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As the World Migrates

Church Outlines Principles on a Growing Phenomenon

NEW YORK, JUNE 21, 2004 (Zenit) - How to cope with ever-increasing numbers of migrants is a topic being examined both by international organizations and the Church. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Last Dec. 9 established a Global Commission on International Migration. The 18-member panel is undertaking investigations and will submit a report to the secretary-general by midsummer 2005.

The commission's Web page explains that a combination of contemporary of forces -- conflict and instability, global demographic and economic trends, facilitated travel and communication -- create powerful incentives for people to move. Although each country's migration policies are formulated primarily on the basis of national interest, their impact has repercussions on other states. As a result, nations are increasingly trying to improve cooperation in this area.

Precise information on the numbers of migrants in the world is difficult to obtain. A widely cited number comes from the U.N. document "International Migration 2002," which calculated that by 2000, around 175 million people, or 3% of the world's population, were residing outside their country of birth or citizenship.

Migration was also one of the themes examined by the annual conference of the International Labor Organization (ILO), held June 1-17. A press release issued Wednesday announced that the meeting had adopted a new plan aimed at guaranteeing decent working conditions for migrant workers in the global economy.

"Migration is one of the most contentious issues facing the world today," said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. The ILO plan of action calls for establishing guidelines on matters such as promoting "managed migration" for employment purposes; licensing and supervision of recruitment and contracting agencies for migrant workers; and preventing abusive practices, migrant smuggling and trafficking in persons.

The ILO plan also aims to promote measures to ensure that migrant workers benefit from the provisions of all relevant international labor standards. It further introduces measures to ensure that all migrant workers are covered by national labor legislation and applicable social laws.

Pros and cons

According to an ILO report published May 21, "Towards a Fair Deal for Migrant Workers in the Global Economy," the number of migrants increased by some 6 million a year during the 1990s.

The report noted that not all countries monitor or report on labor migration flows. But it is estimated that there are today more than 86 million economically active migrants the world over, including some 32 million in the developing regions. This figure is likely to be an underestimate, the report observed.

For receiving countries, the economic effects of immigration are mainly beneficial. The newcomers rejuvenate populations and stimulate growth without inflation. By contrast, the countries of origin may experience a brain drain due to the emigration of skilled people.

According to the ILO, nearly 400,000 scientists and engineers from developing countries are working on research and development in industrial countries. For example, Jamaica and Ghana have more of their locally trained doctors outside their countries than inside them.

But migrants do bring substantial economic benefits for their home nations, due to the flow of remittances sent back to their families. Data from the World Bank put this flow at around $80 billion in 2002 alone.

A problem highlighted in the ILO report is the estimated 10% to 15% of irregular migrants. The report notes that working conditions for these migrants are often marked by exploitation, discrimination and xenophobia.

Refugee numbers down

A problem related to migration is the matter of refugees. This week saw some good news with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announcing on Thursday that the global number of refugees and persons of concern dropped to 17.1 million in 2003, the lowest in at least a decade.

According to provisional year-end statistics for 2003 released by UNHCR, this is an 18% drop from 2002. The new figure includes 9.7 million refugees (down by 10%); 1.1 million returned refugees; 4.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs); 233,000 returned IDPs; 995,000 asylum seekers; and 912,000 others, including stateless people.

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers attributed the sharp decline to several factors, including increased international efforts to find solutions for millions of uprooted people and ongoing work by UNHCR and its partners to resolve "protracted" refugee situations that have gone on for years or even decades.

In particular, noted Lubbers, there has been an unprecedented level of voluntary repatriation over the past two years. Some 3.5 million refugees, mostly Afghans from Pakistan and Iran, have returned home.

Love for migrants

On May 14 the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers published an instruction titled, "Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi" (The Love of Christ Toward Migrants).

The council explained that the prime purpose of the document "is to respond to the new spiritual and pastoral needs of migrants and to make migration more and more an instrument of dialogue and proclamation of the Christian message."

The instruction observes that regarding migrants the Church has always contemplated the image of Christ who said, "I was a stranger and you made me welcome" (Matthew 25:35). But, migrants are more than just a neighbor in need, notes the instruction: "In the foreigner a Christian sees not simply a neighbor, but the face of Christ Himself, who was born in a manger and fled into Egypt" (see Matthew 2:13ff). "Welcoming the stranger is thus intrinsic to the nature of the Church itself and bears witness to its fidelity to the gospel," notes the instruction.

Migration presents Christians with a number of challenges. Christians are called upon to practice evangelization and solidarity, as well as "to examine more profoundly those values shared by other religious or lay groups and indispensable to ensure a harmonious life together."

A more recent development, namely the growing presence of Muslims, as well as followers of other religions, in traditionally Christian countries, calls for greater efforts in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, notes the document.

The instruction deals at length with humanitarian, social and pastoral details of the Church's work with migrants. "Particular Churches," it says, "are thus called for the gospel's sake to a better welcome for migrants through pastoral initiatives that include meeting them and dialoguing with them as well as helping the faithful to overcome prejudices and biases."

But a significant part is also dedicated to dealing with the spiritual challenges of migrations. In fact, notes the instruction, today the world is faced "with a cultural and religious pluralism never perhaps experienced so consciously before." The pontifical council calls for "respect as far as possible for the cultural identity of one's dialogue partners."

While Christians are called upon to respect other cultures and religions, the document warns against creating confusion in situations of religious diversity. Churches and places of worship should not be used for members of non-Christian religions. In Catholic schools, students should not be obliged to take part in a Catholic liturgy or to perform actions contrary to their religious convictions.

At the same time, the instruction stresses, Catholic schools "must not renounce their own characteristics and Christian-oriented educational programs when immigrants' children of another religion are accepted." The instruction also considers that marriage between Catholics and non-Christian migrants should be discouraged.

A part of the document is dedicated to urging Christians to proclaim the Gospel to migrants. The instruction explains that the Church's missionary calling is not limited to sending missionaries to other countries. Rather, it includes "going out to every person to proclaim Jesus Christ and, in Christ and the Church, to bring him into communion with all humanity." A task that will grow in importance with the continuing flow of migrants.

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