To Accompany, Serve and Advocate

Every year on June 20th the United Nations commemorates World Refugee Day and calls us to reflect on the plight of refugees.  Their human dignity and rights have been violated, first of all in their countries of origin and then, sometimes, even in the countries where they seek asylum and protection.  On this day we celebrate their courage and resilience, we renew our commitment to address their problems, and we recognise the contributions they make in host communities. Their lives are a pilgrimage of faith and hope.

The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, recalls that “the Church goes forward together with humanity” and so “the joys and the hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or in any way afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

In showing Christian solidarity with refugees, we need to treat their rights as seriously as we would treat our own.  The rights of refugees become effective only if we make a concerted effort to root out the causes of refugee flows.  We should no longer sit silent and watch while other people’s rights are being systematically violated.  As Elie Wiesel says: “We must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

Celebrating World Refugee Day is fundamentally about breaking the silence, challenging negative stereotypes and creating more accurate public perceptions about refugees.  It is also an opportunity to reflect on the recent bad experiences of foreigners in many parts of our country.  The recurrence of xenophobic attacks leaves a scar not just on the people who were attacked but on the country itself.  Our constitution uniquely says that ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in diversity’.  South Africa as a host country needs to redeem her tarnished image on the global sphere and turn the positive language in our Constitution from paper to practice.  Many of our citizens do not understand the plight of refugees in our country.  But a campaign of enlightenment can start from our churches: we can reach out to touch others and make an effort to know the ‘stranger’ with whom we share pews and the body and blood of Christ.  Often times we fear and avoid those we do not know.  The attitudes that gave vent to xenophobic attacks in 2008 are still under the surface here in the form of scape-goating and hostile policies towards migration.

Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), as an international Catholic organisation, provides specialised support services in over 50 countries around the world.  Our mission is to Accompany, Serve and Advocate for the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons.  Our work is built on the values of: Compassion, Hope, Solidarity, Hospitality, Justice and Participation. We support people with shelter, food parcels, blankets, education fees, health care, vocational training and livelihoods.  JRS is committed to social justice: we offer support and services to refugees and asylum seekers of all nationalities, religions, tribes, lifestyles and races.  For more information about JRS contact advocacy@jrssa.org.za or call 012 323 3116.

Fr Rampe Hlobo SJ
Mr Samson Ogunyemi
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