Families Find?

Reception of migrants and refugees varies. Some countries erect legal or physical barriers that hinder or limit their entry, sometimes for months or years. Police and border guards may abuse them. Governments may detain or even summarily expel migrants, including children, in violation of international law. Refugees and migrants often experience discrimination and social isolation. Language barriers, lack of access to physical and mental health services, exclusion from education, exploitation, unemployment, inadequate housing, and destitution make everyday survival difficult. They may encounter a warm and sympathetic welcome at first, but over time stresses and tensions lead to hostility or indifference from host populations. Separation from family, loss of dignity, and traumatic experiences before, during and after arrival may take a severe psychological toll. Resettlement may be accomplished in months, but integration into the new society often takes generations.

Refugee and migrant families face special challenges during and after their journeys to safety. Members may become separated or lost en route or after arrival. Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. Detention of migrant children is of special concern. Unaccompanied children are also at particularly high risk of destitution. The lack of guardians for children has been problematic in Austria, Finland, France, Sweden, Italy, and Greece, which has no guardianship system at all (FRA 2018). As a result, children have been placed in inadequate or unsafe reception centers or simply abandoned.

Even after resettlement, family reunification may be delayed for months or years. The consequences of separation may include physical injury or severe emotional trauma. Additional threats to family integrity include: denial of protected status and documentation; lack of full protection for asylum seekers while their cases are considered; acute economic hardship; lack of authorization to work; high living costs and debt; and family breakdown as a result of separation, detention, and deportation.

On the other hand, refugees and migrants may find individuals, community groups, religious institutions, and civil society organizations that are eager to help them in myriad ways. Some well-established, international, national, and local organizations run effective programs with highly qualified staff and adequate budgets. Other groups provide limited services coordinated by volunteers. Families and individuals may offer various kinds of informal help. A patchwork of programs, projects, and initiatives, sometimes sporadic or duplicative, is available in many countries, but these are not always easy to find. In some countries humanitarian assistance may be unavailable outside of refugee camps, such as in urban areas where many refugees live. This “means that local communities find themselves ill-equipped … to cope with the high influx of forced migrants with complex needs” (Mavelli and Wilson 2017, 183).

As the number of migrants fell in 2017, reception centers closed, leaving remaining facilities unable to cope with new arrivals. The most vulnerable, including children, sick and disabled people, and the elderly, suffered damage to their well-being as a result. But as UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed pointed out, “Around the world, faith-based organizations are found on the front lines of crisis, providing food, shelter, education, and medical and psychological support to migrants and refugees. [They] work tirelessly to assert human rights and dignity, independent from national and regional political interests” (quoted in Auza 2018).

What Do They Need?

Refugee, asylum-seeker, and other migrant families need many kinds of assistance, from legal representation, health services, and language instruction to financial aid, guardianship, and help navigating complex bureaucratic structures (GCIR 2016).

Migrant children, who are particularly vulnerable, need special attention at borders, between states, in reception centers, and during and after resettlement. A comprehensive child protection system is imperative. Its guiding principle should be the child’s best interests. Important protection issues in transit include: trafficking; separation from family; inadequate reception facilities; gaps in guardianship; lack of access to education and health care; delays in family reunification; and lack of information for children, among many others.

Furthermore, the right to family life and family unity is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and many other international treaties and agreements (Nicholson 2018). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has emphasized that human rights protections, especially for migrants in vulnerable situations, should be central to the Global Compacts.

Even migrants outside the categories of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (“Refugee Convention”) should be protected, because of the situations they fled, the circumstances of their travel, the conditions on arrival, their identity, sexual orientation, disability, or health condition. OHCHR principles and guidelines for the protection of migrants include decriminalization of migration, the end of detention of children and families, development of non-custodial, community-based alternatives to detention, and prevention of refoulement and collective expulsion.

OHCHR has published “key messages for the Global Compacts,” including: respect for the dignity and human rights of all migrants; police protection; access to justice, housing, health care, education, social protection, and labor rights; protection against torture and gender-based violence; arbitrary detention; and attention to serious health issues. Finally, OHCHR stresses that migrants themselves should participate in the development of the Global Compacts (Al Hussein 2018).

