Sharing the Journey of Migrants and Refugees: An Interfaith Perspective on the UN Global Compacts

17 June 2018

“The journey for the negotiations is not over. The journey for migrants and refugees is far from over. As religious communities we are committed to continue sharing the journey,” Revd. Rachel Carnegie, Co-Executive Director of the Anglican Alliance

This article summarises an interfaith panel discussion on the Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees currently being negotiated by the United Nations member states. Throughout the Anglican Communion, communities experience displacement both as hosts and as people on the move. Upholding the rights and dignity of refugees, migrants and internally displaced people is a key priority for the work of the Anglican Alliance.

In September this year, two major new compacts on migration and refugees will be presented for adoption by member states at the United Nations General Assembly. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration will be the first global agreement negotiated under the auspices of the UN that addresses ‘all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner’. The complementary Global Compact on Refugees will establish a wide-ranging and more equitable global response to large movements of refugees and protracted refugee situations, which better supports both refugees and the communities that host them.

Both compacts are the result of two years of consultations and negotiations following the New York Declaration in December 2016.

Ahead of the latest round of consultations, Caritas Internationalis and the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN recently co-hosted an interfaith conference at the United Nations in New York. Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders brought different faith perspectives to the question of how the global community can achieve effective international cooperation and shared responsibility to alleviate the suffering and build hope for millions of refugees and migrants. The voices of migrants and refugees were also heard. Revd. Rachel Carnegie, the co-executive director of the Anglican Alliance, was invited to offer the concluding remarks at this significant event. A video of the whole session is available here.

UN photo by Loey Felipe

Faith based organisations not only relevant but crucial

In his opening remarks, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See at the UN who chaired the session, described how faith based organisations provide so much of the infrastructure for the immediate and long term support for refugees and migrants. He talked of a person-centred, holistic approach, helping refugees and migrants to achieve their full potential while enriching their new societies through the exchange of talents and culture. “Even when [a migrant] is of a different faith, many know of the reputation of faith based organisations to extend care to anyone in need, because of the principles of charity, mercy and solidarity flowing from that faith. Faith based organisations start not from political or economic perspectives, but from the affirmation of the human dignity of all people before all else. This person-centred approach, while not unique to faith based organisations, is at the heart of all their work. It also inspires a more holistic approach to caring for the migrant and their families, rather than addressing migration simply as a political or economic problem. Faith based organisations typically address the needs of every person as an individual in communion with others and the common good of all society.”’

After outlining the wide range of practical responses of faith based organisations in the care of migrants, Archbishop Auza said, “During negotiations towards the global compacts there has been discussion on the role of faith based organisations. Some have questioned their relevance but as today’s event hopes to show, we are not only relevant but crucial to help migrants and refugees and also to the work of states in caring for them. The pivotal part they play in welcoming, protecting, promoting, integrating and sharing the journey of migrants and refugees should be noted and lifted up as an example for the all of civil society and receive explicit reference in the global compacts.”

UN photo by Loey Felipe

There must have been a refugee or migrant in all our pasts

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the President of Caritas Internationalis and the Archbishop of Manila, reflected on the guiding principles set out by Pope Francis – the four verbs that articulate our shared responsibility – to welcome, protect, promote and integrate migrants and refugees at all stages of their journey. He reflected on his own family history of migration, and said,

“We invite everyone here never to forget that in our families, clans or peoples there must have been a migrant or a refugee some time, somewhere. In their name the God of Israel calls us to love the stranger, but will we remember or choose to forget? …. Christians believe that Jesus migrated from the condition of being God’s glorious son to that of being a lowly human being. As a baby he became a refugee in Egypt with his parents to escape the ire of Herod. He praised outsiders in his stories, like the Good Samaritan, and presented strangers as models of faith, such as the woman of Samaria at the well, the grateful Samaritan healed of leprosy, the persistent Syro-Phoenician mother, the Roman centurion who cared for his servant and believed his word, and to cap it all, Jesus identified himself with strangers. ‘When I was a stranger, you made me welcome’ (Matthew 25), declaring that what we do, or fail to do, to strangers we do, or fail to do, for him. For Christians a stranger has a human face – the face of Jesus”.

