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Southern Africa Bishops Decry Continued Exclusion of Refugees in COVID-19 Programs

World Refugee Day T-shirts and food hampers provided by the SACBC Migrants and Refugee Office in collaboration with UNHCR for participants in the event held at Christ the King Cathedral of South Africa's Johannesburg Archdiocese on 20 June 2021/ Credit: Sheila Pires/Radio Veritas South Africa

Refugees in various African countries continue to be excluded in COVID-19 programs such as provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and even vaccination against the coronavirus, members of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) have said.

In their message ahead of the World Refugee Day celebrated on June 20, members of the SACBC office of Migrants and Refugees call upon various governments to promote and support access to health services for refugees in line with the theme of the day, “Together we heal, learn and shine”.

According to the Catholic Bishops in the three-nation conference, the theme for this year’s World Refugee Day focuses on the power of inclusion regarding the access to health care, education and sport for refugees.

The Bishops observe with sadness that World Refugee Day 2021, like last year, is commemorated at a time when the world is still battling with the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a time, they say, that exclusion of Refugees in various social and economic programs has become clearer.

“Last year as Bishops of the Catholic Church we raised concerns regarding the exclusion and marginalization of refugees during this time of the pandemic that has ravaged many lives all over the world, exposed many inequalities, injustices and our broken humanity,” the Bishops say in the message signed by Archbishop Buti Tlhagale, the SACBC Liaison Bishop for Migrants and Refugees.

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They add, in the message shared with ACI Africa Saturday, June 19, “We have over the past year noticed with concern how during this time of the pandemic, many countries and governments, especially the rich ones, have been responding to the challenges imposed on all of us by COVID-19. Many have opted for the ‘citizens first’ and ‘vaccine nationalism’ approach.”

According to the Catholic Bishops in South Africa, Botswana, and Swaziland, these are selfish responses that have displayed the “deep-seated crisis of solidarity or lack thereof that prevails in our international political system and community.”

They insist that it is only by ensuring that all are vaccinated against the virus that the fight against the virus will be won.

They further say, “Pope John Paul II articulates in his Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, the virtue of solidarity as a firm and enduring commitment to the common good, that may often entail personal sacrifice by some members of the community to protect the basic rights of other, more vulnerable members. Exclusion of refugees from COVID-19 responses and vaccinations, show that we still have not fully appreciated or understood the wisdom in the saying, “none of us is safe until we are all safe.”

The “together we learn” part of the theme is an invitation for governments to support the noble drive of restoring the dignity of refugees through access to education, the Bishops say through the SACBC Migrants and Refugees Office.

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They observe that the Catholic Church has always valued education as an enabling tool for development and human dignity.

They make reference to what Pope Paul VI in his 1965 Gravissimum Educationis who said, “All, regardless race, condition and age, have an inalienable right to an education because of the inherent dignity as human beings.”

It is in supporting access to education for refugees, SACBC members says, that they too can experience true development, independence and ultimately restoration of their human dignity.

“As the Church, we cannot overemphasize the need to promote access to education, including refugee children,” they say, and add, “We support the call by UNHCR for more scholarships and creation of education opportunities for displaced youth as well. We know that education, especially if delivered with ethical and moral values, not only develops intellectual faculties but also forms ability to judge rightly, foster a sense of values and prepare the young person for a professional life, as argued by Pope Paul VI.”

The Bishops agree with Pope Paul VI who said that lack of education is as serious as lack of food.

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“Pope Paul VI asserted that when someone learns to read or write, that person is empowered to do a job and shoulder a profession, to develop to self-confidence and realize that he or she can progress along with others,” SACBC members says.

They add in reference to Pope Paul VI, “His Holiness reminds us that literacy is the first and most basic tool for personal enrichment and social integration; and it is society's most valuable tool for furthering development and economic progress.”

In their message ahead of the World Refugee Day, the Bishops call upon countries hosting refugees and the forcibly displaced not to impede but encourage access to education for refugees by putting into place the necessary legal framework and making sure that no one of the young people is left behind or denied education.

As for “Together we shine” aspect of the 2021 World Refugee Day theme, members of SACBC encourage inclusion of refugees into host communities through sports.

They note that many refugees arrive in their host communities having been through traumatic experiences from their homes, while fleeing the push factors and also on their arrival at the borders.

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According to the Catholic Bishops in the three Southern African countries of Botswana, Swaziland, and South Africa, many refugees continue to experience trauma in the host communities where they live.

They suggest that the “together we shine when we play as team,” is a more than welcome campaign to help refugees deal and heal from the many traumatic experiences that either forced them to leave their homes or that were suffered on their journey to their host communities.

“The Church joins the UNHCR in calling for greater support for refugee sport programs, primarily to facilitate healing, restoration of the violated intrinsic human dignity and self-confidence,” SACBC members say.

They add in reference to the Church, “She reminds us all through the words of Pope Francis that we are called to go out into the streets of every existential periphery in order to heal wounds and to seek out the straying, without prejudice or fear, without proselytizing, but ready to widen her tent to embrace everyone.”

Meanwhile, the Bishops have noted with concern that the care for refugees has been left to struggling countries while those endowed with resources shun the vulnerable group.

“Over the years many countries, especially countries with more resources, have conveniently and egoistically neglected their responsibility of sharing in the burden of welcoming, offering protection and integrating refugees in their host communities,” SACBC members lament.

They make reference to the UNHCR statistics that indicate that 86 percent of the more than 82 million refugees world-wide, are hosted in developing countries.

“We call upon all countries and nations to make their fair and just contribution in protecting and helping refugees relive their lives with dignity. We encourage all countries to play their ethical and moral role in the protection of refugees. Without their support the lives of the 82, 4 million forcibly displaced people will be forever shattered,” the Bishops appeal in their statement dated Friday, June 18 shared with ACI Africa.

“Let us all commemorate the World Refugee Day with a commitment to solidarity with refugees by protecting their dignity and helping them enjoy access to health care, education and sports programs,” SACBC members say.