Faith-based organizations can take the lead in emphasizing and advancing these human rights principles in their work. An eloquent expression of these values may be found in UNHCR’s 2013 statement, “Welcoming the Stranger: Affirmations for Faith Leaders.”

Who Helps?

In addition to governments, nongovernmental and faith-based organizations have undertaken numerous initiatives to help migrants as they wend their way across the world. For more than 100 years the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) has worked with other religious and secular organizations to provide humanitarian relief to refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants in many countries (Rabben 2018). Some governments have partnered with private organizations or given them significant financial support. For example, in the United States nine nonprofit, voluntary agencies, of which six are faith-based, run the refugee resettlement program under contract with the federal government.

In many countries, old and new faith-based groups are providing direct or indirect assistance of diverse kinds to migrants. Jesuit Refugee Service established the Welcome project in 2009, after discovering that asylum seekers were sleeping on the street near the Gare de l’Est in Paris. The project’s coordinator, Jean-Marie Carrière, wrote: “Welcome is a network of families and religious communities hosting asylum seekers in their home on a short-term basis. The goal is to provide an asylum seeker that the state has not hosted an alternative to living in the street. The refugee stays five weeks in a family, and if he remains in the network, he will then join another family or another community. He will be helped by the network for several months, until a more stable situation can be found” (Mavelli and Wilson 2017, 151).

Also in France, volunteers from religious congregations in Britain, Holland, and other countries keep arriving to deliver humanitarian supplies or work in the warehouse in Calais, where a community kitchen prepares meals, and thousands of pounds of clothing, shoes, and other items wait to be sorted and distributed to destitute migrants. Some of the Calais volunteers have gone on to greet migrants on the beaches of Lesvos or the Italian coast.

In the Middle East and Africa, Islamic Relief Worldwide has sponsored interfaith meetings between migrants and communities, “to facilitate mutual understanding and build bridges based on sympathy and compassion” (Mavelli and Wilson 2017, 185). Islamic Relief USA (n.d.) “provides relief and development in a dignified manner regardless of gender, race or religion,” collaborating with the Jewish relief organization HIAS, as well as Christian organizations like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Catholic Relief Service, and World Vision (Christina Tobias-Nahi, telephone interview, May 14, 2018).

In 2016-2017 the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio began collaborating with the Federation of Evangelical Churches, the Waldensian Church, the Methodist Church, the Protestant Federation of France, the Conference of Bishops of France, Federation de l’Entraide Protestant, and Secours Catholique, to establish “humanitarian corridors” from the Middle East to Italy and France. With government cooperation they arrange for vulnerable migrants — victims of persecution, torture, and violence, families with children, the elderly, sick, and disabled — to obtain humanitarian visas and fly to safety. After their arrival, the migrants stay in private homes, learn Italian or French, and get help to find work. Some 2,000 migrants have participated in the project over the past two years (Community of Sant’Egidio n.d.; Francis 2017).

Soka Gakkai, an international Buddhist sect, organized a community project in conjunction with UNHCR and the Muslim Aid Foundation, to help refugees in Malaysia. In 2016, 50 local sect members helped paint a Muslim school that houses more than 80 Rohingya refugee children (SGM 2016).

Eurodiaconia, a Christian network of 40 organizations, institutions, and churches, provides social and health services and education in more than 30 European countries. Based in Brussels, it is supported by local and national governments, the European Community Program for Employment and Social Solidarity, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and UNHCR. Some of its projects in Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Kosovo, Norway, Poland, Serbia, and Sweden focus on migrant families.

For example, one of Eurodiaconia’s Austrian projects provides care to unaccompanied minors, aged 13 to 18, including accommodation, healthcare, education, German language instruction, legal aid, counseling, and leisure activities. A project in Germany trains migrant mothers to “develop more self-confidence, become bridge-builders within the local community and gain valuable professional skills” (Roy 2014, 18). The mothers provide counseling in migrant families’ homes.

Diakonie Kosova provides leisure activities and language instruction to Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian children and families who were forcibly returned to Kosovo. (Ashkali and Egyptians are Albanian-speaking ethnic groups in Kosovo. They are similar to but separate from the Roma.)

