Communities hosting refugees need help and ‘a more positive narrative’
By Devin Watkins
The Canadian Embassy to the Holy See joined forces with the International Catholic Migration Commission—along with the Embassies of Britain, the United States, Germany, and Italy—to host a workshop on welcoming refugees.
The two-day event kicked off on Monday, and explored the results of a programme created by the Canadian government to assist local communities in hosting people who have fled conflict and other challenges. Over 300,000 refugees have been helped through the Community Sponsorship Programme in their integration into local communities in various parts of Canada since its inception in 1979.
According to Ms. Angele Tissot of the Canadian Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, the event hopes to boost similar initiatives in other countries, while strengthening host communities so that they might become more welcoming places for refugees to live.
At a press briefing ahead of the event, she noted that awareness of the need to integrate refugees into local communities came after the mass exodus of the “Vietnamese boat people”, a migration phenomenon that reached its peak in the late 1970s following the Vietnam War. More recently, the wars in Afghanistan and Ukraine have pushed the issue of refugee settlement up the political to-do list.
Msgr. Bob Vitillo, Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission, held up the Canadian programme as a potential model for European Union states, as they seek long-term solutions to integrate refugees. The American-born priest said similar programmes could be implemented even in other parts of the world beyond Western countries.
Canada’s initiative mainly focuses on larger cities, but in Europe it is often more rural areas that have proven most willing to welcome refugees, especially given the demographic decline of small towns.
Referencing Pope Francis, Msgr. Vitillo said that integration of refugees is a two-way street, since those who welcome and those who are received both offer each other cultural and economic enrichment.
Making host countries ‘a home’
At the workshop, an international group of panelists shared their experiences in community sponsorship programmes.
Fr. Fabio Baggio, Undersecretary of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, highlighted the Church’s increasing involvement in supporting the journey of refugees as they seek to make their adoptive countries “home”. He noted Pope Francis’ frequent appeals for countries to assist refugees, and his frequent call for communities to “welcome, accompany, support, and integrate” people who have fled their countries of origin.
What works well?
Anna Khrystych escaped from her home in central Ukraine following Russia’s invasion on 24 February, along with her 2 children. She currently resides at a Catholic parish in Rome.
Speaking at the workshop on Monday, Anna praised the welcome she has received in Rome, which was coordinated by Caritas. She noted especially the assistance of a psychiatrist in helping her and her children adjust, as well as the experience of a summer camp which her 2 children recently attended.
However, said Anna, her current worry is the ability to engage in employment as a refugee living in Italy.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the United States has launched a community sponsorship programme—Uniting for Ukraine—which has so far brought over 59,000 Ukrainians to the US, according to William Canny, Executive Director of the Migration and Refugee Services offices at the US Bishops’ Conference (USCCB).
Mr. Canny said over 125,000 groups offered their willingness to host Ukrainian refugees, but noted that data is scarce on the demographic makeup of these groups. “It’s likely that most are Ukrainian Americans who are hosting Ukrainians,” he said, “and the jury is still out on the results of this program in the US.”
Germany was also represented at the workshop by Andreas Hollstein, the former mayor of Altena in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
He pointed to the need for communities to build networks to host refugees. No individual can do it on their own, he said, but anything is possible with the proper support.
The German former mayor survived a knife attack in 2017 from a disgruntled resident who resented a programme he implemented to host refugees.
What are the challenges of community sponsorship?
Despite the success of many community sponsorship programmes, they must also face a host of challenges, many having to do with long-term sustainability.
Sometimes the bureaucratic aspect of the resettlement process becomes “clunky”, since refugees must undergo in-depth interviews and deal with various government agencies.
Another challenge, according to Mark Wiggin, Director of Caritas for the UK Diocese of Salford, is that official resettlement programmes “pale in comparison” to the massive number of refugees who need help integrating into host communities.
Community Sponsorship Programmes also incur significant financial costs, requiring sizable fundraising efforts and hefty investment.
“Such programmes have to guarantee long-term commitment, which requires investment, allowing for professionalism in order to assist refugees well,” said Mr. Wiggin.
Supporting volunteers in charitable desire
In recent years, Italy has set up the Humanitarian Corridors initiative in coordination with the Sant’Egidio Community and other religious institutions.
According to Cecilia Pani, who coordinates the programme for Sant’Egidio, burnout also poses a huge challenge, saying assistance-fatigue can occur when host families do not meet refugees’ expectations, or vice versa.
In response, she said, umbrella organizations are needed to monitor the experience of welcoming refugees, along with quick support for host families who risk burnout.
Communities are filled with people of tremendous goodwill, and their charitable desire must not be squandered.
"Volunteers must be taken as they are,” said Mr. Wiggin, “but they need help in the form of a local network of mental-health professionals who understand the situation of volunteers.”