How to address the Syrian refugee crisis in a humane way

Found lying face down and lifeless on a Turkish beach, the three year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, was another victim of the violence in Syria that had caused his family to flee their home in pursuit of a better life elsewhere. Photos of his drowned, crumpled body quickly went viral, and the scales from people’s eyes seemed ready to fall away as the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis it helped produce suddenly became personal. As tragic and unnecessary as his death was, his case was not an isolated event. More than four million refugees have fled the region since 2010, with most taking shelter in surrounding countries. Many thousands have died in the process; countless others struggle with the daily ritual of just trying to survive.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia's public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia’s public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

As many as one in three people living in Lebanon today is a refugee from the Syrian crisis. Turkey hosts nearly two million, and Jordan 600,000 more. Syrians have begun to face increasing challenges to find safety and protection in neighboring countries, which, faced with overwhelming refugee numbers, insufficient international support, and security concerns, have taken measures this year to stem the flow of refugees – including restricting access or closer management of borders and introducing complex requirements for refugees to extend their stay.

As a consequence, tens of thousands of refugees have begun the difficult trek west, with the hope of finding a new home in countries throughout Europe. Despite initial efforts to provide a humanitarian response to these refugee populations, signs of strain are clearly beginning to set in as leaders of countries throughout the region have begun to tighten their borders and restrict further access.

Reflecting on this expanding and deepening problem, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, KY and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged “all Catholics in the United States and others of good will to express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive. Regardless of their religious affiliation or national origin, these refugees are all human persons—made in the image of God, bearing inherent dignity, and deserving our respect and care and protection by law from persecution.”

Elsewhere Pope Francis has highlighted the moral obligations of the international community toward migrants, emphasized the need to establish institutional structures that can more effectively respond to crises of this sort, and called on “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe” to take in one refugee family.

Recognizing that inaction will only have dire consequences for the many vulnerable refugees who are seeking a place of safety, the Catholic bishops of the United States have made a number of recommendations related to this problem. These include

  • Ending the conflict in the region and establishing a workable peace is of paramount importance.
  • Building an inclusive and lasting peace to allow Syrian refugees—also including those who are ethnic and religious minorities– to return home, rebuild their communities, and share in the governance of their country.
  • Providing humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring refugee countries.
  • Providing development aid to refugee host countries near Syria so they are able to properly welcome and care for the refugees.
  • Authorizing the admission and resettlement of 200,000 refugees into the U.S. from refugee countries across the world, including 100,000 resettlement slots designated for the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the Syria conflict.

Please, take a moment to learn what steps you can take to help Syrian and other refugees in their moment of need.

Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB.


Take action now! Support for Syrian Refugees is Needed Now More Than Ever – Action alert from Catholics Confront Global Poverty, an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services.

Laudato Si’ and the Environmental Refugee

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

Pope Francis’s recently released encyclical, Laudato Si’, addresses the environment, climate change, and ecological degradation. An important but often overlooked point that Pope Francis highlights is the connection between migration and environmental instability. Specifically, the Holy Father states his concern for the plight of the environmental refugee. To this point he writes: “There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever” (no. 25).

Pope Francis’s eloquent and accurate assessment in Laudato Si’ about environmental refugees highlights a growing problem in the world and raises the questions of: what exactly is an environmental refugee, what can we do to protect them, and we can prevent more people from becoming environmental refugees in the future?

As Pope Francis stated, legally, the concept of “climate or environmental refugee” does not exist. Although the term “environmental refugee” is in frequent use, climate and environmental issues do not fall within the official definition of refugee that is found in the 1951 Refugee Convention. This is important as the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is the key legal document that defines who is a refugee, what rights refugees are afforded, and the legal obligations of states towards refugees.

Despite having no formally recognized legal protection, the number of global environmental refugees and environmentally displaced migrants are projected to increase in the future. With the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, climate change is expected to expose millions to largescale displacement and forced migration – most notably affecting the global working poor. Many of the global poor live in areas particularly affected by natural phenomena related to global warming, including flooding, hurricanes and drought, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystem-focused industries such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have limited outside financial activities or resources that can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.

