A Faith-Based Reflection on the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection

Donald Kerwin
Executive Director
Center for Migration Studies

Address delivered at Furman University
November 3, 2016 | South Carolina

Credit: Thomas Koch / Shutterstock.com

A Faith-Based Reflection on the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection

This essay will offer a reflection on the global crisis in refugee protection from a faith perspective. It comes at a time of great uncertainty regarding the US and global response to refugees, a moment that returns us to our religious traditions and to a renewed sense of wonder at the gift of human dignity and God’s mysterious presence in refugees, migrants and newcomers.

How to be a neighbor?

What does the Judeo-Christian tradition teach us? At the most basic level, it teaches us to love God and neighbor. So who is our neighbor? This is the very question that a lawyer asked Jesus.  By way of response, Jesus told a story of a traveler who was robbed, beaten and left half-dead by the side of road. His parable is not so much about who is the neighbor. It’s clear that the man near death is the neighbor. For our purposes it might also be the person walking under the pitiless desert sun or the family crammed on an unseaworthy boat on the high seas.

The parable is about who acts like a neighbor. It’s not the priest or the Levite who steps out of the injured man’s path. Instead, it is the foreigner, the schismatic, the Samaritan – maybe the rough equivalent of today’s Mexican unauthorized immigrant or Syrian refugee. Upsetting the stereotypes of the day, the Samaritan binds the man’s wounds, takes him to an inn, and covers the cost of his care. Omar Al-Muqdad, a journalist who endured brutal torture as a prisoner of conscience in Syria, has been reporting on the Syrian Civil War and its victims. In his work and life, he has been a neighbor to those left trapped and besieged in his country of birth, to Syrian refugees, to his fellow Americans in Arkansas (where he was resettled) and now in Virginia (where he’s my neighbor). We are called to be better neighbors like the Good Samaritan and Omar.

What does Scripture say about refugees, migrants and newcomers?

You might read Scripture as the ultimate migration narrative. The journey of the chosen people begins when God tells Abraham: “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1).

In Hebrew Scripture, God repeatedly enjoins the Jewish people, based on their experience of displacement and persecution, to empathize and identify with refugees and migrants. Leviticus teaches:

When an alien resides with you in your land, do not molest him. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. (Lv. 19:33).

In the Pentateuch, the imperative to love the stranger recurs three dozen times. In the New Testament, this theme is deepened to love of the stranger because Christ identifies with the stranger and other dispossessed people.

Christianity teaches that salvation depends, on how truly nations welcome refugees and immigrants.

More often than not in Scripture, migration and displacement is the context for humankind’s encounter with God. Think about the Exodus, Disperson and Exile of the Jewish people; Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem; the wise men’s trip to the Holy Family; the Holy Family’s flight (like today’s refugees) to Egypt; the peripatetic ministry of Jesus, who moves from community to community, teaching and occasionally fleeing from hostile crowds and authorities; the apostles on the road to Emmaus; and Paul on the road to Damascus.

Think about the spread of Christianity, the martyrdom of early Christians, and the flight of many Christians today as well. After the killing of James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, in 62 AD and the Destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the Jewish/Christian community migrated in large numbers. Ultimately, they settled in Mesopotamia and the Roman Province of Syria; Greece and Asia Minor; the Western Mediterranean; Egypt; and East Asia.

The theologian Peter Phan has pointed out that early Christians were simply assumed to belong to immigrant communities. The believer was considered a temporary resident, pároikos in the Greek. Migration has been so central to this faith tradition that it has become a metaphor for our lives on earth. We are searching for God, moving through life as pilgrims on a spiritual journey to our true home – to the City of God in St. Augustine’s phrase.

We’re called to see refugees and migrants not as a cause for division or a burden, but as a gift. We’re called to extend hospitality, as Abraham did to the three visitors who turned out to be angels in disguise. Not surprisingly, hospitality is a defining virtue in all the Abrahamic religions. As Mona Siddiqui has written, hospitality is not as an expression of a power dynamic between givers and takers, natives and permanent outsiders, but is “a divine imperative,” a “reaching out to others,” an “act of worship, thus challenging, humbling and spiritually transformative.”

