Nov. 2, 2006 • Volume 15 Number 6

Flatley Professor David Hollenbach, SJ, during a recent visit to a refugee camp in Kibondo, Tanzania. While such desperate situations spur a desire to help, Fr. Hollenbach says "it's important to help in a way that will be meaningful...for years to come."

BC Forum Tackles Refugee Issues

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Abebe Feyissa was born and raised in Ethiopia, but for the past 15 years he's lived in a place he'd leave in an instant - if only he could: He is one of thousands of Africans who, caught up in recurring violence, came to be resettled at a refugee camp in Kenya.

But as Feyissa explained at a conference held Oct. 12-15 in Nairobi and co-sponsored by the Boston College Center for Human Rights and International Justice, "resettled" is a very relative term. He described the camp as a netherworld of limited rights, resources and mobility, where residents endure physical, emotional and psychological problems that threaten familial relationships and everyday existence.

"I certainly believe that this terrible refugee life can reduce one to act in a way that is degrading to oneself," he said. "One can be selfish and irresponsible towards oneself and other community members if one believes that he/she has been left to die in the camp. Someone who lost the best years of their life in a refugee camp does not care for anything, does not think properly when making decisions. My observations of Ethiopian refugees after 15 years of camp life have confirmed that beyond doubt."

Feyissa's presentation underscored the conference's mission, which was to address social and ethical challenges raised in efforts to help victims of internal or regional conflicts, from Bosnia to Darfur.

Co-sponsored along with the Catholic Relief Service and Jesuit Refugee Service, "Ethical Responsibilities toward Forced Migrants as a Framework for Advocacy: African Perspectives" featured presentations by Center for Human Rights and International Justice Founding Director Flatley Professor of Catholic Theology David Hollenbach, SJ, and Prof. Stephen Pope (Theology), along with other scholars and experts in international law, economics, poverty issues and disaster relief.

Participants at the conference discussed the short and long-term issues represented by the estimated 33 million forced migrants - refugees and "IDPs," or internally displaced persons (those who have been forced to leave home for another part of their country).

Ensuring refugees and IDPs have proper nutrition, health, sanitation, educational and employment opportunities are often difficult propositions in and of themselves, noted conference organizers. But many questions also center on the eventual return of migrants, the possible reconciliation between combatants and redressing injustices to refugees and IDPs in a fair, ethical manner.

Fr. Hollenbach, reflecting recently on the event, said personal perspectives like those of Feyissa helped to provide a very meaningful backdrop and context for the conference.

"The title of his talk was 'There Is More Than One Way of Dying,' and if you're in his situation it's absolutely true," said Fr. Hollenbach, who along with Pope visited refugee camps in Tanzania during their stay in Africa.

"You're in a place that is supposed to be 'temporary,' but in actuality the time will stretch to months and years, even decades. A camp is not a humane place to live: You get enough to eat, maybe, there's seldom running water or electricity, and little or no education for children.

"If the camp is in a country that is not yours, you're restricted in how far you can go, because the host government doesn't want you there in the first place."

Given the compelling, desperate situation in Darfur, Tanzania, Kenya and other areas, Fr. Hollenbach said, a conference that tackles ethical and legal facets of refugee crises may seem overly academic and removed from the human aspect.

"When you see a Darfur, you of course want to help as much as possible. But it's also important to help in a way that will be meaningful, not just for tomorrow, or next week, but for years to come - and in a way that might be replicated in other parts of the world where people are fleeing conflict.

"You have to ask, what kind of framework can be devised that will enable others to advocate for refugees and IDPs? What is the responsibility of governments - especially those of wealthier countries - to intervene, and how should they? How about church groups, relief organizations and others?"

The moral obligation to aid others in need is enough impetus for the United States and other countries to help in refugee crises, said Fr. Hollenbach, but there are other considerations that redound to US interests.

"It's been said by more than one person that the best place to grow a terrorist is a refugee camp. Becoming a suicide bomber when you have nothing to lose is easy."

The papers presented at the Nairobi conference will be the basis for a book to be published next year, and a second conference is planned at BC for next fall.

Fr. Hollenbach and Center for Human Rights and International Justice Administrator Elizabeth Ludwin King will present a colloquium on the conference on Nov. 29 at the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life.

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