Stories of faith and migration have often traveled hand in hand throughout human history. Many of the world’s major religions are replete with narrations of persecution, exile, and migration, and subsequently have rich traditions of caring for forced migrants. For millennia, faith communities have often been the first and primary responders to vulnerable migrants, meeting both material needs, such as shelter and food, as well as intangible human needs—such as spiritual and pastoral care, and a sense of dignity and belonging.

For the most part, these traditions have remained unbroken in many parts of the world. As the global community finds itself overwhelmed with one of the largest refugee crises in modern history, faith communities are once again at the forefront of the response. However, over the course of the last century, responsibility for the protection of refugees and forced migrants has moved away from faith groups and local communities to being firmly positioned within the remits of national and international agencies, primarily under secular regimes. The perceived hesitancy—and at times suspicion—by secular agencies and frameworks to engage with faith groups has resulted in faith communities being sidelined by formal assistance mechanisms, and the critical services provided by local faith-communities being unrecognized. Subsequently, there remains a lack of substantial evidence to indicate the multiple roles that faith-based actors play in responding to the needs of forced migrants across different phases and spaces of displacement; what the strengths and weaknesses of such support mechanisms are; the extent to which such mechanisms are integrated into international response systems; and how faith-based actors could be better supported in their work.

The material services provided by faith communities to forced migrants are increasingly recognized and documented by academics and practitioners. We now know that faith communities are often first responders to refugees and forced migrations due to their presence and reach within communities—for example, Burundian refugees in Tanzania were immediately supported by the local Lutheran non-governmental organization (NGO) Tanganyika Christian Refugee Service, while international organizations took more time to arrive. Local faith communities are also better placed to mobilize human and financial resources relatively quickly from within displaced communities and from those that host them, such as the mobilization of zakat funds to assist Syrian refugees in Jordan. Religious buildings often act as places of shelter and protection, information hubs, or storage and distribution centers for aid.

Perhaps less well documented or less understood are the immaterial services that faith communities provide to refugees and other forced migrants. From the experiences and research of the Joint Learning Initiative for Faith and Local Communities—a network that brings together individuals and organizations from academic, policy, and practitioner backgrounds representing a variety of religious, spiritual, and secular affiliations—we know that faith groups can play a vital role in facilitating the psycho-social resilience of forced migrants, many of whom originate from countries with strong traditions of religiosity. An established body of research documents how religious beliefs frequently operate to support resilience: Values of positivity and ways of interpreting change equip individuals to withstand shock and recover from adversity. Faith communities often have an innate understanding of the need to provide prayer spaces and access to faith leaders and even practical items, such as headscarves, Bibles, or food to celebrate religious celebrations in order to establish a sense of normalcy in cases of displacement. Moreover, the transnational and yet deeply local nature of faith communities means they are in a unique position to build cross-community and cross-border networks that ease integration in contexts of displacement. UNHCR reports that in urban or non-camp settings, in Ghana and Liberia for example, refugees have established relationships with host communities through shared religious beliefs and praying together.

Despite the pockets of research already developed, a holistic, evidence-based, and nuanced understanding of the roles that faith and faith communities play in the journeys of forced migrants remains to be seen. The scope of research needs to be not only widened, but also deepened—addressing key questions and evidence gaps. Questions remain regarding the inclusivity of local faith communities to those of all faiths and none; further research needs to be done on the extent to which faith values, identity, and practices can promote resilience and provide psycho-social support, and how such spiritual support could be provided without descending into proselytization; and we need to better understand the extent to which religious leaders employ religious teachings and norms to inform and influence how refugees and forced migrants are cared for in local settings.

The purpose of the newly-established JLIF&LC Refugee & Forced Migration Learning Hub is to begin addressing such questions and evidence gaps. With an overburdened and underfunded humanitarian system in flux as the world faces the highest levels of displacement ever recorded—over 65 million people in 2015—it is particularly urgent for the international community to consider the roles that different actors play in supporting refugees and other displaced people throughout different stages and spaces of their journeys. Now, more than ever, we need evidence to help policymakers and practitioners better understand the roles that faith-based actors already play, and have the potential to play, in supporting refugees and forced migrants.

This post summarizes the JLI Refugees and Forced Migration Hub’s latest policy note.

Opens in a new window