The World's Welcome Mats Wear Thin

Rise in Immigrants and Asylum Seekers Stirs National Tensions

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LONDON, FEB. 15, 2003 (Zenit.org).- "Borders Beyond Control" is the catchy title of an essay by Columbia University professor Jagdish Bhagwati in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Bhagwati draws attention to the recent conflicts caused in Britain, Australia and the United States due to increased flows of illegal immigrants.



Apart from the normal international flow of migration, itself on the rise, the numbers of illegal migrants and asylum seekers are up. Security concerns, particularly over migrants from Islamic countries, exacerbate the situation.

Debate over the issue has been fierce in the United Kingdom. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, admitted that the country has more than its fair share of asylum seekers, the Telegraph reported Dec. 28. The number of asylum seekers who reached Britain in 2002, including children, was expected to pass 100,000 for the first time and is the highest in the European Union, noted the paper.

Concerns intensified after the poison ricin was found in the home of some asylum seekers, and a police officer was killed by an immigrant during a terrorism investigation. The Guardian newspaper on Jan. 24 complained of the "asylum hysteria" whipped up in the popular press.

Prime Minister Tony Blair even threatened to withdraw from European Union obligations binding Britain to accept refugees if the number of asylum seekers were not curbed, the Independent reported Jan. 27.

And the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, supported the idea that asylum seekers should be held in "secure accommodation" until their claims have been processed, the Sunday Times noted Feb. 2.

Meanwhile, in the United States, tighter rules on accepting refugees are creating problems for the churches and charities that look after these people, the Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 10.

More-rigorous screening for terrorists has cut the number of refugees coming into the country to 27,000 last year, down from 68,000 in 2001. And fewer than 4,000 have arrived in the past four months. Although the federal government refugee target for 2003 is 70,000, around 20,000 already-accepted refugees remain held up by security checks.

The downturn has created a cash crisis for the resettlement agencies, which are paid on a per-person basis. In 2001, the 10 biggest agencies netted $59 million. Last year that figure would have dropped to $21 million, had it not been for a special subsidy based on the assumption that numbers would soon rise again. With the tighter policy still in place, the extra money was cut off Dec. 31.

The U.S. bishops' conference has told its resettlement agency to expect a 35% cut this year. And the Church World Service, an arm of the National Council of Churches, may close 25 of 40 refugee offices by July. The National Lutheran headquarters has already fired 14 of 75 refugee workers.

In Australia, debates and court cases continue over the federal government's handling of asylum seekers, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Feb. 4. Hundreds of immigration cases are pending while legal battles are under way over strict laws passed just prior to last year's general election, after the arrival on Australian shores of a boatload of refugees in the motor vessel Tampa.

At the start of February there were 2,250 asylum cases pending in the courts or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, compared with 1,000 nearly two years ago. Protests also continue over the poor living conditions in which many asylum seekers are being held.

Churches weigh in

A Dec. 4 press release by the Catholic Church in Australia welcomed the moves toward releasing children from centers where asylum seekers are detained. Bishop Eugene Hurley of Port Pirie, whose South Australian diocese takes in two of the centers, said he commended the government's decision to remove unaccompanied children from the high security environment of detention.

On Nov. 29 the bishops had issued a statement expressing their concern at the incarceration of children in detention centers. They also noted that several detainees have suffered a deterioration in their mental and physical health as a result of being detained for extended periods. The bishops called for people with psychological illnesses to be removed from detention and placed in the care of community groups.

The Church has also spoken out over the situation in Britain. Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue, chairman of the bishops' Office for Refugee Policy, issued a statement Jan. 30. "How a country responds to those who turn to it for sanctuary says much about its history, its values and its people," said the bishop. It is alarming, he noted, that in Britain the attitude toward asylum seekers "is becoming increasingly hard-line, fueled by relentless attacks on asylum seekers by sections of the media."

And on Jan. 22 a pastoral letter on migration was jointly published by the Catholic bishops in the United States and Mexico. The letter cites data showing that each year 150,000 to 200,000 Mexicans enter the United States as legal permanent residents -- nearly 20% of the total in this category. The bishops acknowledged the benefits stemming from migration, as well as the injustices suffered by migrants due to an inadequate response to their needs.

The letter recognizes the need to find an equilibrium between conflicting rights on the migration question. "When persons cannot find employment in their country of origin to support themselves and their families, they have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive," states the document.

At the same time, "The Church recognizes the right of a sovereign state to control its borders in furtherance of the common good." The bishops insist, however, that borders should not be closed just to protect the economic interests of a country. They also say that richer nations have a greater obligation to accommodate migrants.

The letter contends that refugees and asylum seekers should be allowed "to claim refugee status without incarceration and to have their claims fully considered by a competent authority." Moreover, the bishops ask that undocumented migrants be treated with respect.

John Paul II, in his message for the 2003 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, published last Oct. 24, affirmed: "Membership in the Catholic community is not determined by nationality, or by social or ethnic origin, but essentially by faith in Jesus Christ and baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity."

The Pope called on Catholics "to excel in the spirit of solidarity toward newcomers among them." At the same time he invited immigrants "to recognize the duty to honor the countries which receive them and to respect the laws, culture and traditions of the people who have welcomed them." He observed: "Only in this way will social harmony prevail."

The message recognizes that this solidarity in accepting immigrants is not easy, and involves overcoming many social pressures. The Pope called upon parents and teachers to help fight against racism and xenophobia "by inculcating positive attitudes based on Catholic social doctrine." A necessary task in the post-Sept. 11 era.