Why Focus on Religious Roles in the Global Forced Migration Crisis?

By: Katherine Marshall

January 13, 2023

Today’s complex patchwork of organizations that comprise what we call the international humanitarian framework is run largely by organizations that do not have a religious affiliation or character. Most people served by the system, however, are marked by deep religious beliefs (data on religious affiliations of forced migrants are not known with precision, but the societies from which they come tend to be highly religious). A consistent awareness of both the religious drives of millions of refugees and other forced migrants and the vital and distinctive work that religiously linked organizations do is largely missing in a system that, on its surface, is quintessentially secular in its language and organization.

But the picture is more complicated than this juxtaposition suggests. The ethical and practical roots of humanitarian norms and institutions have intricate religious histories, and many leading institutions have strong religious ties, even if they are not always readily apparent. Humanitarian work in general and that focused on refugees and others forced to migrate were shaped by history and values that are deeply embedded in different religious traditions. Many leaders within ostensibly secular governing institutions see religious factors as deeply important. Many refugees, in turn, have very secular approaches and needs. Similarly, humanitarian workers may be drawn to their work by the teachings of their personal religious faith. It is somewhat ironic that many see the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) as religious and its name and symbol as indicative of a Christian approach. This is untrue, as ICRC operates independently of any religious community and the “cross” speaks to its Swiss origin. Nevertheless, ICRC’s founders looked to their Christian faith and ethics when they launched the organization in 1863.

The disconnects can be traced particularly to the period in which today’s major humanitarian institutions evolved. They were shaped by the massive refugee crises following World War II. Governments and intergovernmental agencies such as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and its predecessor took central roles in mobilizing support and formed the core of what we term the humanitarian system. Multilateral public institutions—shaped in the Cold War years when religious topics were largely off the table, but also the many non-governmental organizations that were not religious (CARE is an example)—developed with a focus and ethos that, on the surface at least, were largely secular. Many religious organizations that had been and remained involved in humanitarian support worked in partnership with these larger organizations. As Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J., discusses in chapter four of Humanity in Crisis (2019), one result was that many religious groups came to emphasize the humanistic aspect of their work, with little explicit focus on their faith commitment. Some Western governments tended to favor secular agencies over faith-based groups, while various religious organizations deemphasized their religious identities with a non-religious presentation. These tendencies extended into the early twenty-first century, which has seen surges of forced migration. As Michael Barnett and Janice Gross Stein detail in Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism (2012), the vital religious roots of the humanitarian system have tended to be obscured throughout this complex historical process.

Religious and non-religious humanitarian actors, institutions, and systems would benefit from a more thoughtful, deliberate, and strategic mutual recognition and engaged dialogue. The hope is that this would facilitate more robust partnerships and allow the different communities, whether they are working in distinct areas or overlap, to work more effectively to the benefit of forced migrants and the communities where they are located. 

Each community brings distinctive and important assets. Religious organizations provide critical direct services, information, and social support networks that include spiritual care. They help migrants integrate into new societies, creating common connections between people of different nationalities and ethnicities. They have access to financial resources and, in some situations, can mobilize political support. The humanitarian institutions provide the umbrella structures and international consensus that is urgently needed to strengthen and coordinate what is today a severely challenged system. They tend, however, to have a myopic view of the many religious needs and strengths, and rarely take them fully into account.

With rapid increases in the numbers of forcibly displaced persons globally (from 41.1 million to over 100 million between 2010 and 2021), it is clear that the humanitarian framework needs all the support it can muster. Climate change and the COVID-19 crisis have exacerbated already-existing crises, adding to the previous challenges of food, economic, and physical insecurity. The extensive networks of faith organizations that are an integral part of this complex system could do far more with better dialogue and cooperation.

The challenge ahead is to deepen appreciation for the distinctive strengths and challenges for religiously linked actors in the humanitarian system, and to point to practical steps towards the dialogue and action that we recommend.

This essay provides context for ongoing research under the Religion and the Crisis of Displaced Persons project, which is intended to sharpen analysis and contribute to the international effort to address what is one of the world’s most complex and demanding challenges.

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