by Ricardo da Silva SJ

On 20 June, we commemorated World Refugee Day. This message was posted on the website of the South African government to mark this important day:

“It is a special day when the world takes time to recognise the resilience of forcibly displaced people throughout the world.

This year we celebrate the day under the theme: “#withrefugees”. World Refugee Day is celebrated annually to honour the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threats of persecution, conflict and violence. On this day, the international community seeks to draw attention to the plight of refugees and celebrate their courage and resilience.

Around the world more than 50 million people have fled their homes. Each day thousands more follow…

The message certainly appears to express an inclusive and tolerant, even celebratory, sentiment towards refugees. It acknowledges their plight and recognises the extreme difficulties of their life situation. But it is what it doesn’t say that made me think. As an official message by the SA government, it says nothing about what the government itself is prepared to do to support refugees in their moment of certain need. They merely wish to “draw attention to the plight of refugees”.

According to the UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees, “an unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.9 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.”

A few days ago, I received a WhatsApp video of a place in Turffontein, Johannesburg.

The video contains shocking scenes of the housing conditions and mistreatment of refugees. There, refugees are without running water or functioning toilets and live in small dilapidated tents, housing more people than we could dare imagine. Refugee children are also abandoned without access to parks, food or any form of education. You might be shocked to hear this, given the official message issued by our government.

The video tells of refugees, allegedly forcibly removed from collapsing inner-city buildings deemed unsafe for living. They were re-housed in small tents, proudly branded with the SA government logo, thought to be the solution to their troubles. They allegedly woke to police in their homes, grabbing their belongings – including important documents that proved their legal presence in our country – and burning them before their very own eyes.

Many left their homes with only the clothes they were wearing that day. There is little they could or can do. Rather they choose to continue, knowing that the conditions here, however deplorable, are still far better than those in their own homelands.

What can we learn from this? Many will surely say, each to their own and their unfortunate predicament is not my, or indeed our, problem. But it is our problem. It is not only our problem, but also our obligation. It is our Christian obligation to be with our sisters and brothers in need.

Mural: ‘Global Refugee Mural’ by Joel Bergner (2009)