In a world where international borders are often unceremoniously shut down and support for those who are displaced get shouted down, there is a small bit of good news to report.
The United Nation’s lead refugee agency and representatives of many of the world’s faith groups recently unveiled a declaration that could embolden the work of those trying to protect the world’s displaced persons, refugees and those who, because of their legal status, find themselves without a state.
As unveiled earlier this summer, the “Affirmation of Welcome” is the first document of its kind between UNHCR and faith groups. It affirms the core values that motivate faith leaders and their communities to provide welcoming environments for the displaced.
CWS has helped propel the international dialogue about humanitarian protection and faith groups, a dialogue that CWS staffer Jason Knapp said is much needed.
“While faith in today’s world is complex, this dialogue signals a shift at the global level, where the unique contributions of faith-based organizations and local faith leaders are increasingly being understood and valued,” he said recently. “With the humanitarian needs great, the challenges nearly overwhelming, faith actors can be key voices, allies, actors toward the solution, with still untapped potential.”
Adds Erol Kekic, the director of CWS’s Immigration and Refugee Program: “As the ‘faith and protection’ dialogue gains momentum, the distinctive roles and contributions of faith actors toward protection ends are increasingly recognized within the international community.
“The dialogue has simultaneously motivated CWS and other faith-based organizations to re-affirm our commitment to protection.”
What do we mean by “protection”? Protection challenges us to think beyond traditional assistance – providing food, water, healthcare, and the like – to reduce the risks facing individuals and their communities, ultimately increasing their safety and dignity.
Sometimes it is as simple as ensuring latrines have proper locks or scheduling a food distribution so that women don’t have to walk alone after dark. Other times the risks are so daunting that more drastic measures are needed. These can require training police, physically accompanying those at risk, advocating for open borders or one of several other strategies.
What has CWS done in this area?
Beyond considering how our own programs can better foster “protection,” CWS has seen great value in bringing together people of faith with the United Nations and other humanitarian groups to work on these issues.
Initial discussions that we helped organize got the attention of the United Nations and its lead agency on refugees – so much so that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, chose “faith and protection” as the theme for his dialogue last December, an event in Geneva that drew more than 400 people, including government and UN officials, faith leaders from around the world, faith-based groups and representatives from groups like CWS.
In the follow up, CWS was among those asked to continue this work, including an event at a UN consultation in June with humanitarian groups. Among the outcomes was the “Affirmation of Welcome.”
Why is this important? The UN’s Guterres says there has been “unanimous recognition of the valuable contributions that faith organizations and communities make to the protection of refugees and the displaced.”
The recent discussions and dialogues have “brought to the fore a wide range of suggestions and good practices to build on our debate,” he said, including practical steps to help humanitarian groups understand and reinforce the needed and important role of faith groups in offering protection to the most vulnerable.
In practice, this often means building on faith groups’ intimate knowledge of and commitment to their communities, in thoughtfully reinforcing local structures or in helping bridge the gap between international actors and local communities.
It can also mean building on the “moral authority” of local faith leaders to tackle tough issues, such as gender-based violence or xenophobia, or gathering faith leaders together to advocate for legislative changes that increase vulnerable groups’ access to their rights.
Tough, difficult situations with civilians in the crossfire are all over the world, and most don’t get the attention they deserve. Faith groups are among those who are able to shed light and help in such cases – another special contribution of faith-based groups that deserves backing and support.
Jason Knapp is the contact person on CWS staff for this issue. His email is: email@example.com.
Chris Herlinger is senior writer with CWS.