The Ecumenical Humanitarian Organization (EHO) in Serbia administers a shelter for Roma street children who are excluded from schools and out of touch with their families. The project’s purposes are to prevent or reduce damage to the children’s physical and mental health, connect them with state institutions, advance their human rights, and integrate them into Serbian society. EHO’s Roma Resource Center serves those who lost residence permits in other European Union (EU) countries and were forcibly returned to Serbia. The center provides school shoes, legal aid, job-search help, grants for Roma-run enterprises, and construction materials for houses.

In Norway the Salvation Army runs a family workshop program that provides food and clothing to migrants. They also facilitate women’s rights discussions. The project is supported by the International Organization for Migration and the Norwegian government.

Catholic bishops in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru have created Bridges of Solidarity, a program to assist Venezuelan migrants traveling through or settling in neighboring countries. Conferences of Catholic bishops in Asia, particularly the Philippines, maintain strong ties with and seek to protect their citizens abroad. Parishes, local Caritas offices, and other Catholic institutions provide shelters and centers for vulnerable migrants; help with job and housing searches, work and residence permits, and social inclusion; facilitate access to education and health services; and train church workers to provide assistance and raise awareness (Glatz 2018). The Scalabrini Network of Shelters serves more than 250,000 migrants and refugees a year, providing them with protection, food, lodging, clothing, legal services, and job training and placement programs.

These are only a few of the thousands of faith-based initiatives for migrants taking place in scores of countries around the world.

Faith-Based Organizations and the Global Compacts

Addressing the complex problems and needs of millions of refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants, including families, has overwhelmed many governments, from Denmark to South Africa. Migrant families’ difficulties — including separation, prolonged detention, lack of access to legal representation, and inadequate health care, employment, education, or housing—are especially challenging to address. Even when governments provide significant financial and human resources to resettlement, reunification, and integration initiatives, citizens often react negatively, feeling that their pressing needs are not being given proper attention or priority. Political and social reactions against migrants exacerbate their isolation, forestall integration, and may put them in danger.

Yet thousands of individuals, congregations, and organizations have shown readiness to assist refugees over the years: “Many faith-based organizations have a longstanding tradition of being able to mobilize resources and networks for a wide variety of altruistic activities, ranging from local, social, and community work, to help deliver humanitarian aid and disaster relief in countries around the world” (Lyck-Bowen and Owen 2018, 3). Assistance by faith-based organizations is especially important at times like the present, when migrants are under political or even physical attack.

Religious institutions can also provide an important social-support network to new migrants. As sanctuaries for undocumented migrants, houses of worship can help to facilitate integration in host societies. Local faith groups have developed community-based initiatives that help meet the needs of vulnerable migrants. These projects mobilize in-kind, financial, business, educational, and other forms of assistance (FADICA 2018).

International faith-based institutions can create “a culture of solidarity” that crosses borders, while cultivating and advancing lay leadership on all levels. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has been known as a “church of immigrants” in the United States and other countries since the nineteenth century, and it views its connection to the migration experience — both historical and current — as central to its identity (Kerwin and George 2014).

Applying human rights principles, faith-based organizations can address both co-religionists and followers of other faiths. Since 84 percent of the world’s population identifies as belonging to a religious group, religious belief and practice provide a “powerful coping mechanism for the forced migration community … a source of spiritual solace … a means by which to make sense of acute loss and suffering; enabling a sense of shared identity and belonging among host societies; and allowing disparate migrant groups to build new communities” (Mavelli and Wilson 2017, 176, 178).

In light of UNHCR’s finding that more than 50 percent of the world’s refugees come from Muslim-majority countries, interfaith collaboration is urgently needed, especially in the many countries where Muslims are in the minority (IOM 2009).

Collaboration among religious groups, secular organizations, and governments, both within and beyond societies, faces many challenges, however:

  • antagonism toward or exclusion of members of disparate faiths;
  • hate speech or incitement to violence against individuals and communities;
  • proselytization and pressure to convert as a condition of assistance;
  • early marriage or other harmful traditions;
  • gender stereotypes and disregard for women’s rights, children’s rights, and vulnerabilities;
  • stigma and discrimination toward people with AIDS and LGBTI individuals and groups;
  • power inequalities in interactions between service providers and receivers;
  • neglect of rights-based approaches to problems;
  • lack of coordination in emergency situations; and
  • power imbalances between large international organizations and small, local institutions (Türk, Riera, and Poirier 2014).

