Last Sunday was the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (the UNHCR) estimates that there were at least 65.3 million refugees, asylum seekers, stateless people and internally displaced persons by the end of 2015. It estimates that in Syria alone, at least 5,000 of that country’s population flee their homes every day, with no end in sight to a war that has entered its eighth year.
Here on our doorstep, Venezuelans are desperate to escape the misery and oppression that have turned a progressive and proud people into scavengers for food, not knowing when the next proper meal will come or when they will be able to live free and productive lives again.
The UNHCR says that there are over 40,000 Venezuelans in Trinidad and Tobago, with hundreds of thousands of others who have sought refuge in Brazil, Colombia, Guyana and Curacao and in other neighbouring countries.
In the wider region, Cuba and Haiti have seen a haemorrhage of their citizens, victims of man-made or natural disasters. Honduras and El Salvador have seen a significant number of their peoples seeking refuge from the criminality that stalks their lives.
In Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and Somalia have suffered the displacement of citizens from states where political and religious persecution have maimed or taken the lives of ordinary citizens, pawns of powers that place little value on human life.
Similarly, Afghanistan and the Balkan states of Europe have demonstrated that the problem of refugees, displaced and stateless people is not limited to any one region, class, religion or ethnicity. It is a universal tragedy and it reduces its victims to an existence in nearly sub-human conditions where human dignity is denied and where the unthinkable often becomes the norm.
In spite of the many problems which we in this nation face, it is out of our scope of experience to even begin to imagine the horror that is part of the daily lives of millions of fellow humans whom we call brothers and sisters in Christ. We see and hear evidence of the presence of Venezuelans, Cubans, Jamaicans and Africans as we go about our daily lives and after a while, begin to take their presence for granted.
While this country’s NGOs and other charitable organisations have been doing their part to help to alleviate the distress of many of these immigrants, there are the unscrupulous among us who take advantage of their desperation and vulnerability.
Low wages and poor working conditions, long hours and a barely hidden contempt for ‘cheap labour’ as well as a willingness to exploit women who seek to provide for their suffering parents and children in their homelands expose the inhumane attitude that some of us have to our brothers and sisters.
We cannot ignore the urgent need to create policies and systems that will answer this global problem which can overwhelm us. We have our poor, suffering and deprived, too. In spite of that, as Christians we cannot ignore the call to see and serve the Christ who dwells among us.