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JRS - Jesuit Refugee Service

History of JRS Asia-Pacific

(preserved from http://www.jrs.th.com/history.htm - now defunct)


I. Beginnings of Jesuit Refugee Service Asia-Pacific (1981-1983)

II. Establishment And Growth (1983 - 1985)

III. The Consolidation of JRS (1985 - 1989)

IV.  Jesuit Refugee Service Asia-Pacific - Conclusion


The initial period of growth of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Asia and Pacific region can be dated from late 1982, when Mark Raper was appointed as regional coordinator. It may be said to end in the middle of 1985, when the Office was moves from Melbourne to Bangkok.

Refugee Life

For refugees in the region this was a time of diminished hopes, of realisation that there would be no quick path to resettlement while the prospects of returning to a free and peaceful life in their own countries also remained small and distant. As large numbers of refugees continued to seek asylum while fewer departed for third countries, the administration of camps

and the reception of newcomers became more severe and unwelcoming. For many nations tried to deter people from leaving their own countries by treating harshly those who had come. Both refugees and those who worked with them faced a long and painful period in which provision needed to be made not only for the immediate needs of food, medicine and shelter, but also for education, spiritual support and the encouragement of culture.

Refugee had also ceased to command media attention as they had done earlier. For this reason, events like the visit of Pope John Paul II to the camps in Thailand in May 1984 were the more welcome. It was gratifying that people working in the camps were able to contribute a little to the speeches which he gave in Thailand.

Chronicle of People And Places

During this period, there were significant changes in the broader JRS network. In 1983 Si Smith replaced Angelo D'Agostino as JRS coordinator in Africa, while in the following year Michael Campdell-Johnson was appointed JRS coordinator in Central America. Asia, Africa and Central America were the major fields of JRS operation. After spending a few months in Ban Vinai, Frank Moan wa appointed JRS coordinator in the United States.

Coordinatior Of JRS Asia/Pasific

In Asia, Mark Raper's appointed as coordinator was confirmed on September 25, 1982. The appointment followed approval by the regional Jesuit superiors to whom Mark was now responsible, and was preceded by Dieter Scholz's visit to Australia in August. He was able to speak with Jesuit, church and community groups about refugees.

Mark, who had previously worked as director of Asian Bureau Australia, remained in this position during 1983. This organisation, begun by and still loosely associated with Jesuits, focused on Asia issues. Mark's background in Asian political studies and his experience in working on development issues with church groups throughout Asia gave him many contacts in the region. ABA also provided a focus for the involvement of younger Jesuits in social issues. As Mark had also been the Australian representative of the Jesuit network concerned for Social and Economic Life in Asia (SELA), he was also familiar with Jesuits and their works in Asia. Since the late 1970's, ABA had been involved in issues of refugee policy and resettlement through its association with ACR [?] and APHD. So the new appointment did not mean a total reorientation but a new focus both for Mark and for the Bureau.

The appointment of regional coordinator meant that Jesuit reflection on refugees in Asia could look beyond the immediate demands of the works in which people were engaged in the field. This work of review and of visitation remains unseen, since it rarely results directly in the commitment of workers. But it is vital because it encourages and facilitates the commitment of the local churches and aid organisations. At this time, Mark visited refugees in Sabah, Papua New Guinea Indonesia, India and Pakistan, while he went also to Hong Kong and Malaysia to negotiate new projects. He was also occupied in arranging funding for projects and in talking with Jesuits and their publics about the needs of refugees and the possibilities of working with them.

During these years the major focus of Jesuit work with refugees in Asia continued to be in Thailand. In the Cambodian border camps, Tom Williams, who had previously spent three months at Phanat Nikhom helped to establish a technical school for the handicapped. Over 2,000 people in the camps had lost limbs to mines. Jean-Marie Birsens was a medical worker at San Ro camp. Like Tom, he had previously spent three months of his long vacation in Thailand, and was the first scholastic to devote his Regency to work with refugees. (Regency is the time which Jesuits students devote to active work experience as part of their preparation for priesthood or final vows. It lasts between one and three years). At Phanat Nikhom, Neil Callahan took responsibility for the English school administered by COERR. He was succeeded by Bernie Evens [?], who was joined by Joe Cocucci. Andre Lamothe spent some months with the Vietnamese at Phanat Nikhom. He returned to Canada to find sponsorships for many of them, before working at Bataan.

