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To Build Peace and Bring Hope

25 Years of Learning from the Refugees

Mark Raper SJ*

First published in Sal Terrae, May 2005

Refugees are not new. Even the story of Adam and Eve speaks of their exile.  For as long as intolerance and oppression have been part of human history, there have been refugees. The numbers of people uprooted today, and the extent of human suffering may not be proportionately greater than at other times in history. The numbers displaced by the Second World War, for example, were in the tens of millions. But with the spread of modernity and its means of communication to every corner of the globe, not only have the total numbers risen, but we are also more aware of them. Contemporary media makes their plight, the size, frequency, speed and complexity of the refugee crises, immediate to us all.

Refugees are everywhere, and so are stories about them.  Refugees today move in new directions, and can arrive anywhere, although it is often overlooked that 90% of them remain in the poorest countries. While the arrival of a small number of refugees into Europe, for example, is often a matter of hyperbolic rhetoric. Rather than searching for ways to protect the rights of asylum seekers, states present themselves as overwhelmed by a crisis. But instead of seeking solutions, they try by all means either to ignore the problem or to block the movements. Yet harsh legislation, ostensibly designed to protect states against refugees and migrants, only serves to strengthen illegal operations that bring desperate people across borders. The real refugee crisis is that the root causes are again overlooked, and that the international set of agreements designed to offer protection to refugees is now being dismantled, piece by piece, by the states that signed them into force. 

To be a refugee is a complex and painful human experience.  If we will hear them, the refugees will teach us what it is to bring hope, and what are the ways to build peace.

Reflecting on the experiences of JRS living and working with refugees over 25 years, I speak about the world-wide movement of refugees today, about what I believe are the causes of this phenomenon, how it impacts on our society, and what we can do in response.

JRS is an effective non-government organisation (NGO). JRS is grass roots, it goes to the root causes of poverty, disadvantage and conflict and it is inspired by compassion. Because of its network of locally based units, JRS is close to people in need, it responds quickly to changing conditions and it stays when other agencies leave.

How is it that so much resources and energy are spent, by individuals and governments, in order to avoid what we fear, yet so little is spent on pursuing what we love, respect or long for?  In order to build peace and to bring hope, we are invited to follow our hearts rather than to surrender to our fears.

The gospel calls us with the message: ‘Do not be afraid’ in a world increasingly dominated by fear and insecurity. Fear is dominant in the formulation of both international and domestic policies today. The logic of fear leads to anxiety, isolation, suspicion, inaction, violence.  By contrast the way of the gospel speaks to our desires.  ‘Do not be afraid’ is a way of releasing dreams and desires of peace and hope. The logic of desires leads to confidence, trust, reconciliation. 

Hope is different from optimism.  Hope arises from lived experiences of suffering.  Imagine the will, the sustained desire, the strength of character, needed to keep a refugee’s hope alive, not only in escaping persecution, but in surviving ongoing detention, isolation and vilification. 

Through stories I invite you into the refugee experience, and through that experience to another way of viewing our world.  Not all refugee stories have happy outcomes, in fact far from it. Sometimes we experience only our powerlessness. Yet we can learn from all of the stories. 

Gabriel, a six-foot-six Dinka, had arrived in Thailand after a journey that, for his people, rivalled Marco Polo’s.  Travelling by foot to escape the fighting which had begun in 1983 in his home in Southern Sudan, he had crossed into Egypt and on to Iran to study, but instead was drafted to be a porter in the Iran-Iraq war. Escaping, he failed to get passage westwards to Europe and so, heading east towards Australia, was stopped in Singapore and diverted to Bangkok. There, since I was then living and working in Thailand, I found him, culturally disoriented, alone and desperate. He visited frequently, and with an officer from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), we searched everywhere for a country to take him. Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, Sweden, none would even interview him. Finally he was offered three choices, a trip home to the Sudan, or Kenya, or Liberia. In desperation he accepted Liberia and departed in 1987. The women in our office gave him the biggest shirt they could find in the shops. Several times he wrote to me, his words dictated to a Scottish Salesian priest. A few years later I was in my new position in Rome. Deeply moved by the suffering of the Liberian people, I went in 1992 to war-ravaged Monrovia to see what could be done. While there I hunted for Gabriel.  Visiting the Salesians, I asked if they had known him. Sure enough, they pointed me to a Scot, the one who had written Gabriel’s letters. He told me how Gabriel had died, mistaken for a Mandingo, waving his long arms and showing his refugee card, trying to explain to a drugged, over-armed Krahn follower of Charles Taylor, that he was ‘under the protection’ of the United Nations. I wept for Gabriel and the many victims of that senseless never ending war.

