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Vol 36 No 1


Mark Raper SJ

Andrew Hamilton SJ

Tom Rouse SSC

Sandie Cornish

Sue Harris

Susan Connolly RSJ

Carlo Maria Martini SJ

Pauline Rae SMSM

Michael Trainor



Refugees and Catholic Social Teaching


CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING takes a strong stand on issues of asylum, forced displacement and migration. While there has not yet been an encyclical specifically on the subject of refugees and asylum seekers, the two organs of the Curia most directly responsible for the Church’s response to refugee and asylum seeker issues, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrant and Itinerant People, and the Pontifical Council ‘Cor Unum’, produced in 1992 a very helpful summary of the Church’s teachings in this area, Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity.1

This document marked the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and provided a systematic presentation of the Church’s teachings on people on the move, gathered from the scriptures and the international teaching documents. To this day there is no clearer presentation of all that the Church has had to say on these issues in the latter half of the twentieth century.

In order to understand the current stance of Catholic Social Teaching regarding asylum seekers and refugees ten years after the publication of this summary document we need to examine more recent sources: social encyclicals and Apostolic Letters, Papal messages for World Migration Day, and interventions of the Holy See delegations at United Nations meetings.

The reflections that follow set out how Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity summarized Catholic teaching on refugees, supplementing and updating this work in the light of more recent Papal and Vatican statements. The moral and ethical arguments contained in this body of teaching form the basis on which Catholic agencies such as the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council assess current and alternative refugee and asylum seeker policies.

The Century of Refugees

While the tragic phenomenon of forced displacement is not new, by 1992, the time of publication of Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, it had reached unprecedented levels. The twentieth century had well and truly earned the label ‘century of refugees,’ with numbers of refugees exceeding 20 million and a roughly equivalent number of internally displaced people.

While much had been done to assist refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons in the forty years since the establishment of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, new flows of forcibly displaced persons had continued to be created and international instruments and efforts had not been able to provide adequate solutions. To make matters worse, many people—including Christians—had fallen prey to an attitude of ‘compassion fatigue’.

Since 1992 forced displacement has not abated. Over 21 million people now rely on the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In November 2001 it was reported that more than 3.5 million Afghans had sought refuge in Pakistan and Iran.2

Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity was published to refocus attention on the inhuman conditions in which so many refugees were being forced to live, and also to stimulate international solidarity regarding the causes of these sufferings. Unfortunately, these objectives are equally valid as we enter the twenty-first century.

Who is a Refugee?

Only people who flee their country or habitual place of residence because of a well founded fear of persecution on the basis of their race, religion, or membership in a social or political group are recognized as refugees under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967). (These two instruments, the Convention and the Protocol, are often simply referred to as the Refugee Convention.) This leaves unprotected many others whose human rights are equally disregarded.

Catholic teaching suggests that de facto refugees (who are victims of armed conflicts, misguided economic policy or natural disasters), and internally displaced persons (who are uprooted from their homes without having crossed an international frontier) should also be recognized as refugees and accorded international protection.3

The Church’s teachings challenge much contemporary discussion which seeks to justify limiting the granting of asylum.

In relation to the controversial concept of ‘economic refugees’ Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity says that:

… justice and equity demand that appropriate distinctions be made. Those who flee economic conditions that threaten their lives and physical safety must be treated differently from those who emigrate simply to improve their position.4

Furthermore, while moments of economic recession can make the imposition of certain limits on reception understandable, respect for the fundamental right of asylum can never be denied when life is seriously threatened in one’s homeland.5

When the Refugee Convention was developed, it was limited to addressing the sufferings of specifically persecuted persons and focused on individual reasons for flight. Now that forcibly displaced people are numbering millions, the international agreements need to be revised and the protection that they offer extended to other categories of people as well. This is an agenda that has been actively pursued by the Holy See delegations to various United Nations meetings. For example, addressing the Executive Committee of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (of which the Holy See is a member), the delegation called for the community of nations to:

...work to safeguard, consolidate and, where necessary deepen the regime of asylum and protection and to strengthen its application in the changing situation of our world.6

A particular priority in the recent interventions of the Holy See has been the plight of internally displaced people. The Refugee Convention does not cover those who have not crossed an international border and so does not provide protection to the more than 20 million internally displaced persons in the world today.

