Catholic Teaching and Interventions on the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact on Safe Orderly and Regular Migration

Filippo Ferraro
Director of the Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa (SIHMA)

Catholic Teaching and Interventions on the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact on Safe Orderly and Regular Migration

Migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons have always been of special concern to the Catholic Church. Thus, it comes as little surprise that the Holy See inspired, influenced and participated with great interest in the historic development of a global strategy to respond to migrants and refugees, leading to the adoption of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) in December of 2018.  The Catholic Church’s work on the GCR and GCM included not only the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, but also bishops’ conferences, religious orders and congregations, Catholic institutions of all kinds, and Catholic-inspired non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The Migrants and Refugees Section highlighted the commitment and contribution of the Holy See in the preparatory processes for the two Global Compacts through “Towards the Compacts on Migrants and on Refugees 2018.” This document articulates Catholic teaching and the Church’s vision of migrants and refugees, and offered guidelines for the development and implementation of the GCR and GCM. The choice of a single document for both Compacts put the accent on the significant role of mixed migration flows, which characterize much of the movement on the African continent. The document emphasizes the inalienability of human rights and dignity, and it demands an adequate and seamless response to the needs of each vulnerable person on the move. The Migrants and Refugees Section also engaged with the Secretariat of State and the Permanent Missions of the Holy See in New York, Geneva and Vienna via consultations, negotiations, side-events and direct meetings. It promoted the Holy Father’s four verbs – to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate – to guide the Church’s response to migrants and refugees. This response also framed the Holy See’s “20 Pastoral Action Points” in responding to refugees and migrants (Migrants and Refugees Section 2017).

Catholic advocacy, in turn, built on the insights in these documents, and included numerous interventions, such as support for new humanitarian corridors, special visas for vulnerable migrants, community sponsorship schemes, and the recognition of academic credentials and vocational qualifications of migrants and refugees.

Pope Francis has manifested his commitment to migrants and refugees through his travels to troubled African countries, including Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, which host immense refugee and displaced populations. In a visit to Mauritius in September 2019, the Holy Father invited his audience “to take up the challenge of welcoming and protecting those migrants who today come looking for work” and to promote a better condition of life for them. However, during his 2019 Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, the Holy Father remarked that “it is not just about migrants, it’s about all of us, about the human family.” He has also expressed his hope “that the states involved in these global processes may reach an agreement to ensure, with responsibility and humanity, assistance and protection to those who are forced to leave their own country” (ibid).

During an address on the global challenge of migration to the students of Yale University, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, stressed the effectiveness of the Holy See’s contribution to the GCM in support of “voluntary, safe, orderly, regular and well managed migration,” which contributed to development and cultural enrichment. Paragraph 13 of the GCM stresses the need to “work together to create conditions that allow communities and individuals to live in safety and dignity in their own countries,” a strong theme of the Catholic Church’s as well, which teaches that “migration should never [have to] be an act of desperation” (ibid).

During the preparatory process of the GCR, the Holy See  welcomed “the ‘vision’ of the GCR of strengthened international cooperation and genuine solidarity with refugees and host communities through more equitable and predictable responsibility-sharing.” It praised the GCR’s “guiding principles and objectives,” which it said were “rooted in well-recognized values and principles that constitute a common patrimony of humanity enshrined in international law.”

The Holy See’s vision resonates with the four main objectives of the GCR, as well as with the goals proposed by the Global Refugee Forum and the Support Platform, two new fora created by the GCR to promote and facilitate responsibility-sharing. Throughout the GCR drafting process, the Holy See appealed to the international community to consider refugees as people with important developmental assets such as hope, aspirations, and resilience. Refugees are forced to flee their countries and need protection and assistance, but can also enrich host communities with their knowledge, skills, experience, culture and spirituality. The Catholic Church also teaches that people on the move have duties towards their new communities, including respecting their laws and regulations, and promoting the common good.