Faith-based organizations can counter these problems by:

  • working and advocating to keep families intact and well-supported;
  • providing physical protection and facilitating access to humanitarian aid;
  • deterring violence through presence and accompaniment;
  • mediating tensions among migrants, internally displaced people, and host communities;
  • promoting reconciliation and peacebuilding;
  • combating xenophobia and discrimination;
  • preventing and responding to forced recruitment, exploitation, and sex- and gender-based violence;
  • improving reception conditions and accompanying detainees;
  • providing legal aid and asylum case management;
  • advocating reforms in immigration systems; and
  • supporting refugee resettlement and local integration efforts (Turk et al. 2014).

Multireligious cooperation can do much to forestall the criticisms commonly leveled at sectarian organizations. For example, in Germany faith-based groups (usually Muslim) with little experience in integration initiatives have successfully partnered with groups (usually Christian) that have more experience in assisting migrants. Muslim volunteers in Sweden, with language and cultural expertise in the cultures migrants came from, helped church groups that had greater institutional knowledge of immigration procedures.

In the process, diverse communities have built better relationships, humanized migrants and hosts, and broken down damaging stereotypes. Furthermore, multireligious initiatives have helped faith communities “establish themselves as important contributors to the welcoming and integration of migrants” vis-à-vis secular and government organizations (Lyck-Bowen and Owen 2018, 18). By advancing family unity, faith-based groups enable refugees and migrants to make significant social and economic contributions to the host society over the long term. Through their actions, they model cooperation, collaboration, and solidarity in building peaceful and diverse societies.

What Can Faith-Based Organizations Do?

Drafts of the Global Compacts have focused more on migrant and refugee children than on families, which are mentioned in passing. Among other things, they recommend that governments:

  • facilitate migrant family reunification;
  • consider the migrant child’s best interests in guardianship decisions;
  • assist migrant trafficking victims, especially children;
  • end migrant child detention and allow children to remain with family members or guardians in noncustodial situations;
  • facilitate migrant family remittances;
  • provide basic services, including education, to migrant children;
  • invest in national child protection systems; and
  • establish emergency resettlement facilities for women and children (UNHCR 2018a,b).

The Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development has insisted that the compacts highlight the broad need to protect and promote the “integrity and well-being of the family” (Migrants and Refugees Section, Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development 2018, para. 14). In particular, it recommends that states embrace family reunification “independently of financial requirements”; permit family members to work; search for lost family members; combat the exploitation of minors; and ensure that work does not undermine members’ health or right to education (ibid.). The Section also supports alternatives to detention for minors that are separated from their families or unaccompanied, as well as centers to identify and process migrants and help to reunify families (ibid., para. 7).

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) (2016) has made numerous recommendations for nongovernmental action on behalf of refugee children and families in its report, Childhood Interrupted. These include:

  • developing and implementing a family-based care model for migrants;
  • advocating removal of barriers to family reunification;
  • promoting special weight and consideration to family unity in immigration policy;
  • providing support for children and families on arrival in the host country. Such support includes child-welfare, health and educational services, accommodation, and family tracing and reunification efforts;
  • sponsoring programs for children who are out of school;
  • supporting anti-bullying and social-cohesion programs for children and families;
  • training parents, educators, and others in authority in positive disciplinary techniques;
  • helping families with school-related expenses;
  • funding medical equipment and mental-health services for children and families; and
  • providing technical assistance for implementation of family integration strategies to communities, resettlement agencies, local groups, ethnic and faith-based organizations, and schools.

Thanks to their capacity for empathy and altruism, their respect for human rights, and their extensive networks and experience in assisting refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant families, faith-based organizations have much to contribute to the development of the Global Compacts and, perhaps more importantly, to their implementation.


An associate research professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, Linda Rabben has worked for a refugee resettlement agency and campaigned on behalf of migrants. She has published Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History (2016) and other books, reports, and articles on migration and human rights.

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