Perhaps there is no moral to draw from the story of Gabriel who had traversed, mostly on foot, the geography of our world of conflict and refugees: escaping the Sudan war he was caught in a middle Eastern one, blocked when trying asylum routes west, east, south and north, caught in the eddy of the Indochinese refugee tide, finally a target in someone else’s war.

Every continent and every region of the world is affected by forced displacement of people. Over the past 25 years almost every country in Africa, for example, has either produced or received refugees. Generations of people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have known no other life than a refugee camp. Denied education, children lose their hope in the future. Adults lose their roles, their skills and their dignity. Communities become dependent and cultures are atrophied. Lost generations linger in legal, social and political limbo, often ignored by the international community.  When not ignored, the lives of refugees risk distortion in the media.

The history of refugees over these past 25 years is marked at mid-point by the decisive events of 1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. In the eighties and before, those who fled communist regimes received most attention. Almost two million Indochinese, for example, were resettled in over 30 countries.

In 1990, a moment in time when contemporary world history changed dramatically, I was moved from Asia to Rome to engage in JRS’ world wide program.  During the 1990s the JRS was engaged deeply with an immense range of peoples in crisis. Of course we continued our work with the Cambodians, Burmese, Tamils from Sri Lanka, Afghans and the Bhutanese in Nepal. But a lot of my time was spent in Africa.  In the Horn of Africa, I worked with the Eritreans and Tigrayans, and when the fortunes of war changed, with the Amharic speaking Ethiopians; also with Somalis and with the Sudanese who are displaced into Chad, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Egypt and Ethiopia because of a conflict over pasture land, the waters of the Nile, oil and Shariah law.  We worked with the Mozambicans who were in Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and with Angolans, with Liberians, with Congolese, Rwandans and Burundis.

In Latin America our engagements were with El Salvador, but after the peace agreement and their return home, we turned our efforts to the Guatemalans in Mexico, then to the Colombians, and the Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

Of course the Balkans and the terrible conflict in Bosnia claimed our attention. Our team was in Sarajevo throughout the conflict of the nineties, but also in Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Croatia.

Through all this time in the United States and in Europe, as here in Australia, the latest conflicts were reflected in the faces and identities of the latest arrivals.  The universal geography of displacement finds its mirror in the immigration and detention centres of every city in the world that has an international airport.

Why do refugees leave home? In classic migration theory, three sets of factors influence human movement:  Push, Pull and Networks. Multiple factors are at play when a person chooses to leave home.  Studies have revealed that the top ten reasons for asylum seekers coming to Australia are ‘push’ factors. [1] That is, they were forced to leave. But before examining or seeking global explanations, let me try to paint the scenario of one conflict that created mass displacement of people.

In April this year we commemorated 11 years since the Rwandan genocide began. It began on 6th April 1994, with the killing of President Habyarimana, and then with the assassination the following day of a group of people at Centre Christus, the Jesuit retreat centre in Kigali, among them three Jesuits, one of them the director of the local JRS program. The world was shocked by the genocide that raged, taking over 800,000 lives in 100 days, but the world was also paralysed. It was portrayed as ethnic conflict, as if that truth was also an answer or an explanation.  Films such as Hotel Rwanda are retelling the story of those horrible days, helping us to imagine and remember events that most wish to forget.

Prising open the layers of Rwandan society, one can find some factors that help us, if not to accept, at least to begin to understand. Rwanda’s population, some 3 million in the sixties, had risen to almost 8 million in 1994 and its density was among the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa. The new experience of nationalism in Africa rigidified the national borders and made the natural nomadism of previous centuries impossible. By the mid eighties the family farming plots had been divided up as much as seemed possible, leaving many second, third and fourth sons without an income and without a future. At about this point in time the international market for Rwanda’s principle commodity, coffee, collapsed to a half of its former value. Another factor was the growing scourge of HIV/AIDS which left many young people without fathers and the direction of their parents. Since independence in the sixties, the Belgians had intensified their input into education for the Hutu population, therefore many boys and, for Africa, a high proportion of girls, had the opportunity for secondary school education. So there was a significant population of young people whose hopes and expectations had been raised by their schooling, but who were now uprooted, left landless, jobless and futureless. 

At that time the President of the country was a Hutu, but under intense international pressure, he was about to sign into law the Arusha Agreement to allow a more democratic process in the country, with the consequent risk that he would lose power. In the attacks of April 1994 that precipitated the genocide, extremist Hutus first targeted moderate Hutus and any other moderate figure, whatever their ethnicity. Then, seeking by all means to retain power, they exploited this discontented mass of young people, using radio stations to send them to the hills with a poisoned message of ethnic hatred. Ethnicity and discontent, bred from poverty, were exploited by individuals for corrupt reasons.