Addressing the diplomatic corps in Rome, Ivan Jurkovic, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva, highlighted some important aspects raised by the Holy See during the GCR consultation process. First, he stressed the shared responsibility to address the root causes of forced displacement, such as conflict, violence, denial of human rights and freedoms, the proliferation and sale of weapons, natural disasters, and environmental degradation. Second, he emphasized the crucial role of faith communities and their enduring presence in the migration field, which predates the international community. Third, he pointed to the growing number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum, and their unique needs. Fourth, he recognized the importance of non-discriminatory policies and practices – founded on the right to life and the respect of women’s dignity – that promote access to education and health care for refugees. Fifth, he warned about the risk of politicization of assistance to people on the move. Sixth, he spoke to the importance of the principle of non-refoulement, but also the need to expand the number and range of alternative legal pathways for persons at risk, such as humanitarian corridors, temporary visas, family reunification visas, and voluntary repatriation. Last, he stressed the ways in which the Compacts complemented each other and the many touchpoints between the two documents.

The Compacts’ strong accent on the protection of the human rights of all people on the move, as well as the call for practical solutions to promote migrants’ integration is not new and represents a more conscious and elaborated version of the position of the Holy See – developed over many decades – on migrants and refugees, and elaborated in documents such as: “Exsul Familia” (1952) and “Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi” (2004) and the annual messages of the Holy Father for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. These documents are reflected in the four verbs and the 20 actions responding to refugees and migrants. The two documents to guide the Compacts summarize years of Catholic teaching and reflect awareness of the 1983 document “Towards a Pastoral Care of Refugees,” the 1992 document “Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity” and the 2000 “Jubilee Charter of Rights of Displaced People.” More recently, in 2013, the document “Welcoming Christ in Refugees and Forcibly Displaced Persons – Pastoral Guidelines” continues to articulate the teachings of the Church in this area, including Pope Francis’ plan of action to support those he called “the flesh of Christ.”

Even if the Twenty Action Points, incorporating the Four Verbs, do not articulate deep insight into the social teaching of the Church, the voice of the Catholic Church is clarified through this modern rephrasing. The standard documents of the Holy See are stimulating and stirring public debate about migrants and refugees.

Other relevant insights about the interest of Pope Francis on the migratory phenomenon emerge from the encyclical “Laudato si’.” When talking about the consequences of pollution, climate change and global inequity, he writes that “there has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation; they are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever.” Moreover, stressing the imbalance that causes forced and voluntary migration he calls for radical decisions to achieve the goal of eliminating poverty, he quotes the magisterium of his predecessor Benedict XVI in the Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate: “To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration.”

An interesting and still valid summary of the core of the Catholic teaching on people on the move is given by Bruno Mioli (2014), a Scalabrini missionary, who highlights the following important points: i) a revision of the definition of refugees and economic migrants; ii) the urgency for pedagogical work against indifference; iii) a call to focus on the push and pull factors of human mobility (inequality, poverty, economic oppression, ethnic rivalry), and the need to consider refugees as  subjects with rights and duties; iv) the abolition of forced repatriation and every unnecessary form of detention; v) the importance of civil society and faith-based organizations; and vi) the ecumenical and interreligious dimension of the assistance to migrants. These points echo some of the following most relevant points of the GCR, such as: i) the importance of the human rights and dignity of every migrant and refugee; ii) the call for a change from a charitable approach to the promotion of self-reliance and agency of people on the move; iii) attention to the structural dimension and causes of the migratory phenomenon; iv) and the need of a common effort to share responsibility on migration.

In conclusion, the drafting of the GCR and GCM presented the international community with an opportunity to shift from a reactive to a more proactive, harmonized and effective approach to the management of refugee crises. The Holy See participated actively in this process, recognizing the positive values and principles that guided the participants in this process. At the same time, notwithstanding some encouraging developments, the Holy See is realistic and resolute about implementation of the Compacts, keeping in mind that the rights of refugees and migrants continue to be violated. In this context, the 20 action points represent a modern expression of traditional care for people on the move, not only from the perspective of abstract principles but also their tangible application. Similarly, the Compacts enunciate important principles, standards and processes, but they will ultimately be measured by their application.


April 29, 2020