On World Refugee Day, closed doors or a welcome for the stranger?

WCC director of International Affairs urges respect for ‘God-given human dignity’

June 19, 2015

Peter Prove with displaced people at the parish hall of Serseng near Dohuk, Iraq.

Peter Prove with displaced people at the parish hall of Serseng near Dohuk, Iraq. —Gregg Brekke/WCC

GENEVA

One generally thinks of a pilgrimage as a journey undertaken voluntarily, in an attitude of reflection, peace and serenity, and with its objective or purpose being internal and spiritual. But on World Refugee Day (20 June), we may consider that the unprecedented numbers of refugees around the world are also embarked on their own pilgrimage of justice and peace.

Though forcibly and unwillingly displaced by war, violence, oppression and deprivation, refugees are journeying away from insecurity towards safety, recognition of their plight, and ultimately the restoration of peace and the realization of justice.

According to the United Nations, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has reached the highest level ever recorded—a staggering 59.5 million at the end of 2014, compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has frankly acknowledged that "UN agencies, NGOs, the Red Cross—we no longer have the capacities and the resources to respond to such a dramatic increase in humanitarian needs." And each one of these many millions whose needs and safety can no longer be secured is a human being whose story is of tragedy, danger and fear.

I heard some of those stories when I visited people displaced by the murderous rampage of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ in northern Iraq in mid-2014, and taking refuge in church compounds and public spaces in Erbil and Dohuk.

I can still hear the voice of the 14 year old girl who, answering my question about her thoughts regarding the future, replied “There is no future. Da’esh [Islamic State] came and destroyed our future.

I hold it to be a duty—our collective duty—to do all we can to give that girl, and the many millions of others like her, back her future. That is the pilgrimage of justice and peace on which we are called to accompany her and all people forced by violence or oppression to flee from their homes.

But I sometimes wonder if, in the face of such overwhelming numbers of victims, those of us living in safety and comfort begin to lose sight of the human beings affected, and are driven more by a desire to protect our own safety and comfort. Responses to migrant and refugee crises around the world seem to indicate a failure of compassion—the loss of the ability to accompany those sisters and brothers on this involuntary and hazardous pilgrimage, in the universal human pursuit of safety and a better life for themselves and their families.

As the WCC Executive Committee has recently affirmed, the prevailing strategy focused on “closing borders between nations and defending those borders against ‘strangers’ is, in the end, not only futile, but also harmful for all parties concerned—with the sole exception of the smugglers and traffickers who thrive wherever doors are shut.”

On this World Refugee Day, and on every day, we are called to adopt a more open and welcoming approach to the “stranger” and to the neighbour in need and distress, and to help receive and care for refugees and all those displaced by violence, oppression and deprivation in full respect for their God-given human dignity.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Matthew 25:35)

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Peter Prove is director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) at the World Council of Churches based in Geneva, Switzerland. This article originally appeared on the World Council of Churches Pilgrimage Blog.