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'Ireland is well placed to respond to the needs of migrants and refugees'

The Catholic Church wants to play a part in welcoming refugees here, Bishop Kevin Doran writes.

Children who were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea by the Irish Navy in August
Children who were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea by the Irish Navy in August
Image: Irish Defence Forces/Flickr

MIGRATION IS NOT a new phenomenon. In recent years, however, massive numbers of people have been forced to leave their homes due to persecution, natural disasters and poverty.

Migration, like economics, is no longer local or regional, but has taken on a global dimension. People on the move have always been a particular focus for the pastoral care of the Catholic Church. Throughout the 20th century, Irish chaplaincies or parishes were established in the UK and Germany, in Australia and the USA.

As a nation, we are possibly better placed than most to recognise and to respond to the needs both of migrant workers and refugees. Unfortunately, the processing of asylum applications remains unacceptably slow, and the conditions under which people are expected to live in direct provision centres are inhumane.

While they are technically free to come and go, they are effectively little more than prisoners with day release. Asylum seekers are not allowed to accept any employment, no matter what skills they have.

In most direct provision centres, there is no opportunity for parents to even prepare a meal for their children, which would be a basic feature of normal family life. Children grow up with little experience of family and are, therefore, deprived of a model on which to build their own families in the future.

I greatly regret the slow pace at which Ireland is receiving refugees from the war zones of Syria and Iraq. I think we could certainly be more proactive in welcoming unaccompanied minors and providing them with their immediate needs in terms of protection, family-type support and education.

Indeed, we would have a lot to learn from the approach of Father Edward Flanagan, a native of Ballymoe and founder of Boys Town in the US. The Irish bishops have made it clear that we, as a Church, are willing and indeed anxious to play a part in the welcoming of refugees. The reception of refugees clearly has to be managed professionally, but that should not exclude the involvement of properly trained or suitably experienced volunteers.

The Vatican 

Pope Francis has been so concerned about the situation of displaced persons that he has set up a special Office for Migrants and Refugees, which he personally directs. That office has been very active in recent months in submitting proposals to the United Nations (UN) as part of a process to develop two new international protocols or ‘compacts’ – one to promote safe, orderly and regular migration, and the other on refugees.

One of the challenges of present international policy is that the global situation is so complex it is, in many cases, not easy to distinguish between migrants and refugees. The traditional UN definition of a refugee, for example, takes no account whatsoever of internally displaced persons, or people who are forced to migrate because of poverty. Provision should be made for people on the basis of their actual needs, not just on the basis of some blanket evaluation of the country from which they come.

The Vatican Office for Migrants and Refugees recently published Twenty Actions Points to feed into the UN consultation. These are gathered under four headings – relating to the need to welcome, protect, promote and integrate. It would be difficult in a short piece such as this to examine these action points in detail.

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original (1) Children who were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea by the Irish Navy in August Source: Irish Defence Forces/Flickr

One that is certainly worth referring to is the need to avoid grouping refugees in vast camps, which subject them to the risk of further hardship and exploitation. The wider use of humanitarian visas would create a structure which would allow for the managed reception and integration of people on the move, and would lessen the risk of human trafficking.

The 20 action points also include a strong argument in favour of providing structures for long-term migrants and refugees, which would allow them not only to stay in the host country, but to develop as human beings. Access to education, including third-level education, would be an important aspect of this.

In my own experience, however, the children of asylum seekers, while they are given access to primary and secondary education, are not able to participate in many of the optional programmes provided by schools, such as swimming, sports outings or special classes. This is one way in which local communities could give practical assistance.

Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin. His academic background is in the philosophy of the human person and he holds an MA from UCD and a PhD from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Rome.

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