While the increasing number of internal conflicts in the world makes this group of forcibly displaced people an urgent priority, the international community has found it difficult to address what may be construed as the internal affairs of the nation states concerned. In 1998 the UN produced a set of Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which outlined the rights of internally displaced persons and the obligations of governments and insurgent groups towards them. The Holy See welcomed this development but said:

A truly international protection regime must cover all those who lack adequate legal protection. As the nature of conflict in today’s world changes, so too must the nature of the international response.7

Here we see the application of the principle of subsidiarity by the Vatican delegation: when the nation State cannot guarantee to those within its jurisdiction the protection of their fundamental rights, then the international community has a role to play in ensuring the protection of those rights. When States effectively safeguard the rights of those within their jurisdictions, then there is no basis for international intervention.

The criterion of a ‘lack of adequate legal protection’ would also extend protection to the victims of conflicts or human rights abuses who are not necessarily covered by the Convention.

Further pushing the boundaries of the Convention’s definition of refugees, the Holy See delegation suggested at the Ministerial Conference of 140 Signatory States of the Convention of 1951 on the Status of Refugees that:

…distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary migration and between migrants and refugees has become more difficult since the element of free choice is hardly the principal reason for people deciding to move abroad. The economic differences between countries as well as human rights abuses and the existence of conflicts that force people to leave need to be addressed. Moreover, by developing balanced migration policies, the legal framework for asylum seekers will also be guaranteed.8

Root Causes

By 1992, most of the world’s refugees came from the poorer countries and discussion concerning the causes of political instability focused on poverty, the imbalance in the distribution of the means of subsistence, foreign debt, galloping inflation, structural economic dependence, and natural disasters, but it was clear that aid and the restructuring of economic relations would not be enough to prevent political differences, ethnic discord and rivalries of other kinds. As Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity points out:

There will be refugees who are victims of the abuse of power as long as relations between persons and between nations are not based on a true capacity to accept one another more and more in diversity and mutual enrichment.9

The problem of refugees must be confronted at its roots.

The Holy See delegations to UN meetings have consistently held that the protection of the fundamental rights of all people is the key to changing the situation of refugees and displaced persons. Building more just and peaceful societies would address a major cause of displacement. The community of nations must work together for inclusive development:

This will require comprehensive programs to create security for people through, inter alia, debt relief, increased and more effective development assistance, investment in people and their creative capacities, participative and democratic governance structures and the creation of those infrastructures which enable people to remain in their own land. Coherent efforts at reducing arms expenditures and at conflict prevention are ever more urgent.10

Persons in Community

At stake is the right to live in community, which is a basic requirement of human nature itself because we can only grow and develop as persons in community.

The first point of reference for action on behalf of refugees is always the human person rather than the interests of States or of national security, because the person comes before and above the State. In fact the basis, foundation and end of the State is the service of the human person. So Catholic teaching sees laws and policies that place national interests or national security before the protection of the human dignity of refugees as reflecting a fundamental inversion of values.11

The widespread acceptance of laws, agreements and international Conventions regarding human rights is encouraging because human rights are an expression of the requirements of human dignity. But respect for and the fostering of human dignity requires more than the making of laws and agreements.

A mentality of hospitality based in the growing awareness of the unity of the universal human family will undercut the tendency to seek to limit the granting of asylum to the criteria of national interest. To the extent that the value of hospitality becomes truly integral to the practice of our faith, it will become unnecessary to assert that anyone in danger who appears at a frontier has a right to expect protection. The granting of asylum is not a favour to be dispensed at the discretion of the more fortunate—it is a Christian duty.

This theme of welcoming the stranger as integral to Christian practice has been developed extensively in the World Migration Day Messages which are directed primarily to the faithful.12

Refugees and Human Rights

Refugees and asylum seekers are persons, and should enjoy the whole range of human rights. The recognition in practice of this simple statement would require substantial changes in refugee policy in many parts of the world. Obviously food, clothing, housing and protection from violence are required, but so too are access to education and medical assistance, the reunification of families, the possibility of assuming responsibility for their own lives, cultivating their own cultures and traditions, and the free expression of their faith.13 Unless there are compelling reasons to believe that refugees or asylum seekers represent a serious danger to the common good, they should not be interned.14 Furthermore they should have access to work and thus the opportunity to fulfill their duty to contribute to the common good.

