By Philippa Hitchen
Catholic leaders across South America are responding to Pope Francis’ call to support migrants and refugees by setting up a project entitled ‘Bridges of Solidarity’ for those fleeing from poverty in Venezuela.
The two-year pastoral plan to assist Venezuelan migrants was presented at a press briefing in the Vatican on Monday.
It’s been dubbed the world’s “least-talked-about” migration crisis, with nearly a million Venezuelans fleeing from their country over the past two years alone. That’s on top of the hundreds of thousands who left after former President Hugo Chavez started his so-called socialist revolution in 1999.
Worsensing economic crisis
Under the present leader, Nicolas Maduro, the crisis continues to worsen, with spiraling poverty and malnutrition, aggravated by the world’s highest rate of inflation. Those protesting against government policies are routinely arrested, sparking a wave of political asylum seekers, on top of those desperately searching for basic food or medical supplies.
The majority of those fleeing from Venezuela are headed for other South American nations, with a quarter of million arriving in neighbouring Colombia. Police in some of those countries are now reacting to the influx by patrolling their borders, rounding up and expelling undocumented migrants.
Churches coordinating emergency and long-term care
Amidst the crisis, Church leaders in eight South American nations have come together to coordinate emergency and longer-term care for these migrants. Supported by the Vatican’s office for Migrants and Refugees, under the direct guidance of Pope Francis, the bishops of Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina have set up activities to welcome the newcomers, while at the same time supporting the most vulnerable members of local host communities.
Fr Michael Czerny is undersecretary of the Vatican’s Migrants and Refugees section. He says the project is built on the realization that there are “large number of people coming from the same origin, facing a whole series of increasing needs, which are similar to the needs of people coming from elsewhere, and which are also similar to the needs of vulnerable local people. That’s why it’s called Venezuelan Bridges, but there are three populations that we’re really concerned about.”
Strong message to governments
The ‘Bridges of Solidarity’ project includes shelters for the homeless, assistance for housing, jobs, education and health care, legal assistance, training of pastoral agents and awareness campaigns within host communities. Fr Michael says these practical initiatives send a strong message to governments who are beginning to close their doors to these people in need:
“They’re closing their doors, I think because they buy into the rhetoric that ‘there are too many, we don’t know what to do, we’re running out of resources, so [ …...] we are showing there’s lots we can do with relatively little resources, that’s a good message”.
As well as helping to prevent exploitation and trafficking of vulnerable Venezuelans, the work of the Churches aims to defuse mounting tensions between migrants and host communities. With elections due later this month in Venezuela and President Maduro hoping for another six-year term of office, those tensions are unlikely to decline any time soon.