Refugees, Migrants, and Faith-Based Organizations

Expert panel discusses how religious freedom can benefit displaced people.

Libna Stevens, Inter-American Division
Refugees, Migrants, and Faith-Based Organizations

With the unprecedented massive movement of migrant people and refugees around the world today, religious freedom experts and advocates at this week’s 8th International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) World Congress discussed the ongoing global response so far and explored ways to better address the needs of millions who are forced to flee their homes and cross borders.

Statistics show that at the end of 2016, 65.6 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations, said Deputy Secretary General for IRLA Nelu Burcea. Burcea is in charge of developing relationships on behalf of the IRLA with various international institutions including the United Nations, the European Union, and the African Union.

A Watershed Document

Burcea outlined the United Nations’ Global Compact, a document which came out of a high-level summit in September 2016. The compact includes bold commitments to address the refugee problem such as bringing host countries behind a more human-oriented coordinated approach and preparing the world for future challenges.

Coined as the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, “the commitment reaffirms obligations to fully respect the rights of refugees and migrants and works towards the adoption of a global compact for refugees for safe order migration,” said Burcea.

Burcea explained that the key objectives for the comprehensive refugee response framework include easing pressure on countries that welcome and host refugees, building self-reliance of refugees, expanding access to third country solutions and supporting conditions that enable refugees to return to their native countries voluntarily.

Some of the major refugee hosting countries include Turkey with 2.89 million refugees, Pakistan with nearly 2 million, and thousands more in Lebanon, Iran, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

“This [response framework] is a milestone for global solidarity and refuge protection at a time of unprecedented displacement,” said Burcea.

The Role of Faith-Based Organizations

At the core of the response is that all refugees deserve dignity and have basic human rights which must be upheld.

More religious freedom must be highlighted for more durable solutions in assisting refugees who are persecuted and displaced from their countries, Burcea explained.

Religious organizations can help to try to find solutions for refugees who feel they are facing an uncertain future, said Aix-Marseille University Professor in History, Law and Religion Blandine Chelini-Pont, who spoke about the refugee crisis in Europe. Chelini-Pont has written extensively on historical and contemporary issues related to religion, law, and society.

“Mobilization of aid from charitable institutions of faith-based organizations have assisted refugees tremendously in France, Italy, and Germany,” said Chelini-Pont. More can be done to help accelerate the process of legally documenting every refugee, she said.

“The first step for justice [for refugees] is to be legal, to be official,” said Chelini-Pont. Legal documentation, such as a visa for temporary transit or a permit for asylum seekers, can be a solution for better processing the transition of refugees.

W. Cole Durham Jr., an internationally renowned scholar and founding director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, pointed to the religious liberty rights of refugees which are so important especially at the time of movement and displacement.

“We need to think sensitively about what happens to people during the transition, how should their religious traditions be accommodated, their internal process of practicing religious beliefs,” said Durham. “It’s important to address what should be the role of those providing care for refugees.”

The challenge seems to lie in the processing problem that is linked to the lack of resettlement options, and the fear and worries that they get exploited, said Durham.

“Religious groups can make a difference because they have the motivation, the altruism to do something about strangers, using creative prayerful efforts that will find ways to be much more helpful,” he added.

What ADRA Is Doing

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) has been demonstrating God’s love and compassion for the displaced for decades but more so now with the wave of economic migration particularly from Africa, said Imad Madanat, who heads ADRA’s international global emergency and development programs and leads the office of the UN Liasion.

Statistics pulled from the UN Dispatch, which tracks internal displacement around the world, show that in just the first half of this year, 9 million people have been displaced, shared Madanat.

“ADRA, along with faith-based organizations, have a large footprint to leave for these displaced people,” said Madanat.

Approximately 3 million displaced persons in 39 countries have been impacted during their transition of resettlements. “We have addressed health issues, water shortages, provided shelters and psychological and social support, and information centers for refugees and migrants passing through,” explained Madanat.

ADRA has assisted a large emergency hospital there, distributing naturalization kits for families, and has set up an information center in Serbia that helps migrants and refugees who need to know their rights, among other activities.

“It’s clear that the role of the church and faith-based agencies must be a buffer between displaced people and local and state authorities,” added Madanat. “Religious institutions provide a safe and familiar place for refugees to seek assistance and support.”

NGOs already have an infrastructure to support medical education to the refugee community and bring the experience, infrastructure, and legal help at a local level, he said.

The panel of experts agreed that holding up the banner of religious freedom and human rights could bring more durable solutions to help refugees thrive, not just survive, by reducing the risk of prolonged stays and ultimately lessening their dependence on humanitarian aid.

Libna Stevens, Inter-American Division