Today, we can already see these situations of environmental degradation forcibly displacing people and creating environmental refugees. For example, Bangladesh has been declared one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in South Asia, followed closely by India, China, Indonesia and the Philippines. Additionally, the Maldives has been dealing with climate change issues such as rising sea levels and displacement for several years.

Looking toward a solution to this problem, we turn to Pope Francis, who urges us to recognize communities vulnerable to environmental destruction and to take responsibility for our Earth and our displaced brothers and sisters.

To this end, in Laudato Si’ he states: “Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”

It is also imperative that we recognize the damage that climate change wreaks upon the environment and the communities that live off the land. We must also accept responsibility for people who have been forced out of their communities due to environmental degradation and work to ensure that we treat them and the Earth with dignity and respect. Previously, in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis urged us to recognize that the earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters (no. 183). This theme is echoed again and again in Laudato Si’. Going forward, we must protect the fragility and majesty of our common home and the dignity of our brothers and sisters who live in it.

Ashley Feasley is a policy advisor for Migration and Refugee Services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Lost in the Shadows

Matt Wilch photoAfter checking in with security, the officer led us through the main gate to his car for the trip to the prison-inside-a-prison. We had driven through much of Athens, Greece—a modern city with large, preserved displays of her ancient, heralded past. We travelled to the outskirts of the city, to this prison at the foot of some rocky, dusty hills. As we drove across the grounds to the inner prison we could see that like the outer perimeter, it had a heavy cyclone fence with razor wire on top. It was not old-fashioned barbed wire with metal thorns spaced out every few inches, but razor wire like the jagged teeth of a wide bladed bandsaw twisted in an endless helix along the top of the entire fence.  Inside the fence were a half dozen or so, small, bread-box shaped module homes like the kind used to house people made homeless by a hurricane.

As we entered the compound we saw a sign on the wall warning that if you applied for asylum you would remain inside for at least one year.

At any given time, Athens has some 250,000 undocumented people from other countries, many of them asylum seekers forced to flee from conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

This prison-inside-a-prison holds forty unaccompanied Afghan boys and youth from ages 12 to 17.   A fellow colleague from USCCB Migration and Refugee Services and I interviewed almost half of them.  Some had recently fled from Afghanistan to escape continuing threat by the Taliban. Others had fled to Greece after unsuccessfully trying to find refuge in Iran or in Turkey.  Despite their grim surroundings and the traumas many of them had already suffered in their countries or during their travels through foreign lands, they were clinging to wide-eyed plans to find their way to Sweden or England or the United States, even though almost none of them had connections of any kind in any of those places. All that they knew was that they could not stay where they were, and they had heard that those places were better.

Most had taken recent harrowing journeys at the mercy of human smugglers and traffickers, travelling across the Aegean Sea from the west coast of Turkey. They had been rescued from the sea near one of twenty or so Greek Islands—only to be transferred to this detention center in Athens. They were often the oldest boy in their respective families.  For one 14-year-old youth, his parents had both died and his efforts and dreams were fueled by the desire to send money back to his four younger brothers and sisters.

These Afghan youth and other unaccompanied refugee children are often remarkable, resilient kids, who are largely out of sight and out of mind in the shadow of the Syrian refugee crisis and other large refugee crises. They do not deserve detention and harsh enforcement. They deserve our advocacy and our help.

One viable option for some of the children is resettlement to a third country, such as the United States, which has a strong program for such youth. For World Refugee Day celebrated June 20, in solidarity with refugees around the world, urge your Senators and Representative to be champions for unaccompanied refugee children like those described above by increasing the funding for the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program of the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services to $137 million. Urge Congress to build up U.S. capacity to help unaccompanied refugee children and also share U.S. expertise and resources for resettlement to other countries around the world.

Matthew Wilch is a Refugee Policy Advisor for the USCCB Office of Migration and Refugee Srevices. See Refuge and Hope in the Time of ISIS for further findings and recommendations concerning unaccompanied children impacted by the Syrian refugee crisis.  See also The United States Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program: Guiding Principles and Promising Practices.