Michael Kelly SJ. The challenge of people movements.

Great as the gesture of Pope Francis is to mobilize parishes in Europe to accommodate the influx of tens of thousands of asylum seekers from the Middle East (they call them migrants), the problem is more complex than offering immediate support to needy people. The Pope knows that. He’s said so many times.

The Pope is drawing a line in the sand. He will be called naïve and “grandstanding”. In a world where 60 million of the 7.3 billion humans on the planet are displaced, the cliché about protecting borders isn’t adequate to the challenge that confronts humanity now.

The Pope is saying this is a significant moment in the life of Europe and the wider world, just as Jews escaping Nazism in the 1930s confronted the world with a choice: our world is faced with a choice and our response will confirm our mediocrity or enhance our humanity.

Yet, however inspiring and absolutely correct as the responses of locals in Germany and Austria are, there’s a deeper problem that impacts on Europe and also in Asia. There is no agreed way to address the issue of people movement based on shared values and with respected institutions managing a common task.

People movement is a constant in human history and the trigger is always human survival, most usually associated with the need for food. The biggest documented event of people movement in human history was the movement of the tribes of northern Europe south to Mediterranean in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries of the Christian Era.

The tribes came in search of food and, along the way, they destroyed the buildings, documents and communities – in short the cultures – of Greece and Rome.

We are seeing something like it again without the destruction of Europe. This time we are witnessing people fleeing the destruction of Syria and parts of Iraq. The catastrophe unfolding before our eyes on 24/7 newscasts is something triggered by the wrongly conceived intervention of the “Coalition of the Willing” led by the US in Iraq over a decade ago.

That event prompted the Arab Spring that became a North African Winter, missing Summer and Autumn/Fall in between. One after another, the nations of Arab North Africa have collapsed into chaos.

The result of this conflict: refugees and asylum seekers on a scale not seen in Europe since WW2. And what has been the response of governments in countries where the migrants/asylum seekers have landed? Everything from welcome (Germany, for example) to bewilderment (Austria, for example) to denial and rejection (Hungary, for example)

And this year we have seen the worst humanitarian crisis in Asia – the Rohingya – since the exodus of people from Indochina after the Vietnam War. An estimated 10,000 members of this relatively small Muslim sect – already away from the ancestral home in Bangladesh -were lured into a modern slave trade with the active involvement of the military and slave traders in several Southeast Asian nations – Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia.

And what has been the response of governments involved – everything from denial (Myanmar) to bewilderment (Malaysia) to reluctant accommodation (Thailand).

What is missing in both Asia and Europe? The biggest missing link in the two scenarios is any agreed way to cooperate in a regional solution to what is a regional problem.

It wasn’t ever thus. Europe and North America developed a plan to handle the post-WW2 crisis that then held for forty years. The United Nations developed protocols on the treatment of refuges that provided a set of principles and a process for handling refugees, especially those from parts of Soviet dominated Europe.

However, for some decades, some UN member nations have been running down the UN’s resources to respond to these human crises. The UN just doesn’t have the money to meet the challenge because participating governments see the world organization either as a tool of their opponents or believe that its operations are wasteful and inefficient. Or both.

Now, the bloated bureaucracy, the labored processes and the massive overheads that are involved in any UN operation mean that looking to that entity for solutions is bound to disappoint. As well, there are blockages to decisions and actions operating in the factionalized processes of the General Assembly and the Security Council that stand as an impediment to attempts to attempts at global action.

A UN response is all too often underwhelming because it lacks the energy and urgency needed. With no stake in the outcome, why would a supranational body want speedy responses and lasting results?

But there are alternative methods of response that include but have not been led by the UN. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Asian countries impacted by the Indochinese exodus learnt that it wasn’t a particular country’s issue but a regional one and needed a regional solution.

All the countries affected – Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Thailand – were countries of first reception. They clubbed together with countries that had created the problem – US, French and Australian involvement in the Vietnam War – along with other European countries and Canada to put some shape and order into the people movement in association with the UN.

It was easier then than it is today to get consensus in Asia and earlier in Europe because the instruments created after WW2 to meet refugee crises and the enduring force of the Cold War meant that decisions about good and bad and right and wrong were quickly made.

There were bad Communists and the right thing for good non-Communists to do was give those oppressed by the Party their freedom. At that time too, the US, Europeans and others in the West accepted responsibility for their part in creating the messes people were fleeing – after WW2 and the Vietnam War.

There’s not much evidence that anyone is accepting responsibility much less committing to doing anything about the messes today – in North Africa, the Middle East or Asia.

But perhaps it’s time to face the fact that the instruments we’ve inherited from the Cold War don’t fit any more or provide definitions that work in a post-ideological, but not post-religious world.

The disarray in all three regions has distinct causes for each instance. Conflict and victimization on religious grounds are common to each. Politics and ideology take a back seat to tribal bonds and affiliation to particular religious groups among the great religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity).

Two things are needed:

  1. A revised refugee charter that accommodates the realities that contribute to the creation of asylum seekers today that go beyond Cold War categories including religion but also economic conditions created by conflicts that make life unsustainable for many, e.g. Iran until recently impoverished by Western sanctions; and
  2. Regional processes that draw together firstly those countries involved in the creation of a crisis as well as those willing to be part of its solution who may or may not have been part of creating the mess in the first place but can certainly help fix it.

Inherited categories and existing institutions aren’t equal to the challenges today. Why should they be? They were invented and developed for another time and place. It’s time for new wine skins for the new wine.

Fr. Michael Kelly SJ, Executive Director, UCAN.

This article was published in Global Pulse on 8 September, 2015. 


Father Michael Kelly is an Australian Jesuit who directed the Catholic Church's news feature and commentary service, UCA News, 2008-2018. He is the publisher of the English editions of La Croix International and La Civilta Cattolica, the 170 year old Jesuit publication of the Italian Jesuits.

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1 Response to Michael Kelly SJ. The challenge of people movements.

  1. Vern Hughes says:

    I disagree with this trivialising of Pope Francis’s call on European Catholics to host 500,000 Syrian refugees until safe for them to return home. This is a far more sustainable and sophisticated approach to refugee issues than the reflex call for governments to solve the problem. As we have seen in Australia, government handling of these issues is appalling, based on institutionalised models of accommodation, rather than civil society-based models of citizen-to-refugee social support. Australia had a strong system of community sponsorships of refugees from the 1950s to the 1970s, where churches and community groups sponsored refugees, housed them and supported them, and provided a social support system that is lacking in any alternative system. One of the tragic legacies of the New Left in the 1970s was the move away from civil society-based systems to institutional systems in many forms of social services. A re-instatement of community sponsorships is now needed because of the incapacity of states to cope with unprecedented numbers of refugees.

    It’s very interesting how the Catholic Left has lost sight of the content of Catholic social teaching and replaced it with a politically fashionable expectation that the bureaucratic state can solve every contemporary problem.

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