(Washington, D.C.) November 14, 2016 – Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan S.J., who in October was appointed interim executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, recently spoke at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania about the global refugee crisis and the work JRS does around the world. Today, JRS commemorates 36 years of walking with refugees around the world: On Nov. 14, 1980, Fr. Pedro Arrupe S.J. founded JRS in response to the refugee crisis in southeast Asia.
Fr. O’Donovan, who previously served as JRS/USA’s Director of Mission and is a former president of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., also explained why it’s essential for “mercy” to be a central part of the human experience. The following is the first of a two-part installment of his talk entitled “Mercy in Motion.”
Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak with you tonight, and for your concern and attention to the refugee crisis. I hope to provide some insight into this terrible emergency and share with you the work Jesuit Refugee Service is doing to help care for those in greatest need. It’s truly a privilege to be here at such a vital institution as the University of Scranton. And I mean that sincerely. The social activism and compassion of the university community is truly inspirational.
I begin by suggesting what I consider to be the four greatest threats to humanity today, indeed to the existence of humanity today.
There is, in my view, first, the ecological crisis, the threat to the viable existence of what Pope Francis calls “our common home.” (In the view of President Obama as well as many other commentators, it is indeed the greatest of threats.) And the second threat comes from the continued existence of nuclear weapons, now held by more nations than ever, with the capacity to destroy not only whole countries but civilization itself. Neither of these great emergencies were discussed in any serious way — if at all — during the past, crazed election.
The growing disparity between the rich and the poor, not only in our country but globally, and there to an even more marked degree, is another fundamental, grievous threat. It threatens not only to dehumanize the poor but to create increasing, and untenable, political instability.
And there is, fourth, the all-but unprecedented humanitarian crisis of refugees and IDPs. Here again, if we as a global society were not to address this crisis in a serious way, could we continue to consider ourselves human beings? Could we continue to deserve to survive? But neither of these two emergencies, you will recall, were treated with any seriousness in the election past.
So, let me tell you a little bit about the organization I represent – Jesuit Refugee Service. In the late 1970s the images of thousands of Vietnamese fleeing their country — many with nothing more than the clothes on their backs — filled TV and newspapers. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then superior general of the Society of Jesus, felt strongly that the Jesuits should do whatever they could to help alleviate the suffering of these and other refugees. So in 1980 he founded Jesuit Refugee Service with a mission to “accompany, serve and advocate” for refugees and displaced people anywhere in the world. Fr. Arrupe understood that the first step to helping refugees is to recognize their humanity. Through person-to-person interactions JRS has helped restore a sense of dignity to people whose lives have been upended by violent conflict.
The world — and the work of JRS — has changed during our 36-year history. Today, JRS is a truly global organization, with headquarters in Rome and 10 regional offices that operate programs in more than 45 countries. But the original mission of JRS continues to define our work: to accompany, to serve, and to advocate on behalf of all displaced people.
THREE PILLARS OF JRS
What do I mean by accompany? The cornerstone of the JRS mission is following Fr. Arrupe’s call to recognize the humanity in refugees. That the warmth of one individual rendering assistance to another is invaluable to the refugees we serve.
To accompany means to be a companion. We are companions of Jesus, so we wish to be companions of those with whom he preferred to be associated – the poor, the vulnerable and the outcast. It is through this accompaniment that JRS staff and volunteers understand how best to serve and advocate on their behalf.
How do we serve? JRS provides emergency assistance, education, health care and pastoral services to more than 750,000 refugees each year throughout the world. We work with partners on the ground, often in dangerous and volatile places like Syria. And although JRS is a faith-based organization, we serve everyone – Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, non-believers and all others without distinction – finding common ground in communities torn apart by ethnic and religious conflict. Our teams are composed of people of different faiths and are a mix of national staff, refugees and internally displaced people, and international volunteers.
And as we accompany and serve, we also advocate. JRS is committed to defending the rights of these most vulnerable people. At JRS/USA, based in Washington, D.C., our advocacy team works to defend and protect refugees everywhere – home and abroad – by representing them before Congress, the State Department and the UN refugee organization, which sets international refugee policy. In our work defending refugees and other displaced people, we also count on strong partnerships with like-minded institutions, such as here at the University of Scranton, where you have a proud history of social activism.
