Social Ministry Day Three: Water, Refugees and Latin America

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Washington, D.C.

Briefings continued this morning for participants in the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering who will be heading to Capitol Hill later in the day for meetings with Members of Congress. Below is a sampling of issues covered by staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and a variety of other experts.

Water Shortages

Albert Wright, a scholar from Ghana and an advisor to the Global Water Partnership, told participants that water scarcity (defined as less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per person per year) currently affects 500 million people in 30 countries. Where once water was a tool of war, Wright said, for example through naval blockades and induced drought, water is increasingly becoming a source of international conflict.

Some 26 billion people worldwide, according to data Wright provided, lack access to basic sanitation systems, most of them in isolated rural areas or crowded urban slums. In sub-Saharan Africa, he said, just 16 percent of the population has a tap for fresh water inside the home.

Lack of access to water and sanitation, Wright said, exacts a staggering human toll. Some 88 percent of diseases around the world are caused by unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation, and poor personal hygiene. Half of the population in the developing world, he said, suffers from a water-based disease. Every 15 seconds, a child dies from a water-based disease.

The impact of water scarcity, however, is not restricted to disease. In Nigeria, Wright said, fresh water drips out of wells and pipes so slowly in some places that young girls are forced to wait several hours to collect it, which means they don’t go to school and hence are denied a whole range of opportunities. Wright said he knows young African women whose dream in life is simply to marry a man who has a toilet in his own home.

The bottom line, according to Wright, is that concerted international action to protect what he called a “human right to water” is an urgent priority.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Sara Feldman of the bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services stepped participants through the impact of post-9/11 security measures on refugees and asylum seekers in the United States. Though crafted with the noble aim of keeping Americans safe, she suggested, these measures have also had a range of unintended consequences for poor and vulnerable persons.

Perhaps the most harrowing example she offered concerned the case of “Amina,” a Somali woman whose husband was killed and son kidnapped by the United Somalia Congress, a militant group considered a terrorist organization by the United States government. In order to rescue her son, Amina was forced to pay a $2,000 ransom to the USC. Members of the group later invaded her home, stole her valuables, and raped her.

Amina fled to the United States, but, according to Feldman, was denied entry on the basis that the ransom she had paid to the USC, along with the valuables from her home, constituted “material support” to a terrorist group.

Feldman offered another example in Juan Carlos, a 17-year-old Honduran whose parents had died and who was living with his grandmother in Tegucigalpa, the national capital. Juan Carlos had refused to join one of the city’s notorious street gangs and was threatened with death, prompting him to flee to the United States to live with his aunt. He was detained by immigration agents and denied asylum status on the grounds that people threatened by Central American street gangs do not constitute a “protected group” under U.S. law – even though curbing gang violence has become a cornerstone of U.S. policy towards Central America.

Protecting refugees and asylum seekers, Feldman argued, actually enhances American security in several respects:
•tIt enhances U.S. credibility abroad
•tIt promotes the economic strength of both the United States, through new workers, and the home country through remittances returned by refugees and asylum seekers;
•tIt reduces the potential for conflict created by sending refugees and asylum seekers home.

Latin America

Despite the current foreign policy focus on Iraq, experts said this morning that there are several pressing policy choices facing the United States with regard to its own hemisphere that raise questions of equity and justice.

To take just one example, the U.S. Congress is voting this week on the extension of preferential trading status for the Andean nations of Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia, under a program called the “Andean Trade Preference and Drug Eradication Act.” In essence, the measure allows impoverished Andean nations to export products to the United States at a lowered tariff rate, on the grounds that it promotes the diversification of their economies and hence curbs the drug trade.

At present, however, some Congressional leaders are reluctant to renew the preferential status for an extended period – in part out of concern for protectionist policies in Ecuador and Bolivia under left-wing populist governments, but mostly because of debates over a proposed free trade agreement with Colombia, which is considered a major prize by the Bush administration.

In effect, the economic stability of Bolivia and Ecuador, in particular, is being held hostage to larger debates over Colombia – a situation that Fr. Andrew Walls of the USCCB referred to as “just shameful.”

Earlier this week, Cardinal Julio Terrazas Sandoval of Bolivia was in Washington to plea for renewal of preferential status, and he spoke to NCR about the issues it raises.
“I’ve tried to encourage people to consider the plight of the Bolivian people, and not exclusively the language of the government, which at this stage is fairly hot with regard to the United State,” Terrazas said.

“If they cut these trade preferences that we’ve had for twenty years, it will dramatically effect Bolivians, particularly 40,000 small businesses and tens of thousands of people who depend on them,” he said. “The message that would send to the Bolivian people is obviously not a good one.”

Sponsored by 18 different Catholic organizations, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Social Ministry Gathering brings together around 700 diocesan and parish-level leaders involved in charitable service and social advocacy. The session runs Feb. 24-27 in Washington, D.C.

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