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Appendix 05: The Catholic View
Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"The fact that the Church carries out extensive relief efforts on behalf of refugees, especially in recent years, should not be a source of surprise to anyone. Indeed this is an integral part of the Church's mission in the world. The Church is ever mindful that Jesus Christ himself was a refugee, that as a child he had to flee with his parents from his native land in order to escape persecution. In every age therefore the Church feels herself called to help refugees. And she will continue to d? so, to the full extent that her limited means allow." ~ Pope John Paul II, Address to Refugees in Exile at Morong, no. 3.

Catholic teaching broadens the definition of who should be considered a refugee. It maintains that people who are victims of armed conflicts, misguided economic policies or natural disasters, as well as "internally displaced persons," uprooted from their homes without having crossed an international frontier, should also be recognized as refugees and offered international protection.

This principle is well supported and documented in Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity, published in 1992 by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People and the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum."

In widening the net of people who should be deemed refugees and challenging the arguments in favor of limiting the granting of asylum, the document also makes the case for including "economic migrants" under the refugee umbrella.

"Those who flee economic conditions that threaten their lives and physical safety must be treated differently from those who emigrate simply to improve their position," the document states. Economic reasons can be, and often are, sufficient reason to justify granting asylum status.

Criticism of United Nations Position

A major criticism of the UN definition is that it is based on the circumstances existing in Europe immediately after World War II and during the Cold War, and does not address the massive changes which have since occurred in other parts of the world. 
Alternative regional definitions have been developed to recognize these differing circumstances, and the World Council of Churches (WCC) has adopted elements of these, along with the UN definition.

Facts and Figures

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the intergovernmental organization with responsibility for protecting refugees throughout the world.

The United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 (sometimes called the Geneva Convention) defines a refugee as someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to return."

Since UNHCR was created to protect the rights of refugees, it is important to understand that they are distinct from IDPs and asylum seekers. The latter group may achieve refugee status after being admitted to a country as asylum seekers, but since IDPs have not left the boundaries of their homelands, they cannot be accorded that status even if civil unrest or fear of death caused them to move. In many instances asylum seekers have been detained by countries to which they fled in fear while their cases are adjudicated. Once their case is judged they may be awarded refugee status or returned to their home countries.

Although refugees are defined and protected by law, their legal rights and the obligation of states toward them are limited.  The definition of refugee and international law and practice is evolving toward obligating states to recognizing a wider range of refugees and people in refugee like situations and to provide a broader, more humanitarian response to their needs. In order to understand this situation it is important to have understanding of the differences and similarities among the various groups who are driven from their homes: 

During 2006, some 670,000 claims for asylum or refugee status were submitted in 149 countries. According to the UNHCR, the top five countries where people sought asylum last year were France, the U.S., Thailand, Kenya, the United Kingdom, and Germany.