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Our Mission

The mission of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA is to accompany, serve and advocate for the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. Founded by Jesuit Fr. Pedro Arrupe in 1980, in direct response to the humanitarian crisis of the Vietnamese boat people, JRS today works in 47 countries worldwide to meet the educational, health, and social needs of more than 750,000 refugees. 

The focus of our work is to help those we serve to heal, to have the opportunity to learn and ultimately to thrive. Heal because the refugee experience is one of sudden, catastrophic loss — of family, friends, home, community, livelihoods — and ongoing trauma of fear, violence and despair. Learn because education is the one life-saving intervention that cannot be taken away, providing a path to a better future, community empowerment and peace building. Thrive because enabling devastated people to take back their lives re-instills the self-reliance and independence they once had and builds confidence and hope for a better future for all of us — now and for generations to come.

  • History
  • Beginnings
  • Africa
  • Americas
  • Europe
  • Summary
  • Refugees
History of Jesuit Refugee Service

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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. (See attached PDF.)  
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 was 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.

Almost every African country has 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 now 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.

JRS continues to work in many different scenarios throughout Africa: from large refugee camps in Tanzania and Kenya to urban settings in Johannesburg or Nairobi; with repatriated refugees in South Sudan and the internally displaced people in Burundi and Darfur; and with former child soldiers in Chad, to name but a few.

JRS and the Americas

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Download the attached PDF for a larger version of the chart to the right.

In the Americas Jesuit Refugee Service has been caught between the demands of its mandate to serve the refugees and 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, there are Colombian refugees, who call on the direct services of JRS on the ground and JRS intervention in policy formulation. Small JRS programs have sprung up in other Latin American countries. In the Dominican Republic, a sizeable program has been developed since the late 1990s due to the critical need of the Haitians who cross their joint border daily, driven by the harsh economic and political situation in their homeland.

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.

JRS Europe

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. At the present time, 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 counselling, visit those in detention centres, provide information and public education, and help formulate just and appropriate policies


Today Jesuit Refugee Service programs are found in more than 50 countries, providing assistance to refugees in camps and cities, individuals displaced within their own countries, asylum seekers in cities, and those held in detention centers. 

The main areas of work are in the field of education, emergency assistance, healthcare, livelihood activities and social services. At the end of 2009, more than 500,000 individuals were direct beneficiaries of JRS projects, and millions more are indirect beneficiaries.

JRS provides primary and secondary education to approximately 170,000 children, and undertakes advocacy to ensure that all displaced children are provided with a quality education.

More than 1,400 workers contribute to the work of Jesuit Refugee Service around the word, many of whom work on a voluntary basis, including about 78 Jesuits and 66 religious from other congregations. These figures do not include the large number of refugees recruited to take part in the programs as teachers, health workers and others.

JRS is also very much concerned with advocacy and human rights work. This involves ensuring that refugees are afforded their full rights while in exile and during repatriation as guaranteed by the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and working to strengthen the protection afforded to internally displaced persons (IDPs). It extends to advocating for and promoting international human rights legislation, either through participation in international campaigns and coalitions or through membership of international fora, such as the UN Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC).

JRS also contributes to refugee research at the University of Oxford. At Oxford, the Pedro Arrupe Tutor oversees research undertaken in the name of JRS as well as facilitating the training of JRS personnel. The main tasks of the tutorship include conducting research, teaching and offering consultancy regarding refugees and forced migration to church agencies, NGOs and governments.

Who are refugees?

Who are refugees?

1951 UN Refugee Convention

There are many definitions of a refugee, ranging from the most restrictive to the most inclusive. After the Second World War, the UN member states drew up what is now known as the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It originally applied to those who were displaced in Europe before 1951. In 1967, a protocol to the Convention removed the temporal and geographical restrictions.

The Convention defines a refugee as a person 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 their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country.

Other refugee definitions

Since the above definition refers only to individuals in fear of persecution, regional organisations in both Africa (African Union 1969) and Latin America (Organisation for American States 1984) have developed wider definitions which include mass displacements which occur as a result of social and economic collapse in the context of conflict.

Internally displaced persons

Internally displaced persons are "persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised State border." (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Introduction, paragraph 2).

The majority of forcibly displaced persons in the world are displaced within their countries of origin. Nearly 12 of the 26 million persons internally displaced are from Africa, in particular Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

Jesuit Refugee Service definition

In deciding with whom to work, JRS feels that the scope of existing international conventions is too restrictive. It therefore applies the expression de facto refugee to all "persons persecuted because of race, religion, membership of social or political groups;" to "the victims of armed conflicts, erroneous economic policy or natural disasters;" and, for "humanitarian reasons," to internally displaced persons, that is, civilians who "are forcibly uprooted from their homes by the same type of violence as refugees but who do not cross national frontiers."

Asylum seekers

An asylum seeker is an individual who has made an application for protection but whose application has not yet been determined. If an asylum seeker's application is successful, s/he is then recognised as a refugee, and this confers certain rights and obligations according to the legislation of the receiving country.

The practical determination of whether a person is a refugee is left to certain government agencies within the host country or to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). The percentage of successful asylum applications varies from country to country, even for the same nationalities. After waiting years for their claims to be processed, many asylum applicants who receive a negative response to their application cannot be returned home, leaving them in a certain limbo. Unsuccessful asylum seekers who do not leave the host country are thereafter usually considered to be undocumented migrants. Asylum seekers, particularly unsuccessful applicants, are increasingly held in detention centres, particularly in Europe and the US.

It can often be virtually impossible for asylum seekers to leave their countries of origin with adequate documentation and visas. Therefore, most asylum seekers are forced to undertake often expensive and hazardous journeys to enter countries irregularly where they can seek and be granted refuge.

Prima facie refugee

In response to conflicts and mass human rights abuses, individuals often flee countries en masse. In these circumstances, it would be impractical and unnecessary to examine each individual asylum application. These individuals are referred to as prima facie refugees. Examples of refugee movements like this can be found in Sudanese fleeing to Chad, Chadians fleeing to the Central African Republic, Somalis to Kenya, Sri Lankans fleeing to India etc.

Stateless persons

Statelessness is where there exists no recognised state in respect of which an individual has a legally meritorious basis to claim nationality, or where s/he has a legally meritorious claim but is precluded from asserting it due practical considerations such as cost, circumstances of civil disorder, or fear of persecution. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that there are approximately three million stateless persons in the world. Statelessness is often a cause of forced migration as individuals move on to regions of the world where they could be offered basic rights and escape human rights abuses.

Undocumented migrants 

Individuals who cross national borders without adequate documentation (passports, visas, etc.) are referred to as undocumented migrants (or erroneously as illegal immigrants, as irregular entry is rarely a criminal offence). Although undocumented migrants may be in need of international protection, frequently they do not seek asylum. While significant numbers of undocumented migrants would not be recognized as refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention, this does not mean they are not in need of international protection. Many have fled extreme poverty, generalised conflict, economic collapse etc. In host countries, they are regularly denied access to basic services – such as social welfare, education and healthcare – and the right to work.