Mass Migration, Compassion, Catholic Social Teaching, and International Law

Mass migration, whether it is in the thousands or millions, is one of the greatest and most controversial issues on Earth.

In June 2018, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees announced that there are about 68.5 million forcibly displaced people around the world.

Over half of Syria’s population has been displaced since the country’s war began in 2011. Over one-quarter of the population of the Central African Republic is currently displaced. Between August and December 2017, an estimated 730,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh during a period of intense persecution in which over 6,000 were killed.

In the Western Hemisphere, over 3 million people have fled Venezuela in the past four years or so as a result of extreme poverty and 1.3 million percent inflation caused by deeply flawed government policies that have caused 90% of the population to be unable to afford daily food. “Migrant caravans” of people fleeing violence and extreme poverty in Central America have shown immense division in American politics.

How should we react to all of this?

I believe that as a Catholic, the principles of compassion, justice, mercy, and love are the greatest guides on how all people should be treated. Compassion, a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it, is especially key when thinking about forced migrants.

If you are a reader of Humanitarian Prayers, you will know that I pray all the time for migrants and refugees. When I pray at night, I often say, I pray that worldwide, refugees will be treated with mercy and compassion. I pray that wherever they go, they will be met by people with resources to help them.

While I often would wish that migrants and refugees will be treated with open arms in the places they flee to, to be honest, mass migration often causes immense problems in the countries that become home to a different kind or greater number of people.

Mass migration changes the demographics of countries that have historically been mono-ethnic and religious, and in some cases, the mass influx of migrants and refugees can have disastrous effects on the economies of the countries they flee to.

According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (the USCCB), the authority for the Catholic Church in the U.S., Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration and the Movement of Peoples says that Catholic social teaching is realistic: While people have the right to move, no country has the duty to receive so many immigrants that its social and economic life are jeopardized. 

Should migration be stopped?

That is not the answer; it is immoral to stop forced migration or treat migrants and refugees with animosity, disdain, hatred, or discrimination. Jesus said in Matthew 25 that the way we treat the least of people is how we treat Him.

The USCCB says that people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. They also say that A country’s regulation of borders and control of immigration must be governed by concern for all people and by mercy and justice. A nation may not simply decide that it wants to provide for its own people and no others.

This means that according to the Church, people have the right to migrate from not only war, persecution, and violence, but also extreme poverty, such as what the people of Venezuela face.

Can migration be slowed?

The primary reason that vulnerable people migrate across borders is that they are not able to sustain their lives in their home country. The world’s 68.5 million forcibly displaced people should be treated with mercy and compassion, but the conditions that caused so many people to be displaced are terrible and need to be resolved.

With regards to people migrating due to extreme poverty, there are numerous ways that poverty can be alleviated and economic growth can be promoted in countries and regions within countries where people experience an inability to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.

There are countless varying and conflicting opinions about how to reduce and ultimately end global poverty, which I won’t go into detail on. I have read numerous books on the subject that claim different causes and solutions, and the most convincing book that I would recommend is Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.

What about forced migration?

There is no perfect solution to stop the persecution, war, and violence in our world. The modern movement to support refugees was provoked by World War Two: potentially over 50 million people were killed, and between 10 and 20 million people were displaced. The tragedy of the Second World War led to the founding of the United Nations and one of its most important institutions, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (the UNHCR).

In 1951, the United Nations published a landmark document called the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The document, better known as the 1951 Refugee Convention, is highly detailed and has been signed by 145 countries who have promised to uphold it. It is known as “international law” and is the world’s standard on how to treat refugees and forced migrants. All nations, including non-signatory states, are supposed to follow international law.

What is a refugee?

According to the UNHCR, “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.”

Another popular term you have likely heard is “asylum seeker.” According to the UNHCR, “When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country, they apply for asylum – the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance. An asylum seeker must demonstrate that his or her fear of persecution in his or her home country is well-founded. ” Essentially, an asylum seeker is a refugee who has yet to obtain refugee status.

