08/04/2004, 00.00
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Migrants in Asia, a positive test for the Church

by Lorenzo Fazzini

"Christian migrants as prophets of communion and solidarity." An interview with Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao, President of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant People.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Emigration in Asia is the new frontier of missionary action. Migrants not only seek to escape poverty, but also desire to share their culture and faith. For this reason, emigration is nourishing a new missionary trend. In light of it, the Parish must become a "second home" for migrants, a place where they are welcomed with open arms in a spirit of hospitality irrespective of their religion.

Such words belong to Stephen Fumio Hamao, President of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant People. He recently attended the 7th International Meeting on Migrations organised by the Scalabrinian Missioners in Loreto (Italy) whose theme was Migrant Citizens in the New Europe: Mobility and Rights.

In an interview with AsiaNews, the Japanese-born prelate gave his impressions of the phenomenon of migration in Asia, something that touches millions of Catholics.

Migration is a world-wide phenomenon of intersecting and overlapping flows from the four corners of the earth (North-South, South-North, East-West, and West-East). Is it just the consequence of globalisation?

Today migration is not limited to the aforementioned flows. South-South migration, i.e. migration between poor countries, is even greater. And this is radically remaking the face of the planet in ways that are irreversible.

The paradox of globalisation is that whilst it favours the free flow of goods and capital, it resists the free flow of people denying that most basic human right which is the right of movement.

Market principles applied to capital work very well but not when it comes to people. In this case "expulsions", "entry quotas", "special permits" become the buzz words. What is more, obstacles are placed only on the path of some, namely those who come from certain geographic regions pushed by particular needs. The "haves" seemingly suffer from some kind of disorder that compels them to stop and protect themselves against the "have-nots". As part of a new cultural discourse migrants become the scapegoat for the social problems that affect host countries, their presence feeding collective fears about potential loss of national identities.

What are the specific features of migration within and without Asia?

Asia has the largest number of migrants after Europe: more than 48 million people. Politics and economics push people to leave for other places. In 1997 for example, there were 3 million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. In South-East Asia migratory flows tend to be economic in nature going from Indonesia and the Philippines towards Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. These countries are host to about 2 million legal immigrants and a countless number of illegal ones. Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar also supply a great number of workers to Malaysia and Singapore, true economic magnets to many.

Emigration is often seen negatively in socio-economic terms. Does this apply to Asian countries?

I don't think so! The Philippines is a case in point. Remittances from overseas Filipinos play a significant role in the country's economy. In this sense, emigration becomes an important element in economic development.

What challenges to the Church stem from migration in Asia?

The Church steadfastly stands by migrants in defence of their rights and in promoting their dignity, especially in Asia. Moved and inspired by the Christian message she is always urging host societies to be more welcoming to migrants. In Asia this means facing the social challenges migration brings such as inadequate housing, food, and social assistance; difficulty in getting or living without residence permits; the sex trade and exploitation of women and children.

From a pastoral point of view what is the situation of Asian migrants?

It can be difficult to provide the necessary pastoral care and liturgical services in migrants' own languages. Still, the Holy Father renewed the Church's commitment to pastoral care for migrants during World Migrant's Day in 1999 and 2002. On both occasions the Pope said that the Parish must be at the centre of the Church's action in favour of migrants pointing out that from an etymological point of view "Parish" comes from the Greek para­­, beside or near and –oikos, house. Therefore, he urged parishes throughout the world, including those in Asia, to become a "second home" for migrants, to serve as a place where they feel at home irrespective of their religion. Such a prophetic suggestion is key to opening new venues for missionary action. Christians have to turn the Parish into "everyone's home" and make it part of their own mission towards migrants.

What are the guidelines of the Church vis-à-vis emigration in Asia?

The Federation of Asian Bishop's Conferences adopted in 1995 an important document asking Christians to make a four point pledge whereby they would dedicate themselves to:

●       a dialogue with life in which they share in a spirit of closeness and solidarity the joys, suffering and concerns of migrants;

●       concrete actions for the liberation and full development of migrants;

●       a theological exchange among experts to develop their respective religious heritage and learn each others religious values;

●       examine each others' religious experiences so that people from different religious backgrounds can share in their respective traditions and practices.

Some Asian Churches have indeed done interesting things in the area of pastoral care for migrants from which we can all learn something.

Can you give some examples?

The Filipino Church is conscious of its mission among migrants. Till now she has seen herself as a mission church that sent clergymen and other religious abroad. Now she has come to realise that Christian migrants are themselves evangelisers. For instance, Cardinal Paul Shan, Archbishop of Kaohsiung in Taiwan, told me how Filipino immigrant women reach out to their Buddhist friends speaking of their Christian faith and Jesus Christ. Many Taiwanese women have ended up converting as a result of being in contact with immigrant women.

What must Christian migrants do in Asia?

In a world that is divided and fragmented, migrants represent unity and communion within a Church whose vocation is to be a community that listens and engages others in a cross-cultural and cross-religious dialogue.

I am personally convinced that Christian migrants are bound to be such agents of communion and solidarity wherever they dwell. I am Japanese and in Japan there are about half million foreign Catholic immigrants, especially Filipinos, Brazilians and Peruvians. Well! Many Catholic immigrant women marry Japanese men, and many of them convert to Roman Catholicism to share in their wives' exemplary life.

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