What are the causes of this global crisis? 

There were more than 65 million forcibly displaced persons in the world in 2015, 21 million of them refugees. These numbers have certainly increased in the interim. Why so many? Let me offer a few inter-related reasons.

To start, states have failed to anticipate, prevent, forego and effectively respond to refugee-producing situations like armed conflict, terrorism and breakdowns in the rule of law. You might protest: how could states be expected to prevent conflict and violence? But in fact the precursors to persecution and conflict are well-known. And we can draw on countless indexes of development, human rights, the rule of law, democracy, civil rights, corruption, transparency, human capital, state fragility, poverty, religious liberty, and other conditions that influence flight. The refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea, the Central African Republic, and many other nations.

Last summer, I participated in a delegation to El Salvador, Guatemala and Southern Mexico, staying in Scalabrini migrant shelters, visiting prisons, and meeting with government officials. More than 50 percent of the world’s refugees are children. And for several years now unaccompanied children and women with young children have been fleeing the Northern Triangle states in record numbers, and they have not just been headed to the United States. Many are leaving because of the daily threat of violence and the lack of legal recourse. Gangs exercise a mafia-like domination over numerous communities, which leaves young people and their families with few good options. For gang recruits or conscripts who try to escape, the gangs have established a kind of amber alert system that flashes on their cell phones the photos, names and information on those they want to capture.

In many places, the daily passage to and from school requires a level of street knowledge, caution and risk management that you might expect of military personnel in a conflict zone. Some parents keep their children out of school, barricaded in their homes while they work. Other families move frequently in order to try to avoid violence and to try to find safe schools. We saw hundreds of women, with little children, some sleeping four to a mattress, in open rooms in a detention centers in Southern Mexico.

US policy is to deter their migration through border enforcement and interdiction in Mexico, but victims of violence, without recourse to a viable justice system, cannot be easily deterred. Far more must be done on a local, state, regional, and international level to address these underlying, refugee-producing conditions.

The crisis can also be attributed to the catastrophic failure of solidarity and responsibility sharing by states. The Gulf Cooperation Council states failed to resettle any refugees between the onset of the Syrian civil war and 2015. The top three contributors to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provide more than 50 percent of the agency’s annual budget, and many states, including those with means, contribute nothing or next to nothing to its special appeals for refugee populations. Funding for the one million South Sudanese refugees in neighboring states is at 20 percent of what’s needed.

The New York declaration, signed by 193 nations at the September 19th UN Summit on the Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, endorsed equitable burden sharing in hosting and supporting refugees. The US-organized summit the following day elicited concrete public and private commitments for refugees, including:

  • $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid and doubling the number of refugees resettled worldwide or granted access to immigration systems;
  • Allowing one million additional refugee children to attend schools and one million refugees to work;
  • Favorable financing for humanitarian and development projects that benefit refugees and host communities, and;
  • Significant private sector commitments to sustainable solutions for refugees and for refugee entrepreneurial activity.

The theologian and ethicist David Hollenbach, SJ argues that states have “negative duties” to persons outside their borders, including the duty not to contribute to the conditions that lead to forced displacement. In addition, they have the positive duty to come to the aid of the displaced, based on their proximity to a crisis, their ability to respond, and the needs and desperation of the displaced population. Hollenbach reminds us that agreeing to admit 10,000 or 20,000 Syrian refugees over a year or more is about what Lebanon admitted over the course of two weekends at different points over the last six years.

At the same time, many states act as if they do not believe they have any responsibilities to refugees. During the UN Summit, the President of Macedonia delivered a speech that reflects an ethic of responsibility shunning, describing refugees as a military threat, a terrorist menace and a natural disaster all in one.

