Phillip F. Straling, Bishop of Reno, Nevada
Thomas G. Wenski, Auxiliary Bishop of Miami, Florida
September 5, 2000
Representing the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, we visited the Great Lakes region of Africa (Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Rwanda) August 18 – 27 to assess the situation of refugees, internally displaced people, and returnees with a view to recommending improvements in their care and an intensified search for durable solutions to their plight. Members of our delegation also visited Kenya, including Kakuma refugee camp, one of Africa's largest, August 28-30.
Our delegation included Donald E. Pelotte, Bishop of Gallup, New Mexico, and board member of Catholic Relief Services; Fr. Michael Blume, Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants at the Holy See; Mark Franken, Executive Director of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC); Fr. Michael Perry, Africa policy adviser for the USCC's Office of International Justice and Peace; and Lacy Wright, refugee policy adviser for Migration and Refugee Services.
The delegation will issue a detailed report in due course. In the meantime, we wish to make several broad observations and immediate recommendations.
We found it impossible to consider the situation of the Great Lakes region's more than two million uprooted people in isolation from the conflicts which produced them. Our delegation heard in strong terms from each local Catholic bishops' conference that an end to the current violence was a pre-condition for the return home of innocent civilians who have in some cases spent a decade or more in refugee camps or living in cities without status or protection.
Thus, in concert with the region's Catholic bishops, we urge the full participation of all parties in the Arusha peace process, meant to bring an end to bloodshed in Burundi; and in the Lusaka process, which aims to stop fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo and provides for the exit of foreign military forces from that country.
We were therefore pleased by the signing of an accord, however incomplete, in Arusha on August 28, and by U.S. support for the Arusha process as seen in the presence of President Clinton. We are hopeful that a cease-fire will soon follow. We are encouraged, too, by progress made under the Lusaka Accords, represented by the Congolese government's recent decision to allow the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers in all parts of its country.
We recognize that, after the dreadful bloodletting, going back decades, involving the Great Lakes countries, reconciliation of opposing groups is crucial and of immediate need. We applaud the Bishops' conferences of the countries visited for their active participation in national reconciliation efforts, and urge all involved to continue this vital work. We intend to try to assist their efforts within the means available to our Church and with prayer. We appeal to our government to increase its own, already commendable support in this area.
Our mission allowed us to see first-hand the terrible hardships borne by those whom violence has driven from their homes. We commend agencies like the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Catholic Relief Services, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and the many others whose staffs labor heroically and anonymously under conditions of great danger for the survival of others.
Of the many obstacles they face, one of the most painful is lack of access to victims in immediate need of assistance and protection. We ask concerned governments to help humanitarian agencies assist such people, whether they be refugees stranded in Nairobi without documents or protection, or fleeing Congolese to whom access is currently blocked because the conflict in their country has closed the Congo river. We appeal to all the region's governments to put their people first, rejecting the notion that punishing an enemy takes precedence over protecting the citizenry.
Humanitarian workers, including those responsible for refugees' protection, need more support as well from the world's wealthy countries, including our own. We call upon the Congress to appropriate more funding under the Migration and Refugee Assistance account, at least $700 million for Fiscal Year 2001. That would allow increased assistance to the displaced in Africa, to whom the world community devotes resources that are shamefully low.
Some of our uprooted African brothers and sisters are even more miserable than others, and particular misery attaches to those torn from their families as a result of warfare. Women with children whose husbands are dead or missing are in special need of protection. So are unaccompanied youth, of whom there are more than 5,000 in Kenya's Kakuma camp alone. The deliberate, focused search for solutions that are in the best interests of each of these forlorn victims, initiated for many of the youth at Kakuma, should be extended to all children under the protection of UNHCR. We will pursue this and related recommendations in the months to come.
Finally, we believe more firmly than ever that resettlement in a third country, like the United States, must remain an available solution, even if a necessarily limited one, for those among Africa's uprooted who cannot return home. To its credit, the United States will accept this fiscal year up to 18,000 African refugees, a ceiling that was only 7,000 in Fiscal Year 1998. The need, unfortunately, is far greater. In light of the crisis, we urge higher admissions numbers, and we appeal to other governments to increase their admissions of Africans as well.
The Jubilee Charter of Rights of Displaced People, formulated this past June 1 in Rome by Catholic and other entities concerned with refugees, says, "Protection is not a simple concession made to the refugee: he is not an object of assistance, but rather a subject of rights and duties." Our visit to Africa made us acutely aware that this ideal is far from being honored. We appeal to the governments concerned, including those of the developed world, to do all in their power to ensure that the uprooted are treated with dignity, compassion and justice. This will help to exorcize the region's violent past and to usher in the era of peaceful African development for which we have long worked and prayed.