How quickly things change. First, Jesus’ birth is celebrated by the Magi and angels. Then the celebration is cut short, as Christ and his family become refugees, fleeing the violence of a brutal dictator in the middle of the night with little more than the clothes on their backs.
I can relate to these Scriptures. We celebrated our first baby’s birth a few years ago, only to have the celebration cut short by a hurricane. The doctors said we could not travel with our five-pound, premature baby for more than an hour, as her lungs might collapse during the trip. Yet the authorities urged evacuation.
What do you take when you must grab a few items and quickly flee? This is the question posed in “the backpack exercise,” a moving educational reflection created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to mark this week’s National Migration Week (Jan. 3-9). But for people escaping danger, it is not an exercise. The Holy Family had a donkey; we had a used Toyota that at first refused to start. We headed out with some diapers, clothes and little else, trying to escape the worst of the storm damage.
Jesus was an old-style refugee, fitting the current international law definitions of someone fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, who is outside the country of his nationality and unable to return. Existing refugee laws and organizations, including the Office of the U.N. High Commis-sioner for Refugees, were created to serve people like these.
Environmental refugees are the new refugee challenge. Our laws and institutions do not recognize them, yet because of global climate change, their numbers are growing quickly. The Intergovern-mental Panel on Climate Change warns that we may face 150 million environmental refugees by 2050; U.N.H.C.R. warns of 250 million. That would be four to six times the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (42 million combined) we struggle to serve now.
The problem is all too real. The U.N. University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security estimates there are already more environmental refugees than political refugees: 50 million, compared with 15 million traditional refugees. Island countries like the Republic of Kiribati, the Maldives, Tuvalu and parts of Bangladesh and Papua New Guinea are disappearing and are already relocating their people. Populous countries like India and Indonesia are vulnerable. The world’s poorest people bear most of the cost of climate change, though they contribute least to the problem. Of the 26 countries deemed by most observers to be the most vulnerable to climate change impacts, 23 are in Africa. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, notes that from Sudan to Rwanda the combined impact of conflict, environmental and economic factors challenges our existing categories for refugees.
Maryanne Loughry, R.S.M., associate director of Jesuit Refugee Service, Australia, counsels that “protection mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure that people are not left struggling to survive in ever-diminishing settings while the world debates the realities of climate change.”
This week Pope Benedict XVI, “the green pope,” urges us in his message for the World Day of Peace to take seriously our sacred duty to protect creation. In his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” Pope Bene-dict said, “The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility toward the poor, toward future generations and toward hu-manity as a whole.”
What can we do? We can consider how our actions affect the world’s poor, help environmental refugees by “greening” our own behaviors, consider “who’s under our carbon footprint” and take the Catholic Climate Co-venant’s St. Francis Pledge to Care for Creation and the Poor. We can support groups like the Jesuit Refugee Service and Catholic Relief Services, which help environmental refugees and work to help the world’s poor better adapt to climate change. We can support congressional legislation and administrative action to reduce carbon emissions, especially measures to support the poor hurt most by climate change. And we can welcome today’s holy families, forced to flee circumstances not of their making.