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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Ethical Responsibilities toward Forced Migrants as a Framework for Advocacy: African Perspectives

Our final luncheon colloquium of the semester featured David Hollenbach, S.J. and Elizabeth King, the Director and Assistant Director, respectively, of Boston College‚Äôs new Center for Human Rights and International Justice.  Hollenbach and King had recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya, where the Center had sponsored a conference on ethical responsibilities toward forced migrants and internally displaced persons in Africa.

Fr. Hollenbach, the Margaret O'Brien Flatley Professor of Theology at Boston College, provided an overview of the issues raised at the conference. He began by noting the urgency of the refugee problem: there are 33 million refugees and internally displaced people in the world today, a high percentage of which are in Africa. He then outlined five principles that ought to guide the treatment of refugees in every country.  First, there should be respect for the right to freedom of movement by refugees in order to alleviate the dehumanizing experience of confinement in camps. Thus confinement should be a last resort; it should be temporary; and it should be introduced only if the harm it causes is proportionately less than the harm that would otherwise occur. Second, richer countries have a moral responsibility to share the burdens of aiding the displaced. Third, such countries should share in addressing the deeper causes and consequences of displacement. Here Hollenbach stressed the admittedly partial success that the United States has achieved in southern Sudan with the peace agreement of 2005; the situation there remains unstable, but it shows that Western powers can make a difference. Fourth, the responsibility to protect the rights of displaced persons necessitates peace-making efforts in affected regions. Finally, protection of the rights of internally displaced persons likewise demands a response from neighboring countries, regional organizations, and the United Nations.

King spoke at a more practical level about the particular vulnerability of women in refugee camps. She pointed out how a "gender lens" might be used to address issues such as food distribution and camp security. But she also admitted the dangers of focusing on women's issues in this way; it might appear as a challenge to the traditional culture and prompt an unforeseen reaction. As she concluded: "there are no easy answers."