For several years now, Catholic refugee policy — articulated passionately and repeatedly by the Holy See and many national bishops’ conferences — has focused on the urgent secondary thing, rather than the most important primary thing.
The urgent, secondary thing is to receive refugees who are fleeing their homelands, to welcome the stranger, to comfort the wretched of the earth.
The important, primary thing is to prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place. It is mistaken to confuse what a refugee most needs with what he most wants. He needs, today, a refuge. He wants not to be in need of a refuge at all; he wants to remain in his homeland.
There are signs that that confusion is being addressed, at least by those on the ground.
“What we would like is more attention to addressing why people flee,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice-president for government relations and advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, the principal charitable arm of the American bishops.
“There’s a range of reasons why people migrate from different parts of the world, but in summary: conflict, persecution, climate change and extreme poverty are the principal drivers that we see.”
That’s not exactly true. There are certainly people who seek to emigrate to escape poverty; it is not so evident that anyone does so because of climate change. But immigrants are not refugees; the former plan to move from one country to another, the latter leave their own country immediately, often with no definitive destination chosen.
Refugees are already on the move, often leaving behind most of their goods, because of a clear and urgent danger. They leave overnight because their lives are in danger, not because of chronic poverty. The best option, if possible, would be to work to remove that danger.
All of which brings us to the regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. His brand of petro-communism, enforced with lethal violence, has pauperized an oil-rich country. For years there has been a critical shortage of food and medicine; people are starving, rummaging for food in the trash, unable to secure basic necessities for personal hygiene, including toilet paper.
Communism, or authoritarian socialism, or corrupt gangsterism, has produced an unimaginable flood of refugees — some three million refugees to date, with an expectation that, according to UN forecasts, the number will reach 5.4 million in 2019. That latter figure is one-sixth of the entire population of Venezuela, estimated at 32 million.
It is an immense challenge to care for such an enormous flood. Catholic agencies are at the forefront of that effort. But I fault the story for not mentioning that the cause of the refugees has a name. It is Nicolas Maduro and his regime. Maduro’s removal would do more for Venezuela’s refugee problem than all the efforts made by the various aid agencies.
Failing to mention the Maduro regime in any discussion of Venezuelan refugees would be like noting impediments to interurban traffic in Cold War Berlin without noting that the East German communists had built the wall. But don’t fault our reporter; he is in good company, for Pope Francis doesn’t care to mention the reasons that refugees flee either.
His reluctance to criticize Maduro is in stark contrast to the bishops of Venezuela, who declared the regime “illegitimate.”
That reluctance earned an unprecedented response from 20 ex-presidents of Latin American countries, who wrote to Pope Francis on Jan. 5, excoriating his approach to the crisis in Venezuela.
“The call for harmony on the part of Your Holiness, given the current context, can be understood by the victimized nations that they should come to agreement with their victimizers,” wrote the former presidents.
The letter came from the Democratic Initiative of Spain and the Americas (IDEA network), and was organized by Oscar Arias, the two-time president of Costa Rica, which is notable, as he won the Nobel Peace Prize precisely for his efforts to resolve conflicts in the region. The former presidents call Maduro’s regime a “militarized narco-dictatorship” and evidently judge that what Venezuelans need is to be rid of it.
The Holy Father is in Panama this week for World Youth Day. It might be a bit awkward in those official welcoming receptions. Two of Panama’s former presidents signed the rebuke of the Holy Father.
Colombia, which borders Panama and Venezuela, has received more Venezuelan refugees than it can possibly cope with. Will Pope Francis praise Colombia for receiving the refugees without mentioning whence comes the inundation? More to the point, what will the Holy Father tell the young Venezuelans present at World Youth Day to do? To denounce by name the evil regime that is afflicting their country? Or might he do so himself?