2014-01-17 Vatican - Sunday 19th January the Church marks the 100th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. In his message to mark this occasion, Pope Francis urged countries to welcome and respect migrants and refugees and not to treat them as “pawns on the chessboard of humanity”.

In a world in which there are some 200 million migrants – 44 million of whom are refugees and internally displaced people – the Pope said “They are children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.”He also repeats his condemnation of “slave labour” and trafficking, develops his criticism of a “throwaway culture, and reiterates there must be a change in attitude on the part of host countries”.

Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni spoke to Jesuit Father Peter Balleis, International Director of the Rome-based Jesuit Refugee Service about the Pope’s message, about how we can transform what is largely perceived as a problematic issue into a richness for us all, and about the significance – today – of this annual occurrence marked by the Church…

The Church – Father Balleis says – is also a migrant Church, “many people – many Christians but not just Christians – are on the move” and the Church has always accompanied migrants. The Church – he points out – accompanied migrants from Europe when they moved to the United States – “the Jesuits when they were re-installated 200 years ago worked a lot in the US, they set up schools and universities in many places where the settlers were moving”.

Our history – he says – “is full of migration, so it’s right that the Church makes it a point to recall that”. Of course in our day – our particular concern as Jesuit Refugee Service – is not just about migrants, “it’s the fact that out of the 200 million people on the move, there are about 44 million refugees and internally displaced people, forcibly displaced people”.

Refugees – he explains – are “those people who have no choice but to run” for whatever reason. And “that number has significantly gone up in 2013 – it has reached 15 million refugees outside their home country, and 28 million inside their countries”.

So – Father Balleis points out – even more than to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a Day which the Church established, in these days with such a large number of refugees it is even more significant.

He also says that it is interesting to note that the Refugee Day marked by the United Nations in June isn’t as old as the 100-year-old migration Day marked by the Church.

So – he says – “the Church was ahead of the times and taking the migration issue very seriously 100 years ago”.

Father Balleis recalls Pope Francis’ words during a recent homily in which he remembered that Jesus himself was a refugee…

He says the Pope’s attention towards migrants and refugees – underlined by his visits to the Island of Lampedusa and to the Astalli Centre for Refugees in Rome – has helped to draw attention to the issue in a positive way. He has helped change the attitude of many ordinary people as “He is not talking as a politician who has to defend borders or discuss laws, but he is talking from the faith perspective of a person who is concerned for people in need. That brings the whole issue to the attention in a different way: migrants and refugees are not seen in a political way but as our brothers and sisters who are in need. That – he says – has definitely helped everyone who works with refugees – including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who met recently with the Pope – because as a world leader he gives attention to a group to which many politicians don’t give attention”.

Speaking of the Pope’s message Father Balleis says its title: “Migrants and Refugees –Towards a Better World” is an interesting title because it puts the issue in a positive context. Normally migrants and refugees are seen in the context of a world that is not in a good shape, which is even getting worse. But – he says – seen within the drama of a world that produces more and more forced migrants, forcibly displaced people and refugees, his perspective shines the light on how we can move towards a better world. And – he points out – “what are the elements for a better world?

The very first element is the people themselves who suffer from war – they want peace, they are the agents of peace. Migrants and refugees who have given up – or had to give up – their homes, they want to build a new life. They are a great asset for any society and economy. So they help us along the path to a better world. They are part of a changing world: they give us the possiblity to learn about cultural diversity and the richness of the different cultures. The world is moving towards that”. He says that having people who have the courage and the need to move to another country means having people who are builders of this new world. “And of course the way countries reach out generously with an open heart to their brothers and sisters in need is a contribution to a better world. So in the whole drama of refugees in particular there are a lot of elements that help us to move towards a better world”.

Finally, Father Balleis says that as JRS “we have a special focus on education because we are convinced that to equip refugees with education is the key for the future”. It gives hope, but it equips people with the skills needed to build up their lives. He says in urban and rural places across the world, refugees want to learn English and Computers. This is because these are the global languages of communication today, and the desire of young people in the most remote places on the globe is to connect with the rest of the world.