Facing the global refugee crisis

By Peter Balleis SJ

The year 2014 saw the highest number of forcibly displaced people since the end of World War II. The official figure in mid-2014 was 51.2 million people. Such a number goes beyond our imagination – but there are real people behind that number. Perhaps we recall media images from the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan, two countries that reverted to civil war in December 2013 and are still in conflict today. We may also recall the frightened faces of children, women and men fleeing from Mosul in northern Iraq in mid-2014 to find protection in Kurdistan. The naked terror of the fundamentalist Islamic State (IS) has caused many to flee – Christians, Yazidis and Muslims alike.

Looking at a world in turmoil we see an extremely volatile zone in the Middle East and Central Asia from Gaza to Kabul, with open conflicts in Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and very high tensions in Lebanon. It is followed by the Sahel zone in Africa. Moving across this zone from west to east, we see Mali, northern Nigeria, Chad, CAR, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia in conflict. A third zone of high conflict in the world is in Latin America. The drug cartels in Mexico and las bandas criminales in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are creating warlike situations and driving thousands of people, particularly minors at high risk, toward the US border.

Syrian refugee children attend a JRS school in Beirut, Lebanon (photo: Z. Haddad/JRS).

Syrian refugee children attend a JRS school in Beirut, Lebanon. (Photo: Z. Haddad/JRS)

The failure of whole states combined with criminal and rebel control of resources such as oil and diamonds are prime causes of the conflicts and the violence. Religion – or more precisely, religious fundamentalism – provides many with an ideological backup.

The majority of displaced persons are Muslim – about 70% of all refugees. Indeed Muslims are the first victims of Islamist fundamentalists. Children and women suffer in a major way, and comprise the majority of refugees. Half of the world’s refugees and displaced people are no longer found in camps but in the slums and on the outskirts of urban centres. They are invisible, barely surviving on exploitative wages and sparse support. Children often do not go to school.

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is working in all four of the current “Level Three” emergency areas (those with the worst humanitarian crises as defined by the UN) – Syria, CAR, South Sudan and, most recently, northern Iraq. It is challenging work because it means operating in a context of ongoing conflict. The security risks are high. But JRS works in many other areas of conflict as well. It has 10 regional offices with programs in 50 countries worldwide and it currently provides assistance to nearly 950,000 individuals. This includes educational services to approximately 238,000 young people in 35 countries. These young people are literally living on the edge and in many cases they have witnessed horrific violence. It is a struggle to keep faith in view of so much evil.

Somali refugee women in an adult literacy class at Melkedida Camp, Ethiopia (photo: P. Balleis/JRS).

Somali refugee women in an adult literacy class at Melkedida Camp, Ethiopia. (Photo: P. Balleis/JRS)

The work of JRS is deeply rooted in faith – faith in a God who is present even in the most tragic moments of human history. Faith responds with love for all victims, without discrimination of race and religion. JRS teams are composed of people of different faiths and cultural backgrounds. In the Middle East, Christians and Muslims work together and send a message to the world that the divide is not religious but political. Interfaith praxis is the way we work. JRS is also a collaborative effort of refugees, lay staff, Jesuits and other religious.

The mission of JRS is to accompany, serve and advocate the cause of refugees. Fr Pedro Arrupe, who began JRS in 1980, wrote in the foundational document that this service is “human, pedagogical and spiritual.” These three words embrace a compassionate human response to basic human needs, education as a source of hope and spiritual accompaniment for so many traumatised refugees. In his last message to JRS and the Jesuits, Arrupe reminded us to pray, because such problems as we face cannot be overcome by mere material means.

This article by Peter Balleis SJ originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of CJI’s Mission News. Fr Balleis was the International Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).