Refugees: Worldwide, need is great

June 20 marked World Refugee Day. As an expression of solidarity with Africa, which hosts the most of the world’s refugees and which traditionally has shown them great generosity, the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 adopted a resolution establishing the commemorative day.

World Refugee Day has a dual purpose: one, to commemorate the courage, strength and perseverance of those uprooted from their homes; two, to tweak the consciences of those in positions to offer assistance.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, the number of people forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide stood at 42 million at the end of 2008. The figure includes 16 million refugees and asylum seekers and 26 million people uprooted within their own countries.

Guterres last week urged the international community not to allow the global economic crisis to diminish much-needed humanitarian aid. “The overwhelming burden of displacement is borne by developing countries,” he said. “Eighty percent of refugees are in the developing world. Generosity and wealth are not proportional to each other.”

Although the total of 42 million represents a drop of about 700,000 from the previous year, recent displacements in Pakistan, where up to 2 million people have been uprooted by violence, have already more than offset the decline.

The Catholic church in the United States has a proud history of assisting immigrants and refugees dating back to the founding of this nation. Until the early 20th century, these efforts were organized at the local diocesan and parish levels. In 1920, under the auspices of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the bishops established a Department of Immigration at the national level. Between 1920 and 1930, the department, which had a presence at Ellis Island, assisted more than 100,000 immigrants.

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Following World War II, the church assisted in the resettlement of more than 100,000 European refugees. Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Committee for Refugees then coordinated the provision of resettlement services. When the bishops established the United States Catholic Conference in 1965, a new department called Migration and Refugee Services was created to be responsible for refugee resettlements. Since 1975, the department has coordinated the resettlement of more than 800,000 refugees, many from Southeast Asia, in dioceses throughout the country.

Between 2000 and 2003, the department provided support to the bishops in the development of three significant pastoral letters, including “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity,” “Asian and Pacific Presence: Harmony in Faith” and “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope,” which was jointly issued with the bishops of Mexico.

Catholic Relief Services and the Jesuit Refugee Service have also tirelessly assisted refugees around the globe.

While Catholics can be rightly proud of their church’s efforts on behalf of the displaced, the words of Guterres might linger. The need, he reminded us, is great and history has shown that in responding to the refugee challenge, “generosity and wealth are not proportional to each other.” Maybe each of us can do something to remedy this.

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