Speaking of how states should respond to refugees and migrants, he said:

The crisis management system must therefore develop contingency plans and make use of the strategy of eliminating the consequence of the flood (migrant flow) involving a defense system with so-called dams at the external borders, a cleaning process with hotspot approach and the securing of channels and control of the pipes at the entrance and exit corridors and routes used by refugees, migrants and foreign terrorist fighters.

He concluded on the ominous, but somewhat incoherent note that “[t]olerance for diversity must be substituted with respect for diversity.” This means apparently that states should no longer allow diversity within their borders, but should somehow respect this principle in the abstract.

What about the United States? Does it do its fair share? Does it lead in this area? It led in response to the humanitarian crises following World War II and the Vietnam War. It is the largest donor to UNHCR, and it has contributed around $5 billion to the Syrian refugee crisis since its outset. It resettled nearly 85,000 refugees in FY 2016, including 12,600 Syrians, and the Obama administration announced that the US would resettle 110,000 refugees in FY 2017. The United States has also been granting political asylum to roughly 9,000 persons a year in Immigration Court and about 11,000 a year more in affirmative cases (persons not in removal proceedings). If not for adjudication backlogs, these numbers would be higher. The backlog for affirmative asylum case is at around 150,000 and for court cases exceeds 500,000. The United States also grants withholding of removal and relief under the Convention against Torture to around 2,000 persons annually. Thus, in 2016, it offered permanent protection to around 100,000 persons and extended temporary protected status (TPS) to around 300,000 more. It does a lot, despite unconscionable opposition to refugee resettlement in Congress and in many states, but it should do more.

Some will say: we cannot take them all. Nobody is saying we should. At this point, we might compare the US GDP ($17.2 trillion) to the combined GDP of 1.4 trillion of the handful of states that host 4.7 million Syrian refugees, or the six neighboring states that provide haven to one million South Sudanese, or the developing states that have taken in 86 percent of the world’s refugees overall.

But it may be more powerful to offer the witness of a colleague who has run a migrant shelter in El Paso for more than four decades. He says that “the greatest heresy is the fear that God will not make room for others at the table in life” and will somehow abandon us if we are just, loving and generous. The United States can do far more.

Another reason for the global crisis is the paucity of permanent, safe options for refugees. The traditional “durable options” – safe and voluntary return home, resettlement in a third country, and integration in the host community – are not available in anywhere near the number that would make a substantial dent in the refugee population. And alternative strategies like legal migration opportunities and private resettlement must be brought to scale. Only 134,000 refugee cases were referred for resettlement in 2015 and only 107,100 refugees “departed” to a third-country. As a result, nearly seven million protracted refugees live in untenable situations for an average of more than 20 years. In addition, the world’s response to the developing countries that host most of the world’s refugees has been scandalous. Worst of all, only about 200,000 refugees in 2015 were able to return home, which is the preferred option for the overwhelming majority of refugees. Finally, developed states too often deny access to their territories and to protection by funding other states to intercept migrants before they can reach their borders. Interdiction, border externalization and outsourcing policies are pervasive and represent a crisis in responsibility shifting.

All of this has created a human security crisis, not a “refugee crisis,” as if caused by refugees, but one that has been imposed on them.

Sovereign States and Refugee Protection

I would like to interrogate several concepts that might guide the US and global response to this crisis, for better or worse. The concept of sovereignty is often used as cudgel against refugees and migrants. Certainly, states have the authority and responsibility to regulate immigration. They also have the responsibility to provide the conditions that allow their residents to flourish at home, and, thus, not to have to migrate. States exist to safeguard rights and promote the common good, the latter an idea that seems to have disappeared from our political discourse. States honor these responsibilities in the breach in the case of refugees and other forced migrants. With refugees, we always see the failure of sovereignty.

