Catholic Bishop’s Key Lessons from Pope Francis in Caring for Migrants, Refugees in Africa

Bishop Joseph Kizito of Aliwal North flagging off a tree planting event in the Diocese at a past event Credit: Bishop Joseph Kizito

Pope Francis is celebrating his 10th anniversary as leader of the Catholic Church on Monday, March 13. 

It is a time, for many, to celebrate the Holy Father’s unique leadership style and focus on marginalized groups, including migrants and refugees.

Moments after meeting with a group of refugees and migrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan at the Vatican, while on board the Papal flight to the two African nations, Pope Francis asked everyone on the plane to spend a moment in silent prayer thinking of those who cross the Sahara Desert seeking a better life.

“Right now we are crossing the Sahara. Let’s spend a short moment in silence, a prayer for all the people who, looking for a little bit of comfort, a little bit of freedom, have crossed and did not make it,” Pope Francis said on January 31.

He added, “So many suffering people who arrive at the Mediterranean and after having crossed the desert are caught in the camps and suffer there. We pray for all those people.”


It is the Holy Father’s closeness to the wounded people who are forced out of their respective countries by protracted violence, hunger, and a myriad of other challenges that has given an African Catholic Bishop renewed energy in his ministry.

In a Thursday, March 9 interview with ACI Africa, Bishop Joseph Mary Kizito, the Liaison Bishop for the Migrants and Refugees department of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) said that Pope Francis has given his ministry a new meaning.

“Pope Francis is my role model. His closeness with refugees and migrants spread across the world has given my ministry meaning,” Bishop Kizito said.

He added, “My faith has grown during the 10 years of Pope Francis. The way I look at vulnerable people, and my understanding of humanity has changed. For me, this is no longer just an assignment that I was given by the other Bishops in Southern Africa. This is now my vocation.”

He said that the Holy Father has, in a unique way, made the Church open its doors and recognize the suffering of migrants and refugees. 

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With Pope Francis’s centeredness on the plight of migrants and refugees, the Church can no longer afford to remain silent on the needs of this vulnerable group, the Ugandan-born Bishop of South Africa’s Aliwal North Diocese told ACI Africa. 

The Holy Father’s mantra: Welcome, Protect, Promote, and Integrate is also an invitation for the people of God, especially in Africa, to openly receive those seeking refuge in their countries, to make them feel at home, to empower them with opportunities and to integrate them into their communities, Bishop Kizito said.

“Fear is sometimes our biggest shortcoming. Pope Francis says that fear blocks us from seeing opportunities in other people,” he said.

He added, “We tend to fear those coming to us seeking refuge. White people fear blacks leaving Africa to search for better opportunities abroad. Blacks are sometimes seen as dangerous people in the places they go. The Holy Father says that we shouldn't fear these people be charitable to them and help them.”

The Liaison Bishop for the Migrants and Refugees in the SACBC says that no one is happy to leave his or her motherland, and explains, “These migrants are not on a tour. They have gone through so much, having to leave the places they know, the food they know, the environment and language they know, and the families they know.”


From Abraham who migrated several times until he arrived in present-day Israel, and Jesus who was a refugee in present-day Egypt, Christianity has been built on movement and migration, he says.

“Ours is a Church on the move. It is a Church of migrants. What Pope Francis is teaching us is to see the countless opportunities in opening our doors to the migrants and refugees,” the 55-year-old Catholic Bishop who has been at the helm of Aliwal Diocese since his Episcopal Ordination in February 2020 told ACI Africa. 

Bishop Kizito continued, “America came up as a result of migrants and refugees. Jews always left their gates open for visitors who brought in different gifts and talents. In South Africa, the migrants and refugees have taught the local people skills in business, and education, and we have others in the Church teaching catechism.”

The biggest plus for refugees and migrants in Pope Francis’s 10 years as leader of the Catholic Church has been amplifying the voice of the most vulnerable members of this group, especially children, he further said.

“Pope Francis understands that among migrants and refugees, children are some of the most vulnerable; they have no voice; all they do is follow their parents without objecting,” Bishop Kizito told ACI Africa March 9.

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He said that Pope Francis’ 11 April 2019 dramatic gesture when he knelt and kissed the feet of worrying South Sudanese political leaders has been an invitation for Africa’s political leaders to end wars on the continent and to create safe spaces for the people so that they will not have to leave.

According to the Liaison Bishop for the Migrants and Refugees department of SACBC, wars resulting from bad politics and economic challenges are responsible for most migrations happening in Africa.

Meanwhile, Bishop Kizito has called on countries hosting refugees and migrants in Africa to stop “exploiting” this vulnerable group.

“These people need food, shelter, and work. Let's stop exploiting them because they are vulnerable. Let's stop using them for cheap labor. I appeal to the Church, specifically, to desist from misusing migrants and refugees because this exploitation will go down history and will come back to haunt us. We all know how the Church has been accused of enslavement in the past. Let’s treat these people with dignity,” he says.

Migrants and refugees can be empowered with opportunities to work for themselves and pay for their needs, instead of enclosing them in camps where they are continually given relief food, the Bishop of Aliwal North says.

“These refugees are not stupid people. For someone to brave dangers along the way from DRC to Kenya or to South Africa, they must be courageous and resourceful. Many migrants and refugees have employable skills. Some have scaled academic heights and all they need are opportunities to make a living and to grow themselves and their families,” Bishop Kizito says.

The Ugandan-born Bishop adds, “I love South Africa because there are no camps for refugees here. The moment they arrive, they are integrated into the community and shown what to do to make a living for themselves.”

Bishop Kizito has urged the Church to use her structures, including the Small Christian Communities (SCCs), Caritas, and other platforms to increase awareness about the plight of migrants and refugees.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.