By Donnelly McCleland

Pope Francis has prayed for migrants in a special Mass, saying they are people and not just a social issue. The Mass, celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica on Monday [8 July], marked the sixth anniversary of the pope’s visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa on 8 July 2013. Francis had been pope for only four months when he made the surprise visit, his first pastoral visit outside Rome. The island, halfway between Sicily and the North African coast, has become one of the main European points of entry for migrants and refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. The pope said “they are persons. These are not mere social or migrant issues. They are the symbol of all those rejected by today’s globalised society.” (Associated Press)

UN report on displaced people

According to a UN report released last month (June 2019), a record 71 million people have been displaced worldwide by war, persecution and other violence – an increase of more than two million from the previous year and an overall total that would amount to the world’s 20th most populous country. This is nearly a 65 percent increase from a decade ago. The annual ‘Global Trends’ report counted the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people at the end of 2018. Based on the statistics gathered, an average of 37,000 people are forced from their homes every day, and one in every 108 people on the planet is now displaced. According to CBC News: “The figures add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics, especially the movement in some countries, including the US, against immigrants and refugees.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi decried recent rhetoric that has been hostile to migrants and refugees. “In America, just like in Europe actually and in other parts of the world, what we are witnessing is an identification of refugees — but not just refugees, migrants as well — with people that take away jobs, that threaten our security, our values,” Grandi said. “And I want to say to the US administration — to the president — but also to the leaders around the world: this is damaging.”

Grandi commended the United States, saying that it remains the “largest supporter of refugees” in the world (the US is the biggest single donor to UNHCR). He also credited local communities and advocacy groups in the United States for helping refugees and asylum-seekers in the country. However, he did note long-term administrative shortcomings that have given the United States the world’s biggest backlog of asylum claims, at nearly 719,000 (more than a quarter-million claims were added last year).

Jon Cerezo, campaign manager for Oxfam, summed up the UN report findings: “Yet another year, another dreadful record has been beaten. Behind these figures, people like you and me are making dangerous trips that they never wanted to make, because of threats to their safety and most basic rights.”

Migrants in the news

On 2 July, an airstrike attributed to the Libyan National Army destroyed the Tajoura detention centre in Tripoli, reportedly killing 53. Several testimonies from migrants in Tajoura reported that the guards at the detention centre had themselves fired at some who were fleeing. Held against their will in an area under attack, these migrants find themselves at the centre of the ongoing conflict between political factions.

According to data from the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration, 1,940 people have reached Italy from North Africa since the beginning of 2019, and almost 350 have died on the way – putting the death rate for those crossing at more than 15%. Another study by the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), an Italian thinktank, showed that one in eight people attempting the crossing from Libya between January and April had died en route. NGO rescue boats have gradually been forced to abandon the central Mediterranean as their activities were criminalised by authorities and their boats were ‘deflagged’, struck by seizures and judicial investigations (which have to date proved groundless).

Another migrant ‘hotspot’ is the US-Mexico border, where the number of people from Latin America seeking protection in the US and being held at the border rises daily. There is not one specific reason why people are leaving Central America and Mexico for the US, but violence (often drug and gang related) and severe poverty are often cited.  The migrant crisis has recently been placed under a spotlight again by a photo of a drowned migrant father and his young daughter, as well as various news reports about “squalid living conditions” at detention facilities.

According to Voice of America (VOA), UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called conditions in the detention facilities “appalling for both adult and child refugees and migrants, but especially for children”. The Los Angeles Times also reported that investigators from the Department of Homeland Security reported “dangerous overcrowding” at Border Patrol temporary lockups in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley last month [June 2019].

The border authority has said it is trying to provide the “best care possible”, but that it “urgently” needs additional funding to help the children, some of whom entered the US independently and some of whom have been separated from their families. It has also been pointed out that many of the detention facilities were not built to house the number of migrants currently being processed, or for the duration it is taking to process them. VOA reports that migrant arrests by the US Border Patrol this year have hit the highest level since 2007. In May alone, agents detained nearly 133,000 migrants, including more than 11,500 unaccompanied children. Congress passed a $4.5 billion supplemental aid package for border agencies dealing with poor conditions and overcrowded facilities, and the legislation was signed into law by President Donald Trump on 1 July. But the migrant issue is guaranteed to be a talking point in the US presidential campaigns leading up to the 2020 elections.

Compassion confronts law

Various people and organisations around the world have chosen to follow their conscience regarding the wellbeing of migrants, even when faced with possible imprisonment. On 28 June, Carola Rackete, a German captain of the migrant NGO rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, was placed under house arrest for violating an Italian naval blockade that was trying to prevent her from bringing the group of migrants she had rescued off Libya to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. She was released last week by an Italian judge who ruled that Rackete had been carrying out her duty to protect life and had not committed any act of violence. The judge also ruled that neither Libya nor Tunisia were safe countries for migrants. According to The Guardian, Rackete still faces the prospect of a long trial on the charge of aiding illegal immigration.

In another case, US federal prosecutors announced that they will retry Scott Warren, a border-aid volunteer who had been prosecuted for providing humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the southern Arizona desert. Warren, a volunteer with the organisation ‘No More Deaths’ (providing food, water and medical care to immigrants), was tried in early June on three felony counts – two counts of harbouring and one count of conspiracy to transport “illegal aliens”. The jury could not reach a decision and the government has dropped the conspiracy charge but will retry Scott Warren on 12 November on the two counts of harbouring migrants. If convicted, he faces 10 years in prison. Warren responded by pledging that work to assist migrant populations would continue. According to Democracy Now, Warren has drawn support from elected officials, human rights defenders, and faith leaders across the world. In a letter, 15 US senators urged the Department of Justice to drop charges against him, saying, “Providing humanitarian aid should never be a crime.”


There is no denying that migration, especially that which is deemed ‘illegal’, is a difficult and complex issue. But the Bible does address how immigrants should be treated, and it is clear that the Lord’s children have a part to play in the process. Although the Bible does not give a complete set of guidelines for immigration, there are some specific commandments that convey God’s view on immigration and migrants.

One key Scripture is Leviticus 19:33-34, which says: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” The Israelites were commanded to treat foreigners as they would treat citizens. In a similar way, Christians have a tremendous opportunity to represent Christ to foreigners (migrants, refugees or asylum-seekers) by treating them as equal citizens, showing them Christ-like love, kindness and compassion (just as Pope Francis encouraged), especially where others may be mistreating them.


  • For the millions of migrants in the world, who face opposition and challenges on many fronts
  • For compassionate and wise solutions to the migrant crises in various parts of the world
  • For Christians to share boldly the love of Christ with migrants and refugees in their communities