Rather than a brainchild of the Enlightenment, the idea of subjective human rights arose in the debates of canon lawyers in the 12th century, with the best example being the right to self-preservation. Refugees are simply exercising this inalienable, time-honored right. Yet in a cruel irony they are seen as threats to sovereign states. This is the familiar pattern: the greater the failure of states, the larger the number of migrants, the more sovereignty is invoked to deny them protection.

In 2013, Bashar Assad claimed that the Syrian Civil War was a fight over the principle of sovereignty. He said his regime’s actions were rooted in the “principles and goals of the UN Charter and the international law which all stress on the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of states.”

The religious vision would seek to reclaim the concept of sovereignty and put it in service to human dignity. Sovereignty does not immunize states that prey on their own. It speaks to the duties of states to their own residents and locates responsibility for defending the undefended rights of citizens in other states and protecting refugees and forcibly displaced persons. States have a moral responsibility to welcome refugees, a legal responsibility not to return them to states where they would be imperiled, and a collective responsibility to respond to refugee-producing conditions and to intervene in the affairs of other states in limited circumstances (like genocide). The European Union (EU) has 510 million residents, and its members could have supported far more refugees and averted the crisis, but solidarity has been in short supply among its members and in its response to those seeking protection.

Refugees, in turn, have a responsibility to contribute to the good of their new communities. The ability of refugees and migrants to participate in their new communities is central to their ability to integrate and, by extension, to contribute to the good of their communities of destination and origin.

National security is often invoked to deny protection to refugees and to marginalize and scapegoat newcomers. Yet refugee protection advances national security. Refugees and migrants contribute immensely to the United States’ economic vitality, military strength, diplomatic standing, and civic values. And refugee protection and security strategies generally align. Conflict prevention, peace-building, reconstruction, reconciliation, safe return, humanitarian and development assistance, and refugee integration advance both refugee protection and national security. Public officials and the media often portray refugees as a threat, and occasionally terrorists masquerade as refugees. However, the clearest connection between terrorism and refugees is that the former creates the latter. It is counterintuitive and cynical to conflate terrorists with their targets or to treat refugees seeking safety as at odds with natives who want to be safe in their home communities.

A strong consensus emerged after 9/11 among security professionals on what it takes to keep terrorists who are impersonating refugees or migrants from entering a targeted state.[1] Although no program is 100 percent secure, the US refugee resettlement program best meets these standards and is the most secure of all US admissions program. By contrast, Europe does not adequately share information or screen. That said, the greatest concern in Europe and (to a lesser extent) the US is the radicalization of natives (particularly youth) and the return from abroad of jihadists. And add to that threat extremist political rhetoric and strategies that undermine national unity by scapegoating and seeking to marginalize Muslims.

Finally, you cannot speak about the integration of refugees and immigrants without speaking about nationality. Nativists believe that membership should turn on characteristics that people either cannot change or should not have to change, like national origin, race, ethnicity or religion. To nativists, nothing but these attributes matter, not the contributions of refugees, not what they’ve endured or overcome, not their good character, hard work, length of time in a country, family ties, military service, who they are, none of it. Of course, the people behind the labels are precisely who should matter to people of good will and people of faith. Under another view of nationality, membership should turn on a shared commitment to political institutions and to civic ideals like freedom, equality, rights, liberty, justice, and opportunity.

Here’s how our first president put it in his Address to the Members of the Volunteer Association and the Other Inhabitants of the Kingdom of Ireland Who Have Lately Arrived in the City of New York, December 2, 1783:

The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.

In his first inaugural speech, President George W. Bush said: “America has never been united by blood or birth or soil,” but it has been “bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds” and “lift us above our interests.” These ideals are that “everyone belongs,” “everyone deserves a chance,” and “no insignificant person was ever born.”

The truth is that refugees renew and serve as a living reminder of our nation’s core values. They make us more American, not less. They fit uneasily, if at all, in ethno-cultural societies. However, they belong in nations “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men [and women] are created equal.” The goal should be to incorporate them fully in our nation’s life. How to get there?

