Faith and responses to displacement
The role of faith in the humanitarian sector is not easy to measure. Faiths generally advocate welcoming the stranger and there are many organisations and individuals inspired by their faith or religion to provide protection and assistance. Yet it is easier to measure the activities inspired by faith than to measure the difference that having that faith makes, and secularly inspired standards for such activities can appear to be in tension with the faith inspiration. FMR 48 includes 36 articles on ‘Faith’ plus seven ‘general’ articles.
In the Central African Republic, where religion has been used as a tool to divide and manipulate the population, religious leaders have come together to promote tolerance and forgiveness as a basis for rebuilding peaceful cohabitation.
Faith leaders, faith-based organisations and local faith communities play a major role in the protection of people affected by conflict, disaster and displacement. Humanitarians, however, have only recently begun to fully appreciate the depth, scope and variety of protection work being done by faith actors and the complex interrelationships between faith and protection.
Friendship and compassionate companionship with the most vulnerable provide a powerful type of humanitarian service giving priority to personal accompaniment.
Local faith communities are able to offer assistance to asylum seekers in ways that faith-based organisations, constrained by eligibility criteria, are not.
Spiritual life is a priority in many conflict-affected communities, perhaps especially in situations of displacement. It is rarely prioritised by aid agencies, yet may be central to the formation and maintaining of strong and effective cross-community relationships.
Faith-based organisations take from their religious traditions both strong motivations and access to a long history of thinking concerning social and political issues. This can make them ideally placed to fill the gaps in the implementation of human rights.
There is good reason to engage faith-based organisations and local faith communities in humanitarian response but doing so raises challenging issues for the interpretation of humanitarian principles in what some see as a post-secular age.
CAFOD’s ability to partner with other faith-based organisations and communities brings significant advantages for its work with displaced people and other conflict-affected communities. However, modern-day humanitarianism does not always sit comfortably alongside some of the practices and approaches of the major religions.
Catholic Social Teaching’s emphasis on the dignity of the human person is a lens that Catholic institutions use to evaluate how we as a global society enhance or threaten the dignity of the human person, especially the most vulnerable of people – including those on the move.
A secular NGO’s experiences in south Lebanon demonstrate that it is possible for non-faith-based organisations to develop productive relationships with faith-based actors without compromising their secular identities.
Working with religious leaders is an essential element of serving local communities, as is an understanding of the religious life of local communities and how belief influences their decision making.
An organisation based on faith will listen and try to understand when unjust laws, traditions, cultures or ideologies cause refugees to flee.
A new movement of Christian activists in Australia is using radical direct action to challenge their country’s policy of mandatory detention of asylum seeker children.
Caritas Luxembourg’s work with refugees, IDPs and migrants in Colombia, Lebanon and Luxembourg offers some examples of the ways in which a faith-based organisation may be advantaged or disadvantaged by its faith basis and how it needs to adhere to humanitarian standards.
While flexible in partnering with agencies best placed to assist affected populations, Luxembourg requires its partners to adhere to humanitarian principles.
When secular organisations are responding to the needs of displaced people, the religious practices and needs of the communities may not be high on the list of things to be thought about. Indeed secular organisations may struggle to recognise the importance of religion, in life and in death.
Seven years ago, a strategic partnership between the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Muslim Aid in Sri Lanka was formalised into a worldwide partnership agreement. The partnership offered a model for community-based, culturally appropriate and sustainable assistance provision – so why did the partnership not reach these goals?
Church asylum, or sanctuary, is a practice to support, counsel and give shelter to refugees who are threatened with deportation to inhumane living conditions, torture or even death. This practice can be located at the interface of benevolence and politics.
Despite the anti-refugee sentiment demonstrated by Canada’s recent legislative changes and the government’s hardening attitude towards those in sanctuary, the spirit of resistance and community engagement is alive and well in Canada.
The Lutheran World Federation’s experience is that closer cooperation between faith-based organisations of different faiths is both possible and beneficial.
A case-study from Ghana assesses the importance of a faith-based response to displacement in West Africa, while an example from Kenya highlights problems that can arise in collaborations between secular and faith-based organisations.
Inter-religious action has played a key role in ensuring that social cohesion and inter-religious mediation remain on the international agenda in relation to response in the Central African Republic, where people’s faith is an integral part of their identity but where it has been manipulated in a horrific way.
Both faith-based and secular organisations need to recognise the ways in which religion can provide healing and support but can also cause harm for refugees and asylum seekers.
The Protestant church in Morocco is struggling with tensions as it navigates between being a church organisation and being – in its work with refugees and migrants – something more like a non-governmental organisation.
The response of faith-based organisations to displacement in northern Myanmar has been remarkable but sustaining an open and collaborative relationship with the international community remains an ongoing challenge.
Local faith-based organisations play a central role in meeting the basic needs of the increasing urban refugee population in Bangkok. This raises challenges for all involved.
For some asylum seekers in Turkey, conversion may be an opportunistic strategy to improve resettlement prospects.
Faith-based organisations need to ensure that in providing essential humanitarian assistance they do not exploit the vulnerability of people by proselytising, whether overtly or covertly.
The act of assistance is an act of respect for the humanity of others and is not the preserve of any one faith.
The faith community in Mizoram state in India has played an instrumental role in providing social services, changing public attitudes and perceptions towards refugees, and providing access and assistance, reaching the most vulnerable where there is no international presence.
A Buddhist Sri Lankan NGO provides an example of how endogenous faith-based civil society organisations can help mobilise IDPs in owning and defining strategies for their own protection.
An ecumenical organisation provides socio-pastoral assistance for asylum seekers while they go through the first crucial steps of the asylum proceedings.
Many churches have the necessary physical and social assets to assist refugees in the community both individually and by bringing them together.
As a locally based faith-based organisation, there were several aspects that enabled Soka Gakkai to contribute effectively to the relief effort following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, responding to both physical and psychological needs.
Since its creation in 1950, UNHCR has engaged with faith-based organisations, faith communities and faith leaders in carrying out its work. Recently, UNHCR has been more actively exploring the role of faith in humanitarian responses.
The use of the faith-based label demands greater clarification lest it lose coherence and result in adverse policy implications, excluding religiously motivated actors from providing much-needed assistance to displaced communities, particularly inside Syria now.
A legal decision about whether refugees in Uganda can become citizens continues to be delayed.
Forty years after the OAU Convention on Refugees came into force, the dismal state in which refugees in Africa find themselves these days raises the question as to whether the Convention has lived up to expectations.
Many Central American migrants flee their home country as a result of violence and threats from the criminal gangs. A large number of them also encounter the same type of violence that they are fleeing when on the migratory routes through Mexico.
One of the main challenges facing refugees trying to integrate in their host country is finding a suitable job. Sweden recognises this issue and is investing in making inclusion in the labour market the driver of refugee integration.
In the 1990s nearly 250,000 people, mostly Kashmiri Pandits, were displaced by violence in Jammu and Kashmir state in India. More than 20 years later the question for them is whether the responses to their displacement so far can form the basis for long-term solutions for their protracted displacement.
At hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in November 2013 on the human rights situation in Mexico, the issue of the internally displaced in particular caught my attention, both due to its current serious level and for its potential impact in the not too distant future.
Civil society groups are embracing a recent victory in the High Court of Kenya as a reminder of the important role that strategic litigation can play in the enforcement and promotion of refugee rights.
Opinions in FMR do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editors, the Refugee Studies Centre or the University of Oxford.
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