June 20th is world refugee day. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees – the UN Refugee Agency) announces on its website that, for the first time since 2002, the number of refugees has gone up to reach almost 10,000,000 people – that is the population size of my home country Belgium. The total population of concern to UNHCR has increased to some 32,000,000 people. These are enormous figures, but they are still dwarfed by the 1,000,0000,000 displaced people that the NGO Christian Aid expects because of environmental reasons, as I pointed out in a previous post.
Such numbers represent statistics … we are not capable anymore to imagine what they mean. Therefore, we need to reconnect with our own experiences of encountering refugees and displaced persons, maybe of having been amongst them. My parents told me stories about how, at the beginning of the Second World War, when Nazi-Germany invaded Belgium, people had to flee to France. I learned that some of the people I greatly admired had been refugees: Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein amongst those. But I was really struck by the fate of refugees and displaced persons when I spent some time with fellow Jesuits engaged in JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service) in refugee camps in Kenia, when I found myself at the faculty of theology of the K.U.Leuven teaching to people who have been refugees, when I was indirectly involved in the occupation of RCC churches by illegal immigrants in my home town of Leuven, when through JRS channels I attempted to contribute to the alleviation of war refugees in Central Africa and to publicizing the fate of those thousands of Africans who through the Mediterranean or the Canary Islands try to find their way into Europe, etc. I see concrete faces and know about concrete experiences. I will never forget the Rwandan university professor – a colleague of mine – in a refugee camp: all the dignity and the security provided with his job were gone, he had been stripped of many things that had provided him with estime and recognition. I will never forget those young refugees who, upon knowing that I was a university professor, asked me to provide them with the means to study in the refugee camps. I will never forget the young Congolese religious who had walked from war torn Eastern DRC to Africa’s Atlantic coast. Whatever success stories there may exist – and it is good to tell them and to remind people that migration, even forced migration, may be a source of enrichment through human contact -, it would be culpable negligence to forget about the terrible and horrifying existences of so many people forgotten in no-man’s land.
Refugees and migrants refer to some of the core religious experiences: “don’t you dare to forget that once upon a time you yourself have been refugees and migrants in a strange land” says God to God’s people in the First Testament. How could we ever forget that we are fragile, that we may end up in situations that turn us into waste (cf. Zygmunt Bauman’s Wasted Lives, published in 2003) or worthlessness, when we are cut off from life giving human solidarity? How can we continue to trust in God’s presence amidst this broken reality? How do people draw energy out of their experiences of migration, is the question asked by Dan Groody in his Border of Death, Valley of Life: An Immigrant Journey of Heart and Spirit, a work that closely relates to Virgilio Elizondo’s Mestizo theology. How does a dividing borderline become a frontierspace of encounter? How can hope and creativity arise out of these “camps” that already in some parts of our world span generations?
It is important to connect to individual life-experiences, as it may awaken us to harsh realities and solidarities. It is also important to see how some of these experiences are connected to structures of the world in which we live and that pattern our close or worldwide relationships. The people who risk their lives attempting to cross over from Africa to Fortress Europe are what in Europe we euphemistically call “economic refugees or migrants” to distinguish them from the “political refugees or migrants”. But are the economic imbalances in our world not the consequences of policies in which the rich attempt to safeguard their unproportionate wealth? Are such refugee flows not the result of unsustainable ways of living together on a world scale? We have become more aware of this since ecological sciences have taught us that some of us enjoy globally unsustainable ecological footprints. This will increasingly become a source of violent conflicts in our world.
Refugees and migrants remind us of challenges, problems and issues that concern all of us together: in a way they painfully connect us there where it hurts. The challenge will increase over the coming years: because of wars, because of global climatic changes, many more people will migrate … we may very well find ourselves to be amongst those.