As part of the preparation for the Jubilee for Refugees, a Jubilee Charter of Rights of Displaced People was prepared by representatives of Migrantes (an agency of the Italian Bishops Conference), the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Italian Council for Refugees, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and the Refugee Section of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. It presents the consensus of the participating organizations on the most important rights of refugees which have already been recognized in international law, but which need to be emphasized and actualized. While too extensive to quote here, the Charter, with its list of sixteen key rights can be found on the Holy See Website. While the Charter does not have the status of a document of the Pontifical Council, it was presented by the Vatican delegation to the 55th Session of the United Nations General Assembly as it addressed an agenda item on the issue of refugees, returnees, displaced persons and humanitarian questions.15

Immigration Law

Simple justice requires that a fair and rapid legal procedure be applied to the determination of the status of asylum seekers. Scrupulous respect for the principle of voluntary repatriation is essential and the onus is on the government authorities who reject asylum seekers to ensure that such people are guaranteed a free and secure existence elsewhere. The importance of this principle is underlined by the tragic experiences of the past. The document asks: how many people perished when pushed back into the South China Sea, or across the border into mine fields?16

It is worth recalling in detail what Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity had to say about the conditions in which refugees and asylum seekers are detained:

They should be organized in such a way as to allow refugees to enjoy a minimum of privacy and medical, educational and religious services. The inhabitants should also be protected from the various forms of moral and physical violence, and have the possibility of participating in decisions that affect their daily living. Security provisions should be strengthened where single women are housed to avoid those forms of violence to which they are often subjected.

International organizations, especially those responsible for the protection of human rights, and the communications media should have free access to the camps. Since life in camps is artificial and imposed, even traumatizing, a long stay in them makes refugees still more vulnerable. Camps must remain what they were intended to be: an emergency and therefore temporary solution.17

Already in 1992, Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity recognized the trend to the reduction of resources allocated to asylum and refugee issues and the weakening political support for asylum.18 Today, at a time when there are moves by a number of nation States to interpret restrictively and apply minimally the Convention standards, the Holy See is not content to merely ‘hold the line’ but wishes also to move forward to develop a more adequate international protection regime for people on the move. In a comment that could have been addressed directly towards the Australian Government, the Holy See Delegation to the UNHCR Executive Committee recently said:

It would indeed be sad if, especially in parts of the world that have witnessed such widespread economic prosperity in the past fifty years, we were to witness a subtle move towards a narrower and more restrictive interpretation of the Convention. It would be sad if serious inadequacies in the application of the Convention were to be overlooked or tolerated or if a slow but constant erosion were to enter into the international protection system.19

In the 1995 World Migration Day message the Pope notes that illegal immigration has always existed, and has been tolerated when it served the interests of host nations to have access to a pool of cheap labour.20 When the host economy is unable to absorb all of the labour available to it, a more restrictive attitude towards immigration tends to develop. Migrants and refugees are thus treated as mere instruments in the pursuit of the self-interest of States. In the light of this, the Pope backs the prevention of illegal immigration and the criminal activities that exploit illegal immigrants, but sees the most appropriate response, which will yield long term results, as ‘international cooperation which aims to foster political stability and to eliminate underdevelopment’.21 The Pope also calls for legislation in all the affected countries to be coordinated ‘…for a more equitable distribution of the burdens of a balanced solution’.22

The right of states to regulate emigration and immigration is accepted by Catholic teaching but this right is not unqualified. As the Pope points out in the World Migration Day Message for 2001, the universal common good rather than the interests of any State is the criterion for any restriction on human mobility:

Before the manifold interests that are interwoven side by side with the laws of individual countries, it is necessary to have international norms that are capable of regulating everyone’s rights, so as to prevent unilateral decisions that are harmful to the weakest.

…although it is true that highly developed countries are not always able to assimilate all those who emigrate, nonetheless it should be pointed out that the criterion for determining the level that can be sustained cannot be based solely on protecting their own prosperity, while failing to take into consideration the needs of persons who are tragically forced to ask for hospitality.23

The Challenge to Christians

As Christians we can be satisfied neither with occasional bursts of sympathy nor cold war inspired policy as responses to the disregarded dignity of our sisters and brothers both far off and at the door.

The local Churches can and do seek to respond to the Gospel imperatives of hospitality, solidarity and assistance towards refugees. Some of the responses to this challenge include: personal contact; defence of the rights of individuals and groups; the denunciation of the injustices that are at the root of the problem; advocacy of the adoption of laws that will effectively guarantee refugees protection; education against xenophobia; the creation of groups of volunteers and emergency funds; and pastoral care.24

The role of parishes in welcoming refugees, migrants and asylum seekers is set out in a number of the World Migration Day Messages, especially the message for 1999, while the 2001 Message was dedicated to addressing in detail the pastoral care of people on the move.

