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Of Sanctuary, Refuge, Migrants, and Refugees


ISSUE:  Spring 2017


At the end of 2015, according to statistics gathered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 65 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced from their homes—displaced by war, famine, ethnic strife, religious violence, poverty, climate change. Of them, 21.3 million were classified as refugees, 4.9 million from Syria alone. And of all those 21.3 million, only 107,100 were resettled elsewhere that same year—a tiny fraction of a huge population in flight.

That count does not include migrants, whose number is probably unknown. There is a distinction: Whereas a refugee is someone forced from home by conflict or persecution, a migrant voluntarily moves in search of better fortunes. Or so the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines them. But who is to say what constitutes volition and what coercion? Where do we begin to make the distinction between willful migration and headlong flight?

The distinction is important, for migrants are bound only by the laws of the country to or through which they are moving, while refugees are governed by numerous international conventions, amendments, and protocols. It is important because, in the instance of a country bent on expelling or barring anyone without desired characteristics or documentation, the governing authorities would well wish to classify their quarry as migrants, easily deportable, as opposed to refugees, who by that international law merit special protection.

Refugees, by definition, seek refuge, a place of shelter from the existential storm that has lashed them into flight. Some find sanctuary. Those two terms, at heart, are distinct in a largely religious sense, even if those religious dimensions are often forgotten today. A refuge was originally one of six biblical cities along the Jordan River to which someone who committed unintentional manslaughter could flee and be safe from being killed at the hands of a blood avenger—a refugee, that is to say, from vendetta. From that custom, with borrowings from Roman practice, developed the Christian concept of sanctuary, by which a criminal could retreat inside a church or shrine and there find safety from prosecution or attack.

Enter the concept of a sanctuary city, which emerged in the 1980s with the rise of the so-called Sanctuary Movement, whose members, mostly affiliated with churches such as Southside Presbyterian in Tucson, Arizona, offered protection to people fleeing civil war in various Central American nations. Sanctuary has since been extended to undocumented migrants under threat of deportation—thus erasing the categories of migrant and refugee and setting aside any question of whether the person under sanctuary has committed any criminal act other than entering the United States without papers.

As of the end of 2016, much to the consternation of the current administration, more than 200 cities in the US had declared themselves sanctuaries. Several states, including Connecticut and Oregon, had also pledged to resist federal orders to deport so-called illegal immigrants.

Are the millions of people now on the move refugees or migrants? Will they find refuge or sanctuary? Distinctions dissolve in the face of that driving storm, but they are urgent all the same.

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