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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn

11/25/2015
Tom Ryan, CSP

Bishops challenge all of us to welcome strangers

Refugees dangerously fleeing to Europe. 25,000 Syrians promised for Canada. Security vs. hospitality. Canadian newspapers are filled with coverage of the unprecedented refugee crisis worldwide. And, in early October, Canada’s Catholic bishops released a pastoral letter on welcoming refugees.

This statement, “I was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me . . .” (Matthew 25 and the Last Judgment) was a long-awaited project of the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace. Our bishops are following the lead of Pope Francis, whose first trip outside Rome as pope was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where refugees come ashore from treacherous Mediterranean crossings. The pope was visibly moved by their situation, while decrying the world’s “globalization of indifference” to their plight. Francis challenged every European parish to welcome a refugee family.

And in Canada we have been asked to do no less: a September letter from the president of the bishops’ conference asked “every Catholic parish and religious community in Canada that has the resources, to sponsor a refugee family . . . either alone or working in collaboration with others.” But the bishops’ pastoral letter states that, “today, unfortunately, most Catholic parishes in Canada are not involved in refugee sponsorship.”

Beyond sponsorship, the bishops write movingly that “we must provide aid in the camps,” recognizing that the suffering of refugees is being unnecessarily protracted due to inadequate global responses. Such misery is a cause of dangerous refugee escapes into Europe, as well as providing a breeding ground for frustrated and hopeless youth.

Eighty-six per cent of the world’s refugees find themselves in over-crowded and under-funded refugee camps, hosted by developing countries that are already struggling to support their own citizens. The average length of stay in refugee camps is now approaching 20 years, up from an average of nine years in the early 1990s.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians (and others) attempt dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea to enter Europe because, after fleeing violence at home, the situation in their countries of asylum remains desperate. Nonetheless, as of June 2015, the UN’s humanitarian appeal for Syrian refugees was only 23 per cent funded.

So Canada has cut its foreign aid with disastrous consequences.

Under previous Liberal governments, Canada’s spending on foreign aid began to fall in relation to the size of our economy — in spite of the long-standing target of dedicating 0.7 per cent to overseas development assistance. Under the Conservatives since 2011, even raw dollar figures have declined. In 2014, development assistance spending was $4.9 billion, down from $5.7 billion three years before. Ottawa’s spending on foreign aid now sits at 0.24 per cent of Gross National Income — falling below the OECD average for the first time since 1969.

A longer-term solution (to security, migration and development problems) would see Canada more generously assist those poorer countries who are coping with the brunt of refugee flows worldwide.

The bishops suggest that “our action has to be twofold: we must certainly welcome them upon their arrival to Canada, but we must also support them while they are still abroad.” Later in the letter, the bishops mention a third response: “political lobbying,” and demand that “the Catholic voice be heard by the Canadian government.” The pastoral letter provides a bullet list of areas for improvement, in general language.

Church people who work with refugees will welcome this pastoral letter — but be far more specific in their demands. Immediately, the Liberal promise to receive 25,000 government-sponsored Syrians before year end must mean concrete support for faith community settlement groups that will serve these newcomers. Our new government has intelligently refused to appeal the ruling of the federal court that found the 2012 cancellation of the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP) as “cruel and unusual.” Refugees and refugee applicants need care, and the IFHP, which existed since the 1950s, should be immediately re-instated.

Canada took only 23,286 refugees in 2014, roughly the same number as each year of the last decade. Indeed, the federal government should “expand the acceptance of refugees to Canada” as our bishops advise, specifically by facilitating procedures for refugees from beyond Syria.

By challenging us all to welcome strangers, as well as to act for change in refugee policy this Advent, our bishops are preparing our hearts and inciting our yearning for the coming of the refugee-child Jesus.

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.