World Refugee Day: The search for (a better) life

On World Refugee Day we are reminded of the plight of some many of our brothers and sisters around the world, who risk their lives to seek refuge and often find hostility instead.

Jun 20, 2024

Migrants and refugees in a boat off the Libyan coast


By Francesca Merlo
Every year thousands of refugees leave their homes and undergo dangerous journeys in search of safety. Every year thousands of refugees die in the process.

It is estimated that more than 120 million people have been forcibly displaced globally, by May 2024, as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations.

Danielle Vella, from the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), has interviewed countless of them, seeking refuge in Europe.

“Why did you leave?”, she asks them. “The journey is so dangerous”.
Their answer is more or less always the same, she says: “I left because I had to”.
“One answer, in particular, really struck me”, she tells Vatican News: “Not for a better life... just life”.

Be attentive to the voice of refugees
As we mark World Refugee Day on 20 June, Danielle Vella’s appeal is that we listen and be attentive to that message.

It’s 2024 and the numbers are increasing, “they're projected to reach one hundred and twenty million refugees this year” warns Vella. But before our attention is overwhelmed by that ginormous figure, she asks, “Let's turn it back to the reality that each one of those millions is a human being, with a unique story that's waiting to be noticed, and for their dignity and suffering and their hope to be respected”.

A Pope who advocates for the rights of refugees
Her message is similar to one we’ve heard many times before, from one of the world's biggest advocates for the rights of migrants and refugees: Pope Francis. This year, too, during his General Audience on the eve of World Migrants Day, the Holy Father appealed for Refugees around the world. He asked that this World Day be “an opportunity to turn an attentive and fraternal gaze to all those who are forced to flee their homes in search of peace and security.”

Two words of this appeal stood out to Danielle Vella: “attentive and fraternal”.

Be attentive and fraternal
“’ Attentive’ because World Refugee Day is an opportunity to stop and really think about people who are forced to leave all that is known and familiar to them because circumstances make it impossible for them to do anything else”.

And ‘fraternal’, she continues, because “this is what we believe in, right?” Vella makes it sound so obvious: “if we subscribe to catholic teachings on social justice, we believe that we are one human family, all children of God, and that we are bound by solidarity to be really responsible for all”.

The murderous Mediterranean route
She recalls Pope Francis’ visit to Lampedusa eleven years ago during which he asked: “Where is your brother? His blood cries out to me”.

This question, Vella notes, “is not directed to others. It's a question directed to me, to you, to all of us”.

It’s a question he posed in one of the most significant places when we talk about migrants and refugees. Lampedusa receives countless migrants each year as they take the perilous routes across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa...

...and people are drowning by the thousands in the Mediterranean Sea.

We must hold our governments accountable
In 2023, 3,105 people are known to have lost their lives, or gone missing, in the Mediterranean while attempting to cross to reach European shores.  “I believe we need to do more to hold our governments accountable for their part in this”. The problem, as Vella points out, does not only lie in the deaths of migrants as they try to reach Europe. Governments are responsible “for criminalising NGO rescue boats and not allowing them to disembark people they rescue at sea; for stopping maritime patrols that used to save thousands of lives; for fatefully delaying rescue boats; and for pushing refugees back”.

Having said this, Danielle Vella emphasises that she does not, in any way, want to downplay the EU naval operations that have rescued so many people over the years.

But turning migrants back is “not only about migrants drowning in the sea. It's also about being pushed back to places where they face cruelty, forced labour, trafficking… torture”. She speaks of the agreement with Libya which facilitates the pushback of refugees to Libya where, we all know, “they face horrendous treatment in detention centres”.

Stop with the politics of fear
Sadly, in a world so ravaged by war, the number of refugees is destined to rise. On this World Refugee Day, we must think about what we, all, can do. Danielle Vella says we must stop the use of stereotypes. The dehumanising rhetoric which demonises refugees is too often seen from the perspective of politicians and the media. Often, says Vella, they “invalidate their reasons for seeking protection”. We hear refugees described as burdens or violent threats and all this creates a hostile environment and public opinion with regards to refugees. “It's a politics of fear that actually makes us even more fearful” warns Vella.

Manifesto for One Shared Humanity
To fight this blow to humanity, which Vella says, “often is the only thing that keeps refugees going in the first place”, JRS along with Caritas Internationalis, the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) and other entities, have joined forces to launch for this World Refugee Day, a Manifesto for One Shared Humanity.

Vella explains that the aim behind this manifesto is “to encourage everyone to reject harmful attitudes towards refugees and to promote shared spaces of belonging and encounter. Even if at first they are a stranger, a refugee can become a friend”.

Be inspired by those who care
And luckily refugees do also have friends, total strangers who put themselves in danger and go against the grain to help refugees find safety and integrate.

“So let’s be motivated" concludes Danielle Vella. "Let's be inspired by these acts that really epitomise the golden rule to 'do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves'. Let's be guided by these acts". And “let's be guided by the hope of the of the rest the refugees to build just and compassionate communities where everyone can belong”.--Vatican News

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