The #RefugeeCrisis, a Moral and Global Perspective

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A Turkish gendarme carries the body of a refugee child on January 30, 2016 after the boat he was on sunk in the Aegean Sea.  He was one of 40 people on the boat who drowned.  (Ozan Kose/Getty Images)

They still flee, many still suffer and some die.  Who should be concerned about the largest flow of refugees since World War II?  We all should.

In January of this year I traveled with a @CatholicRelief Global Fellows delegation to Greece and Serbia to try to better understand the cause of the refugee crisis in Europe and the response of the Church and other international agencies.  So, what did we observe and learn?

We were able to meet with many refugees and aid workers in both countries and came away with the knowledge that the refugees were mostly families that are fleeing war and persecution (from ISIS) in the hope of reaching a safe haven until the violence ends and returning home is a possibility.  The refugees all spoke of obtaining education for their children, finding safety and eventually returning home.

The aid workers are predominately young, energetic and extremely effective.  CRS, Caritas, Doctors Without Borders, The Red Cross, and many other international aid agencies continue to do what can only be described as life saving humanitarian work on behalf of over 1 million refugees who are on the move.  Some die in the Aegean Sea, some die in the Mediterranean Sea (see earlier posts) and some die on the land journey.  All of the refugees are willing to risk the smaller potential of death on the journey when compared to the great likelihood of death if they remain in their native place.

Since returning, I have met with many people to share the stories of the refugees in the hope that after learning the facts people may advocate on behalf of the refugees or at least move from an irrational fear of people fleeing for their lives to compassion for their circumstances.

Recently I was asked, what rights do the refugees have to flee war and persecution in their countries; what right do they have to simply leave and request asylum in Europe, the United States and other countries.  That is a good question and I will try to answer it.

First, I believe there is a moral imperative; that all people of good faith, especially Christians and even more specifically Catholics (of which I am one) have an obligation to have compassion for the refugees and take up their cause as we should do for any other voiceless group.  The ministry of Jesus and the parable of the Good Samaritan are the examples that must guide Christian behavior with respect to the refugees.  It is hard to argue that ignoring people in distress is congruent with the Gospel.

Second, I believe that it is in the finest tradition of the American people to stand up for the oppressed; for us to come to the aid of those in need and that we would be inspired as Abraham Lincoln said, “by the better angels of our nature.”  Americans have a long history of helping others, in fact it seems to be part of our national DNA.  When we have helped the needy and oppressed (i.e., the Berlin Airlift, rebuilding Europe and Japan after World War II, accepting refugees from Vietnam and Cuba, etc.) we have consistently been found to be on the right side of history.

Beyond what I see as our moral and national imperatives is a global one.  On December 10, 1948, the United States pushed through the United Nations the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This document was largely based upon the Four Freedoms; of Speech, of Religion, from Fear and from Want.  It was also based upon the Declaration of Independence in the United States.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the United States helped draft and vigorously supported, stipulates rights that every human being is entitled to enjoy.  It should be noted that the Declaration was opposed by the U.S.S.R. and its satellite states but was nevertheless adopted. So what does say are the rights that the refugees enjoy?  Here they are:

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  Article #1
  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. Article #3 (note: security in this sense is safety and peace)
  • Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.  Article #14
  • No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.  Article #15

It seems to me that opposition to the movement of refugees fleeing war and persecution and the granting of asylum to the oppressed goes directly against the long tradition of Christian morality, the steadfast generosity of our American heritage and also the definition of basic human rights which have been agreed upon by the world community, excluding communists who oppose them.

The closing of European borders, the reckless supposition that 4.5 million people fleeing persecution from ISIS and civil war are terrorists and the failure of the current administration in the United States to engage in providing expansive aid to and a welcome to the refugees belies who I believe we really are; a moral, generous, and brave people who are willing to see and do what is right and just without first counting the risks and costs.

It is easy to ignore, reject or even hate those we do not know.  I believe that meeting even one suffering refugee family would convince most people of good will that we should look to the better angels of our nature, our morality, our generosity and our courage.

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