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Catholic News Herald

Serving Christ and Connecting Catholics in Western North Carolina

valentaAs the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt to protect the life of Baby Jesus 2,000 years ago, many families around the world are facing the same hardships, uncertainly and vulnerability of being a refugee.

Currently, the United Nations’ estimated number of displaced persons who were forced to leave their homes to save their lives from war or persecution has reached a historic high of 65 million and continues to rise. While we are currently living in the midst of the greatest global refugee crisis since the Second World War, the political obstacles for refugee acceptance in developed countries are greater than ever.

The largest amount of refugees come from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan and most recently Myanmar, where the governmental suppression of the Rohingya Muslim minority has been described as genocide. Contrary to popular belief, because of a lack of support and resources combined with a desire to eventually return to their homes, the vast majority of refugees do not resettle in wealthy developed countries. They usually end up in middle income or poor countries in the Middle East and Africa, which is detrimental to the refugees, the host countries and the overall stability in the region.

Some of these countries, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Pakistan, are already struggling with chronically high poverty levels, and having to care for refugees, who usually arrive without even the most basic necessities can be a tremendous burden. For very small countries, such as Lebanon, hosting a number of refugees as large as a quarter of its entire population is overwhelming. The lack of resources of the host countries prompt many international humanitarian agencies to take action in these situations, but according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance report of 2016, these agencies are chronically underfunded with a budget of only about one-half to two-thirds of what is considered to be the absolute minimum needed.

As a result, people in refugee camps suffer from unsanitary conditions and shortages of food, clean water and basic medical supplies in addition to lack of security, which makes them vulnerable to violent crimes, including rape and murder. More than one-half of all refugees are children, many of whom die of treatable deceases, such as malaria and measles. The children who are caught in protracted refugee situations of five or more years often lack a chance for education, which further contributes to the cycle of poverty in problematic regions.

To escape these hardships, desperate refugees attempt the perilous journey on overcrowded homemade boats as they try to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Each year, many families, including small children, do not make it, and thousands of them drown or die of exposure. The year 2016 was the most tragic, with more than 5,000 fatalities on the Mediterranean passage, according to the Missing Migrants Project, a non-profit humanitarian organization. Many people also die on land, as for example all 71 migrants who suffocated to death when riding in a truck in Austria in the summer of 2015. Even though some European countries have been relatively generous with refugee acceptance and Germany pledged to accept one million refugees, their help is not adequate given the enormity of the crisis. Furthermore, anti-immigrant nationalist parties have gradually gained political strength in recent years, making prospects for future refugee resettlement in Europe grim.

The chances for refugees to resettle in the United States are even smaller. Many U.S. charities and churches are moved by the hardships of these desperate people, and have been a great help and support during the refugee resettlement process in this country. However, the greatest obstacle is our restrictive policy of how many refugees are allowed to enter. Considering the size of this country and the strength of the economy, the United States is notorious for accepting only a very small number of refugees each year. For the following fiscal year the maximum number of refugees has been further reduced to 45,000 instead of the previously planned 100,000. So far, the United States has resettled a total of 18,000 Syrian refugees – a significantly lower number than most developed countries including Canada, which has resettled 40,000 with its 10 times smaller population size.

The vast majority of refugees tend to adjust and assimilate well, and contribute to the economic development of this country. According to the International Rescue Committee, most refugees who come to the U.S. are able to speak fluent English within several years, and when compared to the general U.S. population, a higher percentage of them become successful entrepreneurs. Our country is thus missing a unique opportunity to benefit from valuable human resources and to provide a chance for a new life in safety for the most desperate. We are also not addressing the situation and tensions developing in the areas refugees are escaping from, area that are particularly vulnerable to economic collapse, instability and further conflict. Some of the most devastating recent conflicts have been caused by refugee crises. The Great War of Africa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the turn of this millennium claimed more than 5 million lives, and was directly fueled by an unaddressed refugee situation that resulted from the genocide in the neighboring Rwanda.

Our faith has always been sensitive to the hardship and suffering of those who are forced to abandon their homes in the face of danger, and the Flight to Egypt has been traditionally listed as one of our Lady’s seven sorrows. By the grace of God, the Holy Family was able to eventually find safety, but millions of contemporary refugees will not, and even though we cannot save all of them, we could be saving a lot more.

Dr. Kamila Valenta is a member of St. Gabriel Church in Charlotte and a part-time professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she teaches courses on ethnic conflict.