Rabbi David Rosen. UN photo by Loey Felipe

To turn one’s back on another in need is to turn one’s back on God himself

Rabbi David Rosen, the International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, spoke about the duty of a society to its own citizens, alongside its obligation to maximalise human dignity and freedom for all – preventing exploitation, and enabling safe and secure passage for people on the move – as well as ensuring decent living and social conditions for refugees and migrants. Like Cardinal Tagle, Rabbi Rosen reflected on the scriptural mandate to care for the “stranger” and the centrality of the experience of migration to the biblical narrative.

“We are commanded not only to love our neighbour in the Bible, but also specifically to love and empathise with others who seek to dwell in our community…. The Hebrew word ‘ger’ that is commonly translated as stranger is better translated in terms of the meaning in Hebrew as sojourner. … As it is written in Leviticus and Exodus, ‘for you know the soul of the sojourner for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt’. The ancient Jewish sages point out that our historical sojourner experience is referred to more than anything else in the Hebrew Bible, some 36 times, precisely in order to serve as inspiration for our moral conduct.

“Not for nothing does the history of Biblical salvation begin with a story of a migrant, Abraham, who leaves his birth place in Ur of the Chaldees, in today’s Iraq, for a better future for himself and his family, to contribute to a better future for humanity…. The orientating event of Biblical sacred history is the emigration experience, being delivered from persecution and journeying towards a better future in a promised land.

“To turn one’s back on another in need, but especially those whose very existence is vulnerable, most dramatically evidenced in the plight of refugees and migrants, and especially the children among them, is to turn one’s back on God himself.”

No one leaves their home town just like that – things force people to leave

Sheikh Mohammed Abu Zaid. UN photo by Loey Felipe

Sheikh Mohammed Abu Zaid, Chairman of the Sunni Court of Saida in Lebanon raised the significant point from Islamic teaching that migration is a justified choice for those who are under threat, or being ‎persecuted, or oppressed. He also described how Islam encourages Muslims to respect the receiving community as hosts and in turn to be welcoming and helpful towards immigrants in a ‎practical way by providing support, seeing them as a blessing from God.

He described how one of his congregation had asked him what religion had to do with the issue of migration. It was a serious question. He’d replied, “Remember, Abraham had this experience. Moses had this experience. Jesus had this experience. And our Prophet Mohammed also had this experience. These great religious figures experienced being immigrants…. Even our calendar – our counting of days and months and years – started with this event: our honoured Prophet leaving his hometown….

“Is it easy to leave your home town? … We think that people just leave their hometown for pleasure. No one leaves his hometown, his city, his village, his country just like that. There are certain things that are forcing them to leave.

“Immigration is a challenge to my belief. It is challenging me to prove my belief. If I’m welcoming, if I’m sharing, if I’m loving then I’m proving that I’m a true believer. Religion in general [and] Islam specifically, teaches us to look at migrants and displaced people as a blessing from God. God sent them to us to prove our belief in God through our good deeds and our help to these people, who are coming to us as brothers.”

UN photo by Loey Felipe

It is my great hope that this meeting will bring about a range of wonderful results

The Venerable Gijun Sugitani, Chair of Religions for Peace in Japan, spoke of the vital role of interfaith dialogue. He also highlighted the crucial importance of accountability – the question of who will assume responsibilities regarding the global compacts, signalling the role of religious leaders in upholding policy recommendations as well as playing their part in the response. Nobody, he said, is allowed to be a ‘bystander’ – to ensure that policy translates into concrete implementation.

“For a permanent solution of the issue it is necessary to enlighten citizens about how to accept and live in harmony with newcomers and to establish the necessary environment for that. To this end, these global religious networks are expected to play even more important roles.”

UN photo by Loey Felipe

Otherness does not start with the other. It starts with ourselves

Metropolitan Emmanuel Adamakis, Metropolitan of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of France, spoke of faith communities as bridge builders. He talked of the need to re-humanise the other, through encounter, reflecting in particular on the responsibility to care for young people on the move seeking safer lives, better opportunities, futures of hope.

“Most people want to reside and prosper in the land of their birth. This is natural. Yet to do so they require safety, food security, economic opportunity, freedom from environmental distress and prospects for their children’s future. Forced migration is the result of war, poverty and environmental degradation and climate change that compel people to leave their homelands. Because of these factors we are currently facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. And the face of the migrant is increasingly a youthful face. For the first time in history, half of all refugees are children and youths and one in every 200 children in the world today is a refugee.

