The rights of refugees and migrants

21 Oct 2002 | JUSTICE

There are 21 million people defined as refugees by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. They moved from their homes to neighbouring countries or beyond for a variety of reasons, famine and war among them. In the face of this drastic situation affecting so many of our sisters and brothers, we must recall that as a Christian people, we have special responsibilities.

Regrettably in some nations, especially the wealthier nations, fear, suspicion and prejudice have begun to influence government policy and practice. There are not many countries which welcome refugees and asylum seekers. It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to enter or resettle inside others' borders. Regrettably and sadly, there are in some communities new arrivals who are sometimes subject to mistreatment or discrimination.

Refugees are persons who move to another place in the world, not because they want to, but more likely because they have no choice. Most are not security risks and are moving in order to search for safety or freedom from oppression in life. People who are just yearning to survive sometimes can do desperate things, and come up against local authorities. Sadly among them there may be a small criminal element too. We must resist the temptation to condemn all refugees because of the misdeeds of the few.

We are wise enough to know that we live in a blessed country. We are conscious of our own social problems and of the deprivation and poverty of an increasing number of our own citizens. But we also know that it is well within our capacity to change this situation. We must not let our own problems cause us to overlook the extreme needs of the destitute people whom we call refugees. We are, in spite of our own problems, a wealthy, stable and peaceful society by world standards. We also have had in the past a world reputation for welcoming people from other parts of the world. May it be that our policies will continue to be open to the reception of desperate and destitute people searching for a place of peace.

We believe that the majority of our citizens do not want to see refugees and migrants become society’s scapegoats. We are heartened by the support and solidarity towards newcomers that we observe and we take the opportunity again to affirm warmly organisations such as Refugee and Migrants Services and other volunteer groups in our country who support those who come here seeking refuge. We are saddened to hear from time to time statements that feed deep-seated fears and prejudices and make new settlers feel unwelcome, even unsafe.

In a statement on this topic in 1996, the bishops stated: To welcome newcomers is to embrace a wonderful opportunity for us to our fellow human beings and to be enriched by their presence. Our hope is that here in New Zealand people will know that they are welcome and that they have come to a place of justice, solidarity and hospitality. As disciples of Christ, we recall the teachings of Jesus: Do to others as you would have them do to you, and I was a stranger and you made me welcome. May we continue to reflect this teaching in our commitment and live by it.