Historical memory helps. Not too long ago in our nation’s history, Catholics – most of them immigrants – were considered anti-modernist, unassimilable, exclusively loyal to Rome, and a kind of religious fifth column.

This large mass of aliens…very many of them blind followers of an ecclesiastical despotism – a large majority of them without correct ideas of the duties appertaining to citizens of a republican government and…totally unfitted to learn them – differing in language, in national customs and feelings, and scattered all over the country, still with tenacity holding on to and serving those customs.

This was from William Minor, governor-elect of Connecticut and a member of the Know Nothing Party, in his 1855 inaugural speech. Ironically, many of these attacks on Catholics were rooted in religious liberty arguments.

As the sociologists Nancy Foner and Richard Alba point out, the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faith traditions are now viewed as mainstream, which (excepting Protestants) would have seemed inconceivable 100 years ago. Maybe a few decades hence the United States will be seen as an Abrahamic culture, but it won’t get there according to Foner through “exclusionary nationalism.” The United States should strive to avoid the model in some European states in which if you’re Christian, that is seen as patriotic, but if you’re Muslim, you’re seen as in competition with the state. Many European states don’t tolerate conservative Islamic practices, but they do tolerate practices that Muslims and many US Christians would find intolerant and abhorrent. That is a model to avoid.

Humility and Hope

Let me end this talk with a short reflection on the virtues of humility and hope. Humility has been in short supply in our presidential election season, and it would be an immense contribution to our nation if our public officials, media and their enablers, which would be all of us, could restore this virtue to our public life. Humility should not be confused with subservience, false modesty, or piety. It doesn’t argue for modest social goals or resignation to an untenable status quo. Instead, it is about understanding and accepting who we are in relation to God and neighbor. In a memorial for the genocide victims in Rwanda, there’s a poem by a survivor that reads: “If you knew me and you really knew yourself, then you wouldn’t have killed me.” Thomas Merton called humility “hard-headed” spiritual realism. It is a pre-condition to compassion.

On his first papal trip, Pope Francis travelled to Lampedusa, where he called for solidarity with refugees and migrants. Speaking of those who had perished at sea, he asked:

Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – “suffering with” others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep.

Or you might say we have forgotten who we are in relation to refugees and migrants. We’ve lost and badly need to recover the virtue of humility.

Hope: refugees may be broken-hearted, but most are not hopeless. They want to build better, freer, more prosperous lives for themselves and their families. They want to contribute to their communities. Hope does not mean we will always meet our goals or succeed in the way we want or expect.

Dorothy Day made this point in stark terms:

Why should we try to see results? It is enough to keep on in the face of what looks to be defeat. We certainly have enough examples in the lives of the saints to help us. Not to speak of that greatest of failures (to the eyes of the world) of Christ on the cross…we can only do what lies in our power, and leave all the rest to God, and he will attend to it.

That is a statement of humility and hope. My own parish priest puts it more succinctly. “There’s a God,” he says, “but it’s not you.”

Several years ago at a gathering of the Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice, I heard an Iman tell a story about a rabbi. The story takes different forms. The rabbi was speaking to a group of children. “How will you know the night has ended and the day has come?” he asked them.

One child guessed “you’ll know it is day when you can tell the apple from the peach tree.”  Another said: “you’ll know when you can tell the donkey from the horse.” The rabbi listened patiently.

“We’ll know it is day,” a precocious child finally said, “when we’ll be able to recognize all people as our brothers and sisters.”

It is our privilege to work together for that day.


[1] The ingredients include: (1) better intelligence collection; (2) expanded and accurate terrorist and criminal databases; (3) information sharing within and between states, and government agencies; (4) secure, biometrically enhanced identity documents; (5) layered screening, including interviews to assess eligibility for admission and credibility; (6) enhanced background checks on migrants who meet evidence-based profiles; (7) continuous assessment of terrorist threats, tactics and methods; and (7) applying risk management criteria to assess the effectiveness and value of all of these tactics.