“ ‘Otherness’ is another item connected to migration. It is a perception based on our territory. The imagined ‘other’ is often part of a narrative in which the definition of oneself comes with limits and borders… Speaking about identity or even multiple identities remains a taboo in many societies because it goes against the grand narrative of many nation states that base the concept of national identity on this grand national narrative. However, globalization continues to challenge the ethno-national model and exposes us to ethnic, religious and cultural otherness to a degree never before seen in the history of the world…. Otherness does not start with the other. It starts with ourselves – with the many layers of identity that make a person unique.

“We must continue to think that we are bridge builders rather than the builders of walls. And we must bring hope and peace to this world that it needs more and more today.”

A key theme running through the session was the importance of bringing a human face to the statistics of migration and to acknowledge all that migrants and refugees contribute to their new societies.

The moment I was on my feet, I wanted to help and give back

Malik (not his real name) from Iraq shared his own story of being a refugee. He spoke of how before the Iraq war of 2003 his family had lived a very comfortable life in Iraq. After the war, as people were being kidnapped and killed his family resisted moving, determined to stay in their home country. Even when his family was robbed at gunpoint in their home Malik’s parents still would not leave the country. ‘Leaving the country – for anyone it’s a big decision’, Malik said. ‘It’s really, really hard’.

Another year later, in 2006, Malik was kidnapped and a ransom demanded. For 9 days he was tortured. On his release the family was told they would be killed should they be seen again in Baghdad, at which point they finally decided to flee the country. Leaving with hardly anything, they went first to Syria where their passports were stamped ‘not allowed to work’ on entry. ‘Imagine starting a new life somewhere you can’t work’, Malik said. ‘How’s that going to work?’

With the family’s life savings completely used up, the family applied to the UN for refugee status and after two years of vetting the family was given the opportunity to move to the US.

‘We’re very grateful that we’re here, but it’s not easy. Being a refugee in a new country with new language, new everything – I almost felt that I was in a different world’. Watching his parents, ‘the strongest two people in my life’, struggle with the challenges of their new life – worrying about how they would find work, provide food and pay their bills – motivated Malik to work three jobs along with his college studies so he could help his family. ‘The moment that I felt I was on my feet, the first thing that came to my mind was that I wanted to help and give back to the community. I’ve been working for charities since 2012 helping immigrants, refugees and people from here just helping whoever needs help. I am just one example out of millions.’

Representatives from various member states of the UN attended the session and were warm in their appreciation for the faith perspective and contribution to inform the upcoming negotiations. Maria Rubiales de Chamorro, the Permanent Representative of Nicaragua to the UN, said, “As a member state of this organisation, I am very happy and glad that I came. It is not every day that you see such an inclusive panel… A better world is possible, we all know that, but it has to take a lot of understanding from our part… This has been very clarifying for me… we thank you for giving us a very clear vision. My delegates and I are going into the next stage of negotiations with the four points you have mentioned very clearly: welcome, promote, protect and integrate”.

Ambassador Saint Hilaire of Haiti also expressed his gratitude for all the panel were doing. “Your actions are very inspiring to us as member states”, he said. “You are making the difference. Thank you so much.”

Keep the image of a migrant or refugee actively present in our minds

In her concluding reflections, Revd. Rachel Carnegie appealed to all to “keep the image of a migrant or refugee known personally to us actively present in our minds as the discussions move forward.”

Summarising the shared vision of the speakers, she said, “The panel has voiced a joint moral imperative to respond to refugees and migrants. It has demonstrated how religious communities not only seek to engage Member States but also themselves embrace shared responsibility – upholding the rights and dignity of all and  bringing hope to migrants and refugees by seeking to build welcoming, inclusive societies – a whole society approach which must tackle xenophobia and fosters a positive narrative on migration.”

And she articulated four key challenges for the journey ahead:

  • How can we make the Global Compacts a vision of hope, of humanity and our common good?
  • How can we make them stronger in upholding the dignity of migrants and refugees?
  • How can we overcome our internal barriers and become inclusive societies in an interconnected world?
  • How can we renew, as the United Nations of the world’s peoples, our commitment for peace, solidarity and justice?

Please share your own stories of migration and refugees with us. Email: anglicanalliance.comms@aco.org