A Thesis on Migration and the Common Good

An excellent student at the Faculty of Theology, K.U.Leuven, yesterday defended his advanced master’s thesis on the right to migrate – a right explicitly and emphatically recognized by Roman Catholic Church (RCC) authorities and RC theological and moral teaching. The question posed in the thesis concerns the relationship between the common good and this right to migrate, whether the latter would not be limited by the former. I was impressed by the research done, as I was impressed by the very decided way in which the RCC affirms this right to migrate. While reading the thesis, some ideas came to my mind, and I want to share them on this blog. They are not more than ideas or suggestions.

(0) I think that one cannot truly speak and think about the complex reality of migration without clarifying one’s own context. For myself, I would point to experiences of life abroad, but also to the complex and touchy political situation with regard to migrants in my own country [Belgium and Flanders] and in Europe, to my contacts with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), and to my deep concerns about environmental migrants and refugees particularly in view of the likely sharp increase in their numbers over the coming years.

(1) The experiences of the migrants should be taken into account, in the very way the migrants themselves narrate and analyze them. There “texts written by the migrants” will show the various contexts and causes of migration and allow us to discover a very complex reality: indeed, migration may be forced, or due to economic factors, or involve a brain drain … it may be environmental migration, or migration because of political violence and persecution, etc. To gain insight in the myriad migrations, it will be crucial to pay attention to the voices of the migrants, particularly to the voices of those who suffer the consequences of forced migration. This is, from a theological point of view, a perspective in line with the preferential option for the poor. I would also like to draw attention to a focus on the spiritual resources of migrants that help and strengthen them to overcome their painful experiences and to adapt to their changing situations. Daniel C. Groody has done pioneering theological work in this area.

(2) The experiences of the migrants and the causes for migration, do not only reflect events and decisions in individual lives. They also point to societal realities and sometimes even to injustices that are embodied in global relationships, e.g. poverty and unequal distribtution of power and resources. Migrations, in that sense, are a pulse measure for our societies: they reveal tensions and challenges that cannot easily be dismissed. Therefore, migration issues are never sufficiently or adequately addressed when only the migrants themselves are looked at and not the societal and structural realities that surface in realities of migration.

(3) At the occasion of an Omnes Gentes colloquium on migration in 2007, the bishop of Antwerpen (Belgium), Mgr. Paul Vandenberghe, emphasized the RCC’s insistence on the right to migrate, as well as on the right not to migrate. The latter means, of course, that people must enjoy the freedom not to migrate in case they don’t want to: there is a right to remain in one’s own country and this entails a responsibility for the larger world to provide, as much as possible, good and dignified human living conditions all over the world. I think there is even more. Given the situations in sending and receiving countries, particularly in view of existing social needs, we may also have to speak of a responsibility to migrate, a responsibility not to migrate, or a responsibility to return to one’s country. There may be a responsibility for some people to go and study in foreign countries, so as to return home, after having studyings, with knowledge that is dearly needed in one’s home country. The rights and responsibilities to migrate or not, balance individual decisionmaking with complex social realities at various levels. Migration is always the decision of individual people (whether under duress or not), but it reflects and impacts on social realities.

(4) A recent ethical principle, emphasized by international organisations such as the UN, as well as recently by the RCC in its interventions at the UN, concerns the responsibility to protect or R2P, an idea which is mainly applied today in the case of conflicts and the responsibility of the international community to intervene in some conflicts. It may be interesting to apply this perspective to the realities of migration. Migration is a challenge to the international community: it represents risks and difficulties, but also opportunities (the concept of “mestizo” as understood in Virgilio Elizondo’s theology may be of help here), and it that sense it pertains to the responsibility of the international community.

(5) The Jewish and Christian traditions contain an important element of migration: Abraham, the move out of Egypt to the promised land, experiences of exile, being a stranger in a foreign country; migration as an important factor in the spreading of Christianity and its community, as is illustrated by St Paul. Not only do these religious traditions refer to migration, it also can be considered an important topic for anthropology, as is illustrated, for example, by the life and writings of Bruce Chatwin.

(6) It is very stimulating to think in terms of the common good, and at a moment of our histories characterized by globalization and worldwide challenges (as violence and the environment) our understanding of this concept also evolves. Indeed, it is interesting to observe that “common good” has a (geographical) “scope”: it is important that we always clarify to whom we are willing to apply the features of the common good. Who should we take into account when we talk about “common good”? Moreover, there is a methodological challenge: how do we best think about the very idea of the common good and about the elements it consists of. It seems that not only the content of the common good (what should be considered to pertain to the common good), but also the very concept or idea of what “common good” means and how it articulates the tension between individual and social rights, responsibilities and duties, are objects of common discernment processes that involve many people and actors and that require that interests and prejudices are unmasked. There is, therefore, a close connection between “common good” and “common discernment processes”. 

To conclude, I can only repeat what I said at the onset of this contribution, that these are merely some ideas that arose while reading a very good thesis. As usual, I welcome any further reflections.


One response to “A Thesis on Migration and the Common Good

  1. Bij het denken over migratie, is het van belang het “gemeenschaps”-aspect van een samenleving mee in de zaak te betrekken. Een land is niet een verzameling individuen binnen een bepaalde landsgrens. Het gaat om mensen die samen, vaak na moeilijke strijd (denk aan strijd voor sociale rechten), tot een gemeenschap gekomen zijn. Ze delen een stuk basiswaarden, het heeft ook een emotionele dimensie. Het is op basis hiervan dat toetreden tot die gemeenschap door een buitenstaander, niet zonder meer als een recht wordt gezien vanuit die gemeenschap. Vergelijk het met de microgemeenschap van een gezin, waarin je ook niet zomaar iemand kan droppen. Zelfs het feit van dakloos geeft je niet het recht in ieder huis een bed te gaan opeisen.

    Een en ander wordt overigens erkend door het internationaal recht: je moet een erkend politiek vluchteling zijn om het grondrecht te hebben je elders te mogen vestigen.

    Hoe moeilijk het soms wordt als je grote groepen migranten krijgt die heel andere basiswaarden delen, zien we de laatste decennia. Dit is een probleem dat we moeten oplossen door dialoog en toenadering, maar niettemin een probleem. Deze dimensie niet opnemen in de redenering, kan harmonische samenlevingen doen wankelen.

    Een interessant en genuanceerd boek in dit verband dat ik iedereen aanbeveel is “Het land van aankomst ” van de (politiek onverdachte) Nederlander Paul Scheffer.

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