Emergency multitasking: Vatican says keep all vulnerable in mind

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VATICAN CITY — Internally displaced people — those forced to flee their homes, but who do not cross into another country — still often need protection and special assistance, including from the church, said a new Vatican document.

"People in situations of protracted displacement may be forced to live away from their homes for many years, or even decades, and lack access to education, property, employment and the support they need for sustainable livelihoods and hope for their future," said the document.

The Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development released "Pastoral Orientations on Internally Displaced People" May 5 with an online news conference.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, at the end of 2018 there were 41.3 million people internally displaced worldwide, "the highest number in recorded history," the document noted.

Cardinal Michael Czerny and Scalabrinian Father Fabio Baggio, undersecretaries of the Migrants and Refugees Section, told reporters that while many people are rightly focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, long-standing emergencies like forced displacement still require the church's attention.

"In this time of pandemic, the virus does not distinguish between those who are important and those who are invisible, those who are settled and those who are displaced: everyone is vulnerable, and each infection is a danger to everyone," Cardinal Czerny said.

Father Baggio said he hoped people would not overlook problems that existed long before the virus and will exist long after it is over.

"Multitasking is not optional," he said. The virus has shown society that systemic weaknesses are "real weaknesses, the vulnerabilities are real vulnerabilities and that the fragilities are real fragilities, and that sometimes living our secure and peaceful lives, we overlook those near us who are suffering or are not well or are generally overlooked."

Cardinal Czerny also said he hoped the COVID-19 pandemic would stop the "hollow and shallow attacks of a xenophobic nature" and political positioning against "foreigners" now that people have discovered just how essential migrants and refugees are for "essential services," including health care, agriculture and food production and home care.

"Far from being intruders, they are very much needed," and the pandemic has demonstrated that, he said. "My hope is that experience will help people become resistant to these cheap and most regrettable attacks."

Because internally displaced people have not crossed a national border, the document noted, they are not considered migrants or refugees and do not enjoy international protection but must rely on their national governments.

The "triggers" that force people to suddenly leave their homes and move include natural disasters and even large infrastructure projects like new dams, but also the same threats that force migrants and refugees to seek safety outside their countries: violence and human rights violations, the document noted.

And, unfortunately, it said, "increasingly, most IDPs live in situations of protracted displacement or face chronic displacement risk."

For example, in Colombia, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, almost 5.6 million people are internally displaced and many of them have been for decades because of the country's civil conflict going all the way to the 1960s.

As of Dec. 31, 2019, Congo had almost as many displaced people -- 5.5 million -- because of ongoing armed conflict and ethnic tensions.

In both countries, and in many others around the world where there are large numbers of displaced people, the document noted, "communities that host IDPs are often underprivileged and living in precarious situations themselves. They often do not have the resources and infrastructure necessary to welcome large numbers of newcomers."

And, especially if the displaced people receive special government assistance, but poor members of the host community do not, "unnecessary tensions" often follow, the document said.

In response, the Migrants and Refugees Section asks local churches and Catholic relief and development agencies to work both with the displaced people and members of the host community to survey real needs, bring people together, educate newcomers about local customs and advocate for assistance that helps both groups live better.

The church, it said, is called to "work for reconciliation, mutual acceptance and respect between ethnic or tribal groups, promoting a healing of memory, relearning communication and adopting a nonviolent lifestyle."

The document also asks bishops' conferences, dioceses, parishes and Catholic charities to give priority to protecting and assisting "people who have escaped from armed conflicts, unaccompanied or separated children, child soldiers, abused women and children, disabled persons and members of discriminated ethnic groups."

One area where the church and its agencies can offer special support, it said, is in outreach to children "affected by psychological trauma and physical injury during armed conflicts, in particular, through access to school as a form of protection and in order to structure their lives and that of their families."

Amaya Valcarcel, international advocacy coordinator for Jesuit Refugee Service, also participated in the news conference and insisted that running schools for displaced people and offering literacy classes for them was a key component in protecting them.

Education is a protection against "abuse, the abuse of trafficking, the abuse of recruiting children and adolescents in armed groups, precocious forced marriages," she said, but it also gives them a sense of normalcy and prepares them for the future.

Another essential service, especially for displaced families living in camps in the world's poorer countries, the document said, is to provide baptismal certificates for every infant or child baptized and school enrollment certificates for students and to work with governments to issue birth certificates.

"In developing countries," it said, "children of IDPs are not always registered at birth and may not have any form of personal identification later needed to exercise their rights as citizens and to avoid statelessness."