Pope Benedict stressed the importance of global leaders welcoming refugees in light of recent violence that's displaced thousands of people in Africa and the Middle East.
“I invite the civil authorities and all people of good will to ensure refugees are welcomed and given dignified living conditions as they await the chance to return freely and safely to their own countries,” he said before praying the Angelus on Sunday.
World Refugee Day is celebrated annually on June 20.
The celebration this year coincides with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the adoption of the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees.
Archbishop Antonio Maria Vegliò – head of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People – told Vatican Radio that the commission “has been assisting millions of refugees over the last 60 years.”
But refugees today face new challenges because of changes in political climates across the globe. “There is a hardening attitude of countries so that it seems that refugees are the problem and not the reasons why they have to flee,” the archbishop explained.
He referred to recent violence over political upheaval in Africa – including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Sudan – causing scores of people to flee their home counties.
Archbishop Veglio said that more than one million people have fled Libya, with about 15,000 arriving in Italy, 290,000 in Tunisia, and 161,000 in Egypt.
He also spoke of the ongoing conflict in Abyei, Sudan, which has caused people to flee as well as “the situation in Darfur where hundred thousands are living in camps.”
The archbishop noted that in response, the Church has consistently worked to help refugees and the internally displaced through the help of local bishops' conferences, clergy and religious communities.
“In addition, Caritas, both at diocesan level or national level, is assisting in many different ways, from emergency aid to directly involved in managing refugee camps,” he said, adding that the charity also works in “counseling of traumatized refugees, and the reintegration of child soldiers” into society.
Despite neighboring countries struggling to accommodate refugees and victims of political violence, Archbishop Veglio insisted that closing borders “is not the answer.”
“Countries should guarantee the rights of the refugees and act according to the spirit of the 1951 Convention, to assist those in need, to welcome them, and treat them on the same level as citizens.”
Former U.S. ambassador Johnny Young, head of Migration and Refugee Services for the U.S. bishops, also spoke about World Refugee Day and urged the United States to maintain its role as a global leader in refugee protection.
“Without U.S. leadership, the situation for the world’s 15 million refugees would be much worse,” he said. “We must remain committed to refugee protection and to the U.S. refugee program, which saves thousands of lives each year.”
In his remarks, Young expressed support for the Refugee Protection Act, which was introduced in Congress last week by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). The proposed legislation would strengthen protections for refugees in the U.S.
“A large number of refugees rescued by our nation are themselves victims of terror and are in need of protection from such threats,” Young said. “We can ensure the integrity of the U.S. refugee program without sacrificing its vitality and capacity.”