‘It is not power that corrupts, but fear”, Aung San Suu Kyi [2] tells us in a comment learned from her own experience. “Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” 

Could the international community have done something to stop the Rwanda genocide?  It takes a local agency like Caritas, or prophetic religious communities, or movements of resistance, on the ground in these places to alert us to such situations. Or it takes a university, which specialises in studying society and human problems.  But could powerful nations have done something?  General Dellaire, the Canadian who commanded the tiny UN peace keeping force on the ground in Kigali at that time, believes if his mandate was changed, he could have intervened early. Or if there had been some local resistance and voice, for example from the Church, then the outside world would have taken notice. 

But remember, April 1994 was but a few months after the Black Hawk Down incident, when 15 US servicemen had been dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia in humiliating view of the CNN cameras.  Immediately the US began to withdraw. Their withdrawal, completed in March 1994, days before the Rwandan genocide began, was accompanied by US horror at humanitarian intervention and Presidential commitments not to send US troops abroad again in an international force unless they were under direct US command.

This Rwandan vignette shows the complexity of one situation, where there has been remarkable recovery and healing. Yet, without wishing to depress you, it is important to indicate that the countries around Rwanda remain in crisis: Uganda to the north, where about one million people are internally displaced; Congo to the west where, according to a longitudinal study by International Rescue Committee, some three million people have died over the past ten years because of conflict or conflict induced disease and starvation. In Burundi to the south, hundreds of thousands remain internally displaced, and similar numbers are refugees in Tanzania. Three hundred thousand people of Burundi have died in conflict since 1993, including a few weeks ago, the Apostolic Nuncio, the Pope’s ambassador in Burundi.

James Wolfensohn, who heads the World Bank, was interviewed recently. [3] If a Martian were to land here, he said, it would report home that this planet is crazy. A minority on the planet live for today and do not see the majority of poor. The developed countries of the world spend immense amounts on arms but only a fraction on aid. The poverty and despair of many of the 5 billion people in the developing world only help fuel terrorism and extremism.

"I personally feel the world is out of balance," he is quoted as saying. "The way the world is dealing with problems of poverty and peace seem to be disconnected."  Military spending worldwide is now probably $US1000 billion, and spending on subsidies or tariffs to protect farmers in the developed world is about $US300 billion. In comparison, wealthy countries offer no more than $US50-$US60 billion in aid to developing countries while blocking most of their agricultural exports – one of the few opportunities these countries have to haul themselves out of poverty.

“There are 5 billion people in the developing world, 3 billion earning under $US2 a day, and 1.2 billion earning under $1 a day…If you can't give them hope, which comes from getting a job or doing something productive, giving them their self-respect, these people become the basis on which terrorists or renegades or advocacy groups can flourish. It's an essentially unstable situation…If you cannot deal with the question of hope, there is no way that with military expenditure you can have peace. I think you could spend $US2 trillion on military expenditure, but if you do nothing about poverty and development you're not going to have stability." [4]

I am convinced that the underlying causes of the forced displacement of people today are found in the imbalance in the distribution of the world’s resources and the consequent conflicts that spring from this imbalance.  The building blocks to peace will be found in addressing these causes.  Australian immigration advocate, Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki wrote recently: “Basically, the challenge to Australia will be how to respond to massive gaps in world income, resulting in economic pressure that forces migration out of poor areas within nation states and in international migration movements”. [5]

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor also addressed this point last year in a summit on globalisation in Britain.  He said poverty is as big a scourge as terrorism.  He claimed that he does not want to belittle the truth that terrorism is more dangerous today than it has ever been. But he questioned whether blaming “failed states” for allowing terrorism to flourish was adequate. “States fail”, he says, “when they are incapable of lifting people out of poverty, or when they pay insufficient heed to the importance of ensuring that wealth is adequately distributed so that the whole of the population can flourish; or, indeed, when they fail to take seriously the obligation to ensure that wealth is not created for the few and at the expense of many.”  He concludes his address in a stirring way:

Our greatest challenge at the beginning of the 21st century is poverty. Our greatest debt is the debt to our brothers and sisters in the poorest parts of the world. Our greatest hope is our common humanity and solidarity. And our greatest strength is our commitment to work together. I would like to think we can all take that message back to our communities, our institutions and our Governments…

If, as Cardinal Murphy O’Connor claims, the greatest threat to world today is poverty not terrorism, why do we not have a war on poverty rather than war on terror?  

The Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman has written yet another stimulating book reflecting on modern society. He goes further in his analysis than simply naming poverty as a cause, he examines the inequity that modernity requires.  His book is called ‘Wasted Lives, Modernity and its Outcasts’, [6] in which he examines the production of ‘superfluous’ populations of migrants, refugees and other outcasts, the inevitable outcome of modernisation. Formerly, he claims, the large parts of the world that were wholly or partly unaffected by modernisation were able to absorb the excess of population of developed countries.  Global solutions were sought, and temporarily found, to local problems.  Convicts and unemployed were sent to Australia, and the Americas, for example, with disastrous consequences for the indigenous societies. Now, as modernisation reaches every corner of the globe, this ‘redundant population’ is produced everywhere, and all locations have to bear the consequences of the triumph of modernity.  Now we have to seek local solutions to globally produced problems.  As a result of the spread of modernity, growing numbers of human beings are deprived of adequate means of survival and the planet appears to be running out of places to put them. Hence the new anxieties about immigrants and the growing role of diffuse security fears in the political agenda. 


“We make progress”, said Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German Dominican mystic, “by stopping.”  It is good to stop and look back over the past 25 years, and so to consider just how we can go forward.  Over this time, the refugees have been my teachers. Jesuit Refugee Service was built from the bottom up. Its vision came from its founder Pedro Arrupe, but each new program has to be worked out on the ground, with the people, and in response to their needs.  JRS’s mission is to “accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees”. Our experience in Central America of accompañamiento gave new meaning to our mission “to accompany” the forcibly displaced. When North Americans volunteered to live with communities of refugees in El Salvador, local armies knew that if they used US supplied M16s to kill American citizens, military aid and external political support for the dictatorship would dry up.  Just by being there, one could protect human rights.

From refugees I learned too that if you want to a shape a vision of a future society for which we long, then go to the widows and mothers who have lost their sons to war. Those who have nothing left to lose are often the ones who are most free to imagine and to describe the ideal society, and they show extraordinary resilience and hope in pursuing that vision. “If it were not for hope, our hearts would break”, the proverb says. 

Refugees showed me what human resilience means. Visiting newly arrived refugees, whether in the Krajina district across from the Bihac pocket in Bosnia, or at the Burma border close to Mae Hong Song in Thailand, I would regularly find them most pre-occupied for their children’s future. The first job in resilient communities, was to get the school going. Arriving once in a clearing in northern Uganda, where thousands of Sudanese were setting up camp after weeks of walking, I chanced upon a man surrounded by children, and asked what would help him most. “A blackboard and some chalk”, he replied. He was a teacher, concerned only that the children’s education should continue.  In the Cambodian camps of the eighties, where every event, every conversation was politicised, we offered classes in higher mathematics. The students’ spirits would soar in that hour of freedom, because you just cannot politicise mathematics.

How fortunate we are now to have refugees from so many places settling in our Western countries. If we can know them, if they can help us to understand their stories, then we may better understand our world. JRS is both inserted in local communities, and works throughout the world. The contribution of such international networks, at a time of globalisation, is incomparable.

The world has changed over these twenty five years, and surely so has JRS. Many changes stand out in sharp relief.  International humanitarian roles are radically transformed when governments give more effort to bellicose actions than to seeking peace.  The discontent and uncertainty of society in the face of globalisation’s changes are too frequently incorrectly identified as threats to security.   The belittling of the United Nations by political leaders gives cause for nothing but shame.

JRS supports and urges its members not only to best practice in service of forcibly displaced people, but also to get to the root causes of human rights abuse. Refugees are, after all, human rights abuse made manifest. JRS demonstrates not just good ideas and experiences, not just a data-base of good methods, not just an agreed code of right conduct. JRS associates with people who can help us to a crucial insight into the forces at work in our world. JRS links people of faith who share a vision for a better, fairer, and more equitable world.   A shared vision is liberating, is mobilising.  A shared vision gives hope.  “If it were not for hope, our hearts would break”.

[1] Kerry Murphy, “Refugees in Australia: Unwanted Strangers?” Jesuit Refugee Service Australia, Occasional Paper No 3, September 2002.

[2] Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear and Other Writings, Penguin Books, London, 1991

[3] ‘No peace without hope’ Roy Eccleston The Australian February 4, 2004

[4] ibid.

[5] ‘Jerzy Zubrzycki: Let’s revisit Calwell ideal’ The Australian January 13, 2004

[6] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives – Modernity and its Outcasts, Polity, Cambridge, 2004

* Mark Raper SJ, now Provincial of the Australian Jesuits, spent 20 years with JRS, first as Regional Director in Asia Pacific, and then as International Director


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