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.

Combating the Culture of Enslavement 

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

June 12th is the World Day against Child Labor. The most recent global estimates suggest some 120 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are involved in child labor, with boys and girls in this age group almost equally affected.  The issue of child labor is not just an overseas problem, but exists in our own backyard. Children, particularly immigrant children, are vulnerable to forced labor here in North America, whether in domestic servitude, in farming and agricultural operations, or in forced begging or door to door sales schemes. For example, in Mexico, migrant children frequently work to harvest agricultural crops destined for the U.S. with their parents, despite obvious dangers to their physical health and development.

Pope Francis has spoken extensively about the harm that child labor causes. During last year’s World Day against Child Labor, he stated that the persistence of child labor is rooted in several factors including poverty and lack of decent work for adults, lack of social protection. The Holy Father has urged us to “renew our commitment, especially families, to ensure the tutelage of every boy’s and girl’s dignity and the chance to grow up healthy.”

Continuing his call to address root causes related to child and forced labor, human trafficking, and modern slavery, Pope Francis entitled his annual message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, on January 1, 2015, “No Longer Slaves, But Brothers and Sisters.” In that message, Holy Father extorted organizations in civil society to awaken consciences and promote whatever steps are necessary for combating and uprooting the culture of enslavement.  He also called upon businesses to ensure dignified working conditions and to be vigilant to ensure that forms of subjugation or human trafficking do not find their way into companies’ distribution chains. Lastly, he called upon every person to be aware that purchasing is always a moral—and not simply an economic—act.

When examining the root causes of child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking, it is hard to see where we as individuals can begin to understand and combat the problem. Yet, Pope Francis highlights an important part of combatting child and forced labor—looking at global supply chains and encouraging businesses to remove human trafficking and forced and child labor from their distribution chains and allowing consumers to consume more mindfully and ethically. Governments are taking note of this movement and doing their part as well. Soon a bill will be introduced that aims to help make businesses more aware of their use of child and forced labor, human trafficking and modern slavery.  Supply chain legislation would require certain companies to report to the U.S. government about efforts to address human trafficking, forced and child labor, and the commercial sexual exploitation of children within their business operations and list that information on their websites. These disclosures would allow consumers to make informed decisions about what products they buy and which socially responsible companies to invest in.

Supply chain legislation represents an important step in answering Pope Francis’s call to combat and uproot the culture of enslavement.  An important action that we as individual Catholics can take is to be ethical consumers. We must make every effort to purchase goods not connected to child labor, worker abuses, or human trafficking.” In this way, we can heed Holy Father’s words and erase this “scourge of humanity” from the world in our lifetime.

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

Denying Dignity in the Name of Deterrence?

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

USCCB’s Ashley Feasley, Esq.

Last week, we failed as a nation to welcome the stranger.

Instead of welcoming vulnerable women, mothers and children seeking refuge from Central American violence, we opened a new prison-like facility to detain them. Last Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson unveiled the Dilley Family Detention Center, a former oil field worker camp in rural South Texas and now the nation’s largest family immigration detention center. Dilley will house 2,400 young immigrant mothers and their children.

On Friday, GEO Corporation announced a 626-bed expansion to its facility in Texas, the 532-bed Karnes County Residential Center. Karnes will now have a total capacity of 1,158 beds available to detain women and children and will generate approximately $20 million per year in additional corporate revenues. The opening of Dilley and the expansion at Karnes mark the most recent and strongest articulation of the Obama administration’s policy goal of using detention as a tool to deter migrant families from arriving at the southwest Border.

The current ramping up of prison-like facilities to contain vulnerable women and children goes squarely against the principles articulated by the U.S. Catholic Bishops and the ethos of Catholic social teaching itself. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, responded to the opening of the Dilley facility by saying:

“It is inhumane to house young mothers with children in restrictive detention facilities, as if they are criminals.” 

Bishop Elizondo noted that these mothers and children arrive “. . . traumatized from their journey . . . and need care and support, not further emotional and psychological harm.” And he is right, as study after study has shown that detention harms children’s psychological development.

In July, I visited Artesia, News Mexico, where this summer a hastily thrown together “facility” for migrants and refugees crossing the border opened, consisting of portable buildings on the grounds of a federal law enforcement training center. During a tour, I witnessed scores of small children and babies, some walking and sitting outside under the hot sun. One little girl, probably just 2 years old, wore a sweater and was sweating heavily. When asked why she was wearing the sweater, her mother said that it was the girl’s favorite possession, and that she was worried it would be taken away from her if she took it off. The image of an overheated little girl wearing her favorite and likely only possession brought home how entirely unsuited prison-like detention facilities are for children. The Artesia facility is now in the process of being closed.

Family detention conflicts with a central tenet of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of human life. In their pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, the US and Mexican bishops declare that “regardless of their legal status, migrants, like all persons, possess inherent human dignity that should be respected.”

Bishops are speaking out against the rapid rise of family detention facilities popping up in their backyards. Archbishop Gustavo-Siller of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, where both Dilley and Karnes are located, has spoken out against family detention. On Dilley’s debut, he said:

It is the largest facility of its kind and some have called it ‘History Making’. That forces me to ask, ‘What kind of history does our country want to make?’ Will our history be defined by the detention of children and their mothers who do not threaten us with either violence or security risks? They need mercy and compassion, not derision and detention. The deep emotional and spiritual wounds that have been inflicted on them remain open sores without proper counseling and care.

The system doesn’t have to be like this. There are financially and morally responsible alternatives to detention that are available. Community-based alternatives to detention offer case management for children and their mothers as well as a cost-saving and humane solution to this problem.

The bishops ask that you advocate for the end of family detention. We must work together to welcome the stranger. Detention is an inhumane option for these vulnerable women and children. Contact the White House at 202-456-1414 and send Congress a postcard letting them know that you oppose family detention.

Ashley Feasley, Esq., is an immigration policy advisor with the USCCB Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs Staff.