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Addressing the needs of migrants and refugees

Venezuelans walk on a highway in Paraguachon, Colombia, after crossing the border from Venezuela. (CNS photo/Jaime Saldarriaga, Reuters)

By Leela Ramdeen, Chair, CCSJ, & Director, CREDI
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Recently someone remonstrated, stating that the Catholic Church should not “get involved in refugee and migrant issues”. I was floored by her reasoning—particularly as she is also a Catholic. Our Church has always urged us to have a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. This is a key social justice principle.

If Christians are disciples of Christ, if we are to follow in His footsteps, if we are to build His Kingdom here on earth, if we are to recognise Him in the face of our neighbour then we must take heed of His words in today’s Gospel (Lk 1:1–4; 4:14–21): The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lords year of favour.

In Pope Francis’ Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees in January 2018 entitled ‘Migrants and Refugees: men and women in search of peace’, he asked all people/nations to develop a strategy combining four actions to support migrants and refugees—welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating.

In November 2018, our Attorney General (AG) stated that about 7,000 people are seeking asylum in T&T. We know that there are thousands more who have arrived in T&T and have not applied for refugee status. Whatever their status, they are human beings, endowed by God with a dignity that is inherent, inalienable and inviolable.

The challenge for all of us—whatever faith community we belong to—is to reach out in compassion to welcome, protect, promote and integrate our brothers and sisters who have come to our shores from more than 30 different countries.

As Pope Francis has said: “In a spirit of compassion, let us embrace all those fleeing from war and hunger, or forced by discrimination, persecution, poverty and environmental degradation to leave their homelands.” This is a global crisis and we must have a humanitarian response to the current challenges that we face.

In May 2018, Archbishop Jason Gordon established an Archdiocesan Ministry for Migrants and Refugees, as part of the remit of CCSJ, working closely with Living Water Community (LWC), the implementing partner of UNHCR. Each parish has been charged with responsibility by His Grace to establish a Ministry for Migrants and Refugees.

In challenging situations, Christians often ask: “What would Jesus do?”. Compassion is at the heart of the tenets of all Faith communities. Compassion should lead each one of us to reach out and help refugees and migrants in our communities, in whatever way we can. Parishes should provide a co-ordinated approach to meet their needs e.g. for food, clothing, shelter, and psycho-social support.

There must be a multipronged approach to this issue. We know that although T&T has signed two international treaties on refugees, the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees—acceded to in November 2000—neither of these have been ratified, that is, incorporated into local law.

Our AG has said: “We have no legislation in T&T. We have not ratified; we have acceded, not ratified. We have protocols that are exercised in conjunction with the UN agency and Living Water, and we treat with this in the way we are supposed to.”

In 2014, T&T’s cabinet adopted a national policy to address asylum and refugee matters, but legislation is required to give “teeth” to such a policy—to recognise the rights of refugees e.g. travel documents, identity papers, authorisation to work, and the right to education.

And there is the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where he/she faces serious threats to his/her life or freedom.

While I appreciate the reasons for Government’s delay in enacting legislation, consider the alternative. Currently, thousands of migrants and refugees in T&T are in dire straits: many are destitute; hundreds of children cannot go to school; and some need more than basic medical care.

UNICEF and UNHCR are working with LWC to provide limited educational opportunities for children concerned but this is not an ideal situation.  Vulnerable migrants and refugees are open to exploitation in the labour market, human trafficking, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, crime/violence/prostitution.

Whither goeth thou, T&T?