In our times, migration flows from predominantly Christian countries to those where other faiths predominate have largely been replaced by migration from places where Christianity is not the dominant religion to places where Christian traditions have been planted for centuries. Immigration presents Christian communities with new opportunities for inter-religious dialogue. The World Migration Day Message for 2002 focuses on inter-religious dialogue. In advocating openness and dialogue between followers of different religions, the Pope suggests that:

To reach this goal, initiatives that attract the attention of the major means of social communications are not enough. What are needed are rather everyday gestures, done with simplicity and constancy, that are capable or producing an authentic change in interpersonal relationships.25

While seemingly insurmountable walls of division have fallen in our times, the Christian community and others of good will must continue to work to overcome the fear, suspicion and selfishness which could rebuild such walls of division and exclusion in another form. We are called to give ever more effective witness to the human solidarity that gives all people hope that it is possible to live together in peace and harmony.26

Answering the Challenge

For more than ten years many Catholics in Australia have examined the refugee and asylum seeker policies of the major political parties and found that they have not measured up to the moral and ethical criteria promoted by Catholic Social Teaching.

A vast amount of direct assistance and pastoral work with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants is done by Christians of every variety in Australia. Education, awareness raising and political lobbying on these issues are continuing activities for many Christian groups.

Although the social and political climate is not favourable, all of these efforts must and will continue. The basic human solidarity that leads us to come to the assistance of those in need is not beyond Australians, and, for those who are Christians, the awareness that Christ comes to us every day in the person of the stranger calls us on.



1 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People & Pontifical Council ‘Cor Unum’, Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, Liberia Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 1992. Also available at www.vatican.va

2 Figures quoted by the Holy See Delegations at the Ministerial Conference of 140 Signatory States of the Convention of 1951 on the Status of Refugees, 9 December 2001 and at the 3rd Commission of the General Assembly of the United Nations, 20 November 2001.

3 Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, n 4 – 5; John Paul II, Address in Nairobi, Kenya, 6 May, 1980, n 8; Paul VI, Octogesima Adveniens, 1971, n 17; John Paul II, Annual Address to the Diplomatic Corps, 1983, n 6.

4 Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, n 4.

5 Op. cit., n 6.

6 Intervention of the Holy See at the Executive Committee Meeting of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2 October 2001.

7 Op. cit.

8 Intervention by the Holy See at the Ministerial Conference of 140 Signatory States to the Convention of 1951 on the Status of Refugees, 9 December 2001.

9 Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, n 8.

10 Intervention of the Holy See at the Executive Committee Meeting of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2 October 2001.

11 Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, n 9.

12 The Papal Messages for World Migration Day from 1995 to 2002 can be found on www.vatican.va The Message for 1999 contains the most fully developed scriptural approach to the faith imperative to welcome refugees and asylum seekers.

13 Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, n 12.

14 Op. cit., n 13.

15 Intervention by the Holy See Delegation to the United Nations of the Occasion of the 55th Session of the General Assembly on the Issue of Refugees, Returnees, Displaced persons and Humanitarian Questions, 6 November 2000.

16 Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, n 14.

17 Op. cit., n 15.

18 Op. cit., n 6.

19 Intervention of the Holy See Delegation at the Executive Committee Meeting of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2 October 2001.

20 John Paul II, World Migration Day Message 1995, n1.

21 Op. cit., n 2.

22 Op. cit., n 4.

23 John Paul II, World Migration Day Message 2001, n 3.

24 Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, n 26.

25 John Paul II, World Migration Day Message 2002, n1.

26 Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, n 37.


Sandie Cornish is the National Executive Officer of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council.

The above article is a shorter version of a paper on Catholic social teaching and asylum seekers that is in preparation and will be published by the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council in its Catholic Social Justice Series. The forthcoming longer paper will examine the documentary sources category by category to see how the teachings have evolved.

The Series is available through the ACSJC, 19 MacKenzie St, North Sydney NSW 2060 (tel. (02) 9956 5811; fax (02) 9954 0056; email: admin@acsjc.org.au; website: www.socialjustice.catholic.org.au).

In his message for World Migration Day 2000, Pope John Paul II wrote:

The Church...hears the suffering cry of all who are uprooted from their own land, of families forcefully separated, of those who, in the rapid changes of our day, are unable to find a stable home anywhere…at the same time, States with a relative abundance tend to tighten their borders under pressure from public opinion disturbed by the inconveniences that accompany the phenomenon of immigration. Society finds itself having to deal with the ‘clandestine’ men and women in illegal situations, without rights in a country that refuses to welcome them, victims of organised crime or of unscrupulous entrepreneurs.

It is impossible to hear these words of Pope John Paul II without applying them to what has been happening in Australia, especially since the end of August 2001. We have, instead, tightened our borders against people who have turned to us for protection.

—‘Refugees and Asylum Seekers’, Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, 26th March 2002.