Out of the world’s 68.5 million displaced people, about 25.4 million are refugees, 3.1 million are asylum seekers, and 40 million are internally displaced persons, known as IDPs. IDPs are people who have been forced to flee their homes but have not crossed into another country.

What rights do refugees and forced migrants have?

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees have numerous rights, including the right to access courts, the rights to employment, education, and housing, among many others. Perhaps the most important rights in 2019 that signatories are supposed to uphold are.

  • The right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a Contracting State.
  • The right of freedom of movement within the territory.
  • The right to be protected from refoulement. Refoulement is the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution.

Refugees have these rights whether they enter a country legally or not.

How does this apply to the United States?

As an American, I wanted to address this subject. Because the U.S. is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the country has committed to uphold the rights of refugees but violates many of these rights. These violations are not new.

The U.S. government places many adult asylum seekers who enter the U.S. illegally (even if they present themselves to officials and request asylum) in detention centers while they await their day in court (discussed in a couple of paragraphs), limiting their freedom of movement. The U.S. government has also been known to deport asylum seekers back to their countries unwillingly.

The key difference between refugees coming across land or sea to the U.S. or Europe compared to other place is that in most countries, refugee status is designated by the UNHCR to based on an interview which determines the individual’s well-founded fear of persecution, rather than being designated by the host country’s government. For example, as of January 17th, a whopping 3,632,622 Syrians living in Turkey have refugee status from the UNHCR.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees are eligible and supposed to receive numerous rights and assistance, as mentioned above, from Contracting States’ governments.

How does it work in the United States?

Latin American and other refugees who enter or seek to enter the U.S. through the Mexico-U.S. border must first be given what is referred to as a “credible fear” interview, sort of like the UNHCR, but then they must go through American immigration courts and convince U.S. judges that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries in order to obtain refugee status.

Asylum seekers are not required to be provided with lawyers in the U.S., as Americans facing crimes are if they request it. Learn in greater depth how the U.S. asylum process works here.

Why don’t people just claim asylum in Mexico?

Under The Safe Third Country Concept in International Agreements on Refugee Protection, refugees are required to apply for asylum in the first “safe country” they enter. This means that refugees cannot enter the U.S. from Canada and apply for asylum: refugees who have made their way to Canada need to apply there.

Though Mexico’s government has offered asylum to refugees who are in their country while seeking to make their way to the U.S., Mexico does not qualify as a safe country. The Mexican states that border the United States are known for gang violence and cartels. Recently two asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, a border city neighboring San Diego, California, were kidnapped and murdered.

What about the “Wait in Mexico” plan?

The Migration Protection Protocol, better known as the “Wait in Mexico” plan, is a new system, first implemented on January 25th, where the majority of asylum seekers who have entered the U.S. will have to await their date in immigration court while in Mexico, which often takes years due to a backlog of over 800,000 cases. It could fit the definition of refoulement, due to the fact that Mexico is not considered a “safe country.”

By deporting asylum seekers to Mexico, it may also qualify as violating the right to the freedom of movement within the territory of a Contracting State, the United States. American advocacy groups have vowed to challenge it in the courts.

What accountability is there for refugee rights?

Essentially, none except public outcry, which can make a massive difference in democratic countries. Countries or people in positions of power who are known for human rights violations can be sanctioned by other countries or referred to the International Criminal Court, but those kinds of consequences are usually reserved for corrupt officials, warlords, perpetrators of mass atrocities, genocide, and other horrible crimes.

In conclusion…

If you’ve made it to the end, congratulations! You probably just learned a lot! Mass migration is one of the most popular and controversial topics of our time. I hope that now, your perspective on migration will be broadened and shaped by facts and moral truth. Thanks for reading!

Read recent posts to pray for the people of Venezuela and for Rohingya refugees.

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4 thoughts on “Mass Migration, Compassion, Catholic Social Teaching, and International Law”

  1. Wow. this was very educational. Thank you for writing this and sharing this knowledge. May we find the mercy to love all.

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