By Lydia O’Kane
For 106 years the Church has been observing the World Day for Migrants and Refugees.
This year, Pope Francis has chosen the theme “Forced like Jesus Christ to flee.” His message highlights the many people, including families who are internally displaced, “We are called to respond to this pastoral challenge with the four verbs… welcome, protect, promote and integrate, he says.”
As part of the observance of this World Day, the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) is holding a webinar on Friday 25 September that will include expert panelists from Jordan, India and Burkina Faso who will be sharing their experiences.
“In this webinar, we want to engage people who know ICMC and support us in helping them to realize the larger Church’s mission to receive and to protect and promote and integrate refugees and migrants and displaced persons,” says Monsignor Robert Vitillo, Secretary General of ICMC and Moderator of Friday’s event.
Families on the move
The focus of this webinar will be on families on the move because, as Msgr Vitillo explains, “although many, many people are forced to flee alone, many come in the whole family, and I’ve worked with refugees and migrants and displaced people for many years and not one of them has failed to mention their families.”
Every day, thousands of families are forced to flee their homes. According to the ICMC, “by the end of 2019, 79.5 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations.”
It’s estimated there are about 35 million refugees who conform to the Geneva Convention’s definition of refugee and are entitled to special international protection.
However, Msgr Vitillo points out “you have another forty-five million who are either stateless persons or they are the internally displaced people that the Pope is asking us to remember in a special way on this World Day of Migrants and Refugees.”
The Secretary-General describes these people as “especially vulnerable” because they haven’t crossed an international frontier and, therefore, technically their own governments are supposed to protect them. "But many times they’re being persecuted by those same governments.”
COVID-19 and migration
The year 2020 has been a year like no other as countries try to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic which has resulted in restrictions being put in place in a bid to halt the spread of the disease. But for those living in cramped refugee camps, social distancing measures are almost impossible to adhere to.
Moreover, migrants don’t always have access to good factual information on preventative measures to take in order to stop the virus from spreading.
Msgr Vitillo notes there are “more forcibly displaced people than we’ve ever had since the end of World War II… But then there is that added situation that all of us are facing because of COVID-19, but especially the migrants and the refugees and displaced persons face the most.”
He goes onto say that in some of the camps in Lebanon and Turkey families have less space than one would find in a parking lot which makes social distancing virtually impossible. These people, he says, don’t have the option to work from home with a computer.
Msgr Vitillo points out that “many times they’ve helped our society while everyone else shelters.” He adds that many refugees and migrants are healthcare workers themselves, “so they’ve been on the frontlines taking care of other people and therefore, being more vulnerable themselves.”
Shining the spotlight on Migrants and Refugees
On Sunday, the World Day for Migrants and Refugees will highlight the plight of countless people who have been forced to flee conflict and poverty in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
Msgr Vitillo emphasizes that this day is “extremely important” for his organization saying, “we’re grateful that our Popes have continued this tradition now for 106 years.” Firstly, he says, “it’s a way to help Catholics to identify with the basic teaching of the Church which is, we must welcome the stranger as we would welcome Jesus Himself.”
The Secretary-General notes that on this day “we can call attention to the fact that we need to welcome, protect, to promote and to integrate refugees in our societies throughout the world.”