(Washington, D.C.) September 28, 2015 — On November 14, Jesuit Refugee Service will be 35 years old. Then, as now, the world was transfixed by images of people fleeing conflict — often via treacherous sea voyages — to seek safety and security elsewhere.
In the late 1970s, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, was moved by the perilous journeys to exile of the Vietnamese boat people. Although the Vietnam War had ended in 1975, it was not until 1979 that great numbers of people began to leave the country and seek refugee elsewhere through clandestine, risky journeys by sea. At that time Fr. Arrupe appealed to Jesuit major superiors for practical assistance.
The spontaneous and generous 'first wave of action' provoked him to reflect on how much more the Society of Jesus could do if its responses to this, and to other contemporary crises of forced human displacement, were planned and coordinated. From that initial sentiment has grown a world-wide service to forcibly displaced people. On November 14, 1980, Fr. Arrupe announced the birth of Jesuit Refugee Service.
The history of JRS is about the lives and hopes of people we know personally. This personal knowledge constantly transforms our understanding. JRS opens a door — beyond transitory and shocking images — into the inspiring lives of people struggling to defend their rights, protect their families and give their children a future.
Beginnings in Asia
The activities of Jesuit Refugee Service in the Asia region were at first responses to the reality of the Indochina wars. Most initiatives were set against the background of Cold War ideology and rhetoric. JRS quickly established programs in every camp that housed Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees throughout the Southeast Asian region.
In Sri Lanka, many people were forced from their homes in 1983, when the ethnic Singalese reacted violently to armed campaigns by the 'Jaffna' Tamils. But through the 1980s JRS mainly worked with the ‘Tamil repatriates’ who came to India under an agreement between the two governments.
In places where world politics were less dominant, local frontier politics loomed large, as with programs to assist the Burmese refugees in Thailand and in Bangladesh. India’s desire to maintain strong influence in Nepal and Bhutan, which are buffer states with China, has continued to dominate outcomes for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.
Although JRS directors were given authority to open programs wherever they identified a need and could find a way to begin, the best initiatives resulted from partnerships with local Jesuit Provinces. An invitation of this kind could open the possibility of matching outside expertise and resources with local knowledge, leading to more effective projects. Without a local community base, or without knowledge of local customs, people and languages, or without an invitation from a Jesuit Province ready to make a commitment, it was often difficult to form an effective team.
JRS moves to Africa
Since half of the world’s refugees are located Africa, it is the continent where JRS is most present. Many African countries have been touched by conflict at one point or another in the post-colonial period. The unresolved legacies of colonialism, bad governance, weak state structures and lack of leadership, the criminalization and militarization of economies and the contest for control of scarce resources, migratory pressures, are all factors that make conflict and forced migration more likely.
In 1982, Jesuits began the work of JRS in Ethiopia for those displaced by the Ethiopia-Somalia war and later by the Wallega famine of 1984-85. Seeing clearly the endemic nature of conflict in the region, and the prospect of enduring displacement of large populations, JRS accepted that its work there would not be accomplished quickly.
Meanwhile in the early 1980’s in Rome, thousands of foreigners, especially Eritreans and Ethiopians displaced by war and famine at home, were left homeless in the city without shelter against the winter cold. So it was not surprising that the Jesuits of JRS began to assist these homeless migrants. Centro Astalli, a center for forced migrants in Rome, is one of the oldest JRS projects.
In the mid-1990s, JRS arranged the purchase of property in Nairobi in the name of the Eastern Africa Jesuits, in order to provide a management base for its refugee work throughout East Africa. It also undertook to develop formation programs for its members serving there and saw the need for more in-depth studies of refugee problems.
In the Americas, Jesuit Refugee Service has been caught between the demands of its mandate to serve refugees and the forcibly displaced, and the pastoral needs of migrants in general.
As the Cold War ebbed, many of the liberation struggles in Latin America subsided, often without resolution of the fundamental problems that had given rise to them. JRS’ early experience in Latin America was among El Salvadorans dispersed throughout Central America. It also had an important program among Guatemalan refugees in Mexico, including a role in negotiations that enabled local settlement of some and the return of others. Today JRS works with forcibly displaced people from Colombia and Haiti.
The JRS programs in Colombia show no sign of diminishing, since the needs of people displaced within that country continue to grow. In neighboring countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador, there are Colombian refugees who call on the direct services of JRS on the ground and JRS intervention in policy formulation.
The work of JRS in the United States and Canada focuses on projects mainly related to detention of migrants, advocacy and the promotion of research and publication. JRS/USA also supports JRS projects throughout the world through advocacy, fundraising efforts and the provision of personnel.
In Europe, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989, conflict enveloped the region of the former Yugoslavia, which quickly fragmented in the early 1990s into six smaller states. Impulsive acts of violence created rifts that will still take generations to heal.
For JRS, some challenges in the Balkans were totally new, some familiar. Based on deep friendships and trust, strong cooperative activities were developed with both Muslim and Serbian Orthodox communities.
Eastern European countries have for many years provided a back door route into Western Europe for asylum seekers whose journeys began in such places as Sri Lanka, Sudan or Somalia. Many were stranded subsequently in societies facing difficult circumstances. Over the years since 1989, JRS has extended its roles in these countries, building on early beginnings in places of great need such as Romania.
Western European authorities frequently fail to distinguish between a migrant and a refugee, despite continuing developments in international law designed to protect people in both categories.
Punitive and seemingly xenophobic measures dominate the responses of western governments to the influx of asylum seekers. Alongside their many partners, JRS teams offer food and shelter to new arrivals, provide employment counseling, visit those in detention centers, provide information and public education, and help formulate just and appropriate policies.
The summer of 2015 saw an increase of refugee arrivals in Europe, many of them fleeing conflict in Syria. And while it is good news that the EU nations and the U.S. government are moving to offer more resettlement to Syrians, it should be noted that the current refugee flow into Europe is composed not only of Syrians but also of Iraqi, Afghan, and Eritrean, Sudanese and other African refugees, with equally compelling protection needs.
Examples of JRS programs to aid refugees within Europe include:
• The Welcome program in Paris matches an asylum seeker to a family or religious community willing to host them for up to a month. Other JRS offices in Europe plan to model programs after France.
• The JRS safe house in Macedonia house for refugee families.
• In Malta, JRS provides counseling services and legal aid for asylum seekers and refugees.
• JRS continues to run language and vocational training courses from Portugal to Romania in order to help refugees integrate.
• In London, JRS has been involved in a project that helps women asylum seekers learn to ride a bike. Seemingly a simple skill, it not only boosts confidence but facilitates freedom of movement.
• In Italy, JRS helps more than 30,000 refugees each year, cooking hot meals daily, offering medical and legal aid, helping children with school supplies, providing language classes, and more.
• In Romania, JRS provides legal aid, housing, language classes and more to refugees including Syrians.
• In Germany, for those threatened with deportation, JRS offers specialized legal aid.
• In Portugal, JRS offers training to resettled refugees in skills like care for the elderly so they can get jobs. JRS Portugal is a member of a movement providing answers about legal issues and other support, so that local groups who offer to help refugees can effectively welcome them.
JRS continues European wide advocacy for humanitarian visas and expedited processing of visas.