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Pope Francis meets with refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos on 5 December 2021 Pope Francis meets with refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos on 5 December 2021  (Vatican Media)

World Migrants Day focuses on harnessing human potential

December 18th marks the United Nations International Migrants Day focusing on “Harnessing the potential of human mobility.” The Catholic Church's International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) supports projects around the world with that goal in mind.

By Thaddeus Jones

Today December 18th marks the United Nations International Migrants Day. The world day aims to raise awareness and sensitivity on the many millions of people on the move either voluntarily or by force due to war, conflict, or extreme poverty. UN agencies point out that in 2020 alone there were 281 million international migrants, over three and half percent of the global population.

The theme for the 2021 annual day focuses on “Harnessing the potential of human mobility”. This means looking at how migrants can contribute to the communities they live in with their knowledge, skills, and vitality.  In a tweet earlier today, Pope Francis said, “Let us look into the eyes of the discarded people we meet, let us be provoked by the faces of children, the children of desperate migrants. Let us allow ourselves to be moved by their suffering in order to react to our indifference.

The Catholic Church's global migration agency, the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), is working to help alleviate the suffering people on the move and to help create opportunities for societies to “harness” this enormous potential from human mobility, since migrants can provide communities with needed help in all sectors of the economy.

Monsignor Robert Vitillo is ICMC Secretary General and spoke to Vatican News about the importance of this World Day and this year's theme in particular which puts the focus on the great contributions migrants can provide to their transit or destination societies. He notes that too often, migrants are only seen as a burden, rather than a potential help to societies in which they can contribute their skills and move societies forward with renewed energy and optimism.

Recalling the Christian perspective on migration, he pointed out that the Holy Family was a migrant family and that the migration of peoples has been a reality of human civilization since time immemorial. At the same, ICMC is well aware of the need to handle the crisis situations there are around the world, providing emergency help and trying to stop the trade in human trafficking.

Full Interview with Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC):

How important is "Harnessing the potential of human mobility" for ICMC in assisting migrants and refugees?

First of all, I think it's an excellent theme that was chosen for this day. And the day itself is very, very important, because, so often in the world today, migrants are seen as a burden or a problem. Yet migration has been around since the beginning of the human family on earth. We shouldn't forget that the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, were forced migrants, refugees to Egypt shortly after Jesus was born, because King Herod was afraid that the new King of the Jews would displace him in his worldly kingdom. I'm sure that Saint Joseph, a carpenter didn't just go to Egypt and sit around or ask the Pharaoh for some support, but he did his trade, carpentry, when he was in Egypt, as he was doing it in the Holy Land.

So, the idea of harnessing human potential of mobility is very important, and, at ICMC, we do just that in our humanitarian programs. We help people build skills so that they either could begin working while they are waiting for some durable solution, whether that is resettlement in another country, or it’s integration in the country where they first thought asylum. We teach them skills and languages. We get them ready to begin working even while they are waiting for a durable solution. Then they're all the more ready if they go to another country or they get a more permanent status in the countries where they first sought help. Those skills are usually quite basic, like barbering, carpet weaving, tailoring, beautician work. Also, a very, very popular area that we have always found is motorcycle repairs. And so it is in this way that we, at ICMC, help to harness the human potential of mobile or migrant peoples.

Also, in Malaysia where we have a program that focuses mainly on the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, there migrants are not allowed to work for money. So, there we’ve trained a group that we call our “Refugee Protection Corps”. They're refugees themselves. They volunteer, but we help them with travel expenses and things like that. They've become the best social workers we could ever find, because they're from those very communities of the people that have been affected. They are able also not only to help those, especially women and children who have been victimized by sexual and gender-based violence, but they're also able to change the culture that permits or even promotes that kind of behavior, especially among the men. And so, we have some men as a part of our Refugee Corps, and they tell me about how much their friends, when they come to visit them, say, why are you helping with the dishes? Why are you changing the baby? That's not part of our culture and the men tell them, no, this should be a part of our culture because we need to help our wives in the role of parenting.

So, I think these are really important examples to give on the way we can harness the potential of people engaged in human mobility During the COVID outbreak, many, many of the essential workers have migrant people. Many of them are the health care workers, but also the people who had stalls and stands that were open, when big stores were closed. They were migrants, and they turned out to be real essential workers to help people survive not only health-wise, but also to be able to have food and other kinds of basic essentials.

And then another example can be found with ICMC Europe, which is based in Brussels. We've been working a lot with the countries of the European Union in accepting migrant peoples and welcoming them, and then using their potential. There we’re finding that, in the rural communities in France, Italy, and Spain, the mayors and the townspeople are much more open to the migrants coming, than in some of the big cities. An example in France, there is a rural village where a migrant came and reopened the bakery, the boulangerie. So once again the people in that village were able to have their baguettes and have them while they were still hot and eat them on their way home. In Austria, in a rural mountain village, we sent in Iranian medical doctor, and he was the first medical doctor in that town, for many, many years. And the people welcomed him and his family.

So, as we harness potential of migrant communities, we’re also helping the host communities, and we're promoting integration, which Pope Francis tells us is a two-way street. It's not just the hosts welcoming and doing for the migrants, but it's the migrants bringing their skills, their culture, their faith, their values to the community as well.

Pope Francis recently visited the island of Lesbos, Greece, again, meeting with the migrant community there. What struck you most about his return to the island he had previously visited in 2016?

I was tremendously impressed, inspired, and comforted by the Pope's words in Lesbos, and by the fact that he had a second visit there. Actually, ICMC has people working in Lesbos to provide protection to the refugees in their refugee communities. And so, our staff was so enthusiastic about the Pope’s visit. They felt very affirmed for all that they're doing. But the fact is that the Holy Father was again telling us that we need to reach out to get to know migrants so that we can overcome our fear of migrants and of different people, and then we can benefit from them. And I think he also gave a very, very important call to the leaders of countries to help them understand that migrants are going to bring a great deal of human potential to them as they welcome them. I know certainly, from the conversations and the interchange that we watched the Pope engage in there, how much the migrants were inspired and comforted by him. Also, then there was the fact that he could actually show by his example and not just with his words, since he actually resettled people from Cyprus to Rome once again showed that even the Holy See needs to take a firm stand on acting and not just giving words.

Listen to interview with Msgr. Robert Vitillo, ICMC Secretary General
18 December 2021, 17:22