An estimated 65 million people were displaced from their homes last year. This is equivalent to the population of Britain, or 24 people fleeing for their lives every minute. The mass movement of so many desperate people is a defining moral challenge of our time.
Recently we’ve seen the plight of the Rohingya people fleeing violence in Myanmar (Burma). This is the second exodus of Rohingya from Rakhine state: in 1991, more than 250,000 fled to Bangladesh. In the last few months, another 640,000 people have escaped violence, some walking for up to 10 days to reach camps in Cox’s Bazar across the border.
Working with Caritas Bangladesh, Cafod is providing life-saving assistance for Rohingya refugees. My colleague assisting the emergency effort in Cox’s Bazar told me of a family who had fled with their seven-day-old baby girl when their house was burned to the ground and their cattle stolen. The baby’s head was badly injured on the journey. Whenever she stirred, she immediately cried. We have reached more than 60,000 families like hers with food rations, and we are distributing warm clothing, blankets and sleeping mats to thousands more to fend off the winter cold.
Despite the challenges and with the generosity of the Catholic community in England and Wales who have given £200,000 to assist the Rohingya people, Cafod is seeking to clean the wounds of this crisis, as we have done before when people have faced terrible violence on a massive scale.
During his recent visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, Pope Francis sought to encourage interfaith dialogue to end the cycle of violence. Sensitivities around the use of the word “Rohingya” captured the public’s attention, but the private meetings between Pope Francis and the leaders of both countries may yet foster a peaceful resolution.
Francis has made care for refugees a priority of his pontificate, setting up a Vatican department to oversee the Church’s work on displaced people. Last year the Holy Father asked us to “listen to migrants”, publishing guidance for world leaders to influence negotiations taking place this year on two proposed United Nations agreements: one on safe and orderly migration, the other to help people seeking sanctuary from conflict and persecution.
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