On World Refugee Day, the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom commemorates the valor and perseverance of the more than 26 million refugees around the world. According to the UN Refugee Agency, every minute, war, conflict, or persecution forcibly displaces 20 people – and over half of refugees are under the age of 18. On this day, we also want to recognize the daily, on-the-ground work of religious communities who help those in need. The efforts of these communities – churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and religiously-affiliated organizations, alongside secular organizations – significantly contribute to receiving and welcoming refugees, regardless of their religious affiliation.
The Strategic Religious Engagement Unit in the Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom regularly engages on foreign policy issues related to migration and security. We have seen how religious belief and institutions can drive forces that create conflict, but also how they can play an important role in addressing these challenges and in building resilient communities in the face of violence and trauma. For decades, religious organizations in the United States have welcomed refugees, helping them adapt to a new culture, find jobs, receive food and clothing, and find shelter. It should come as no surprise that six out of the nine refugee resettlement agencies who partner with the Department of State are religiously-affiliated.
Among the numerous governments, NGOs, and humanitarian organizations addressing the needs of individuals who have escaped conflict and are seeking to rebuild their lives, religious entities play a significant role. Faith communities can enhance efforts to support the integration of refugees and displaced persons into unfamiliar societies. Below are some snapshots of how faith-based actors are assisting refugees worldwide, regardless of their religious affiliations:
With more than 12,000 refugees from at least 25 countries of origin living in Ghana – many from Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Liberia, Sudan, and Central African Republic – faith-based organizations have key roles in Ghana’s refugee response. For instance, the Christian Council of Ghana, an ecumenical, research-based advocacy organization, has been working in partnership with UNHCR and other partners for years to offer protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in Ghana, in fields such as shelter construction and education. Currently, in partnership with the UNHCR and the Ghana Refugee Board, the Christian Council of Ghana has renovated and refurbished 80 shelters and two school blocks at the Krisan refugee resettlement in the Western Region of Ghana. In the Brong Ahafo Region, the Catholic Church – in partnership with the National Catholic Secretariat (NCS) and UNHCR – sponsors a school meal program for Ivorian refugee students. Under the patronage of the Catholic Diocese of Sunyani, Bishop Gyamfi has pledged to continue collaborative efforts with NCS and UNHCR to “to give the camp a facelift for the Ivorian refugees to feel at home.” In Fiscal Year 2020, the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) provided $3,500,000 to UNHCR Ghana for refugee response efforts in the country.
The U.S. Mission to Greece grants funds to support the work of the global Jewish nonprofit organization Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in Greece. Since 2018, its work there includes offering capacity building training for non-governmental organization (NGO) professionals to provide legal services and address issues of gender-based violence and mental health and psychosocial support among particularly vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers, such as women and LGBTQI+ individuals. At the moment due to COVID-19 conditions, program implementation has been delayed. Official numbers estimate Greece is hosting about 120,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from the Middle East and South and Central Asia and Africa. As refugees arrive daily along the Eastern Mediterranean route and the humanitarian challenges in the country increase, HIAS diligently advocates on behalf of refugees, based on shared humanitarian and spiritual doctrines. HIAS has been a leading legal service provider in Lesvos and Athens, helping refuges understand their legal protections and file cases to combat hate crime and respond to discrimination and xenophobia directed towards refugees and asylum seekers. HIAS’ trainings have been adapted for the current emergency of COVID-19 in overcrowded refugee camps where there is high risk of disease transmission. “In these hard times, no one should be left behind,” said Vassilis Kerasiotis, HIAS’ country director in Greece. “It is not only a moral but also a prudent thing to do, since the fates of asylum seekers as well as those of the locals are inevitably bound together in the face of the pandemic.”
More than 5.6 million Venezuelans have fled Venezuela since 2015, according to the United Nations, making it the largest external displacement of persons in the Western Hemisphere’s history. Approximately 4.6 million of those have sought refuge in 17 countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, creating massive challenges in security and humanitarian needs throughout the region. To confront these challenges and provide immediate humanitarian relief to vulnerable Venezuelans, the Department of State funds a variety of NGO partners, including several faith-based organizations, working throughout South America and the Caribbean on the Venezuela regional crisis response. The work of these PRM partners connect with refugees on economic, humanitarian, and legal support, among other areas.
In Brazil, host to more than 261,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants, World Vision focuses on livelihoods and increasing household income for at-risk Venezuelans in Boa Vista, Manaus, and Sao Paulo though labor market orientation sessions, technical assistance for work permits and resume development, Portuguese language and vocation training, job placement through a sub-awardee partner, and entrepreneurial development and assistance.
Ecuador hosts more than 431,000 Venezuelans, the fourth-highest population of Venezuelans in the region, following Colombia, Peru, and Chile. Ecuador has long been a generous host to Colombians and other refugees. There HIAS focuses on livelihoods, including skills training and financial resources, and provides cash-based interventions for urgent needs and psychosocial support to vulnerable Colombians and Venezuelans, including GBV survivors, unaccompanied minors, victims of torture, and LGBTQ+ refugees. Also in Ecuador, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) strengthens protection through comprehensive legal assistance, responds to basic needs though cash-based assistance, improves access to safe, quality temporary shelter for Venezuelans in transit or intending to remain in Ecuador, and strengthens resilience through individual and group-based psychosocial support.
The few examples above illustrate how faith-based actors can be important partners in refugee resettlement, assistance, and reintegration. Faith-based actors make a valuable contribution by connecting across cultures through the language of commonly held beliefs, bringing religious teachings of hospitality and compassion to bear upon traumatic events, and working with local communities. Governments, local communities, and other traditional assistance partners all have a role in this work and faith-based organizations and actors offer their own strengths to these efforts, and use their socio-cultural and religious knowledge and experiences to promote sustainable, holistic long-term solutions.
About the Author: Nida Ansari serves as a Policy Advisor to the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights at the U.S. Department of State.