Tonight, I’m sure you want to learn more about the global refugee crisis – in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere – and to try to understand more about the record number of refugees and displaced people worldwide that you’ve been hearing about in the news.
Unfortunately, the abundance of news and information that washes over us daily includes not only facts about refugees and asylum seekers, but also fictions that have been created to suit people’s prejudices and/or political agendas. For example, many people believe that generous rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea have prompted surges of Syrian refugees to seek asylum in Europe, or that refugees are just looking for handouts or an easy life, and that's simply not true. It’s human desperation that drives migration and refugee flows.
I’ve now spoken several times of “refugees and displaced people.” What exactly does that mean?
The United Nations has classified a “refugee” as someone who has fled their home due to persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on five factors; their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, and their political opinion. And according to Catholic social teaching, people who flee their homes involuntarily due to armed conflict, war, general violence, extreme economic hardship, and natural or man-made disasters also are considered refugees.
The other category is that of “internally displaced people.” These are people who have fled their homes for all the same reasons – but who haven’t crossed an international border.
All of these populations have abandoned the life and home they used to have because they thought it was in their best interest for survival. As a Catholic service organization, we at JRS are concerned with serving the most vulnerable — in all of these groups.
Refugees are nothing new in world history. The Holy Family themselves were refugees when they fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s deadly wrath. And in the Old Testament, we recall that the people of Israel under Moses wandered in the desert for 40 years after escaping slavery. As long as there has been persecution in the world, there have been refugees.
But the breadth of the refugee crisis today is historic. We are experiencing the worst forced diaspora since World War II. The current statistics are staggering. The UN estimates more than 65 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes. How did this happen? New crises erupted; old crises haven’t been resolved. According to the UN, in the last five years, 15 conflicts erupted or re-erupted that have contributed to the global refugee crisis.
We say 65 million people, and it sounds like a lot, but sometimes I think those big numbers aren’t easy to envision. So as an example, let’s think about something closer to home. Let’s take Pennsylvania, which has almost 13 million residents. The number of displaced people worldwide is 5 times the population of the Keystone State. If all these displaced people lived in their own country, it would be the 24th largest country in the world, the size of the United Kingdom. Just more than half of all refugees are children. About 30 percent of all refugees live in camps, with the other 70 percent living mostly in urban areas, often without formal protection or services.
Nowhere is the plight of these vulnerable people more apparent right now than in the Middle East. The Syrian civil war, now in its sixth year, has forced 12 million Syrians — about 18 percent of all refugees worldwide — from their homes.
To give some brief context, before the war, Syria was among the most vibrant, diverse, educated and stable countries in the Arab world. But in March 2011, in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” a brutal civil war erupted and tore the country apart. And the Syrian people were truly caught in the crossfire. The conflict has resulted in the death of at least a quarter of a million people.
Despite the media attention on the Syrian migration to Europe, almost two-thirds of Syrians who left their homes because of the war have remained inside the country. And JRS is one of the few international agencies still able to operate inside Syria, where we provide education, emergency aid, counseling and other psychosocial assistance to thousands of Syrians.
For those who did leave Syria, most sought refuge in nearby countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But local and international resources are proving inadequate to meet even the most basic needs of the ever-growing refuge population in these regional hosting countries. So in the past year, more than 1.3 million refugees journeyed to Europe in search of protection and assistance. That’s nearly double the previous high water mark of refugees in Europe — roughly 700,000 — that was set in 1992 after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of these refugees are Syrians but thousands also have come from Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa. A million more are expected to seek asylum on the continent in 2016.
I’d like to point out that while the conflict in Syria continues to be the biggest driver of forced migration in the world today, it is by no means the only one. Ongoing violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan and El Salvador, abuses in Eritrea, political discord in Mozambique and chronic poverty in Kosovo, for example, are forcing people to flee. As long as people anywhere feel unsafe and vulnerable, as long as people face repression and believe they have no future at home, they will continue to seek refuge elsewhere.
And what goes on in the Middle East and Europe has a domino effect elsewhere in the world. For example, since 2013, UN World Food Program rations distributed to refugees and internally displaced peoples in many African camps have been greatly reduced, in large part because limited resources to help these newly displaced people have been redirected to other refugee crisis elsewhere.