Over this period, Jesuits also committed themselves to camps outside Thailand, Renato Zecchin and Ian Cribb had spent some months for their tertianship on Pulau Bidong in 1983, working mainly with unaccompanied minors. John Haley continued this work during his stay on the island. The programme was given some continuity by Warren Broussard during his years on the island. He was joined by Bill Yeomens and John Kringston, and later by Joan Campbell, who all worked in education.

Early in 1983, Frank Phat, a Vietnemese priest who had been working at Bataan processing center in Philippines left for Australia. He was replaced by Louis Robert, the secretary of SELA, who had already been involved both at Bataan and Palawan on a part time basis. Paul Shaughnessy also worked for a year at Bataan, while Mick Smith spent three months on Palawan.

At Galang, Gildo Dominici was joined by Francis Wiyono from the Indonesian province, as the Indonesian Jesuits began to take over responsibility for the pastoral care of refugees in the camp. JRS also responded to a request from Hong Kong that Jesuits work in the camps there. Louis Robert went there as chaplain in the middle of 1984.

This brief list gives some idea of the slow growth in the commitments of Jesuits to refugees. But it barely hints at the extension of JRS through the development of friendships and working relationships. At this time, too, religious from other congregations began to be placed or supported through the Office. In the next section of this account I shall talk at greater length of the extension of JRS, as the network deepened and extended.

The chronicle suggest also the importance for JRS of short term placements, particularly those of Jesuits. Many of those who came later for extensive commitments began by spending a month or so in the camps. All returned to their own provinces with some experience of refugee life and a commitment to their cause. There they were able to stimulate tne interest of other Jesuits and of the local church in refugees.

Many short-term volunteers, like Ron Anton who was completing his doctorate in Business Studies, broadened the services available to refugees. He introduced courses in management in the Border camps during his yearly stays there. These courses became part of the educational curriculum available regularly to refugees after he left. So, short-term placements were vital in extending, deepening and enriching the JRS network.

Annual Meetings

The issues with which JRS had to grapple during these years can be seen most clearly in the records of the annual meetings of JRS personnel. The forerunner of these meetings was held in Bangkok in January 1983. It brought together the Jesuits working in Thailand. In October of the same year, JRS workers from the whole region were invited to another meeting, also in Bangkok.

These meetings offered an opportunity for JRS workers to relax together, to reflect on the life of refugees with whom they worked, to examine their experience, and to plan together to meet new needs and new situations.

The growth and the extention of JRS can also be plotted through the meetings. The eighteen participants at the annual meeting of 1983 had grown to 27 in 1984. At each meeting, too, a significant number of representatives from outside the field attended. To the first meeting Ando Isamu and Frank Moan came from Japan and United States respectively, while the report was written by Dennis Shoesmith, the research officer with ABA.

The names of the visitors to the first meeting also demonstrate the importance of the network established with the local church and voluntary organisations. Cardinal Mechai, Mgr.Bac of Laotian and Fr. Venet of Cambodian churches, Bishop renato Martino, the apostolic pronuncio in Thailand and an indefatigable friend and representative of the refugees, and Susan Walker, the field director of ARC, were among the visitors. The meeting in 1984 was similarly graced with visitors. At this meeting were present Dieter Scholz, Patricia Pak Poy of Australian Sisters of Mercy who were considering their own commitment to refugees, Keizo Yamada, Andrew HAmilton from Australia and Robert Cutinha, the Regional Coordinator for JRS India, who was working in India with the recent influx of immigrants and refugees from Sri Lanka. The breadth of representation pointed to the importance for the welfare of refugees of the international network.

Themes of The Meetings

The discussions at the meeting were far-ranging. But some issues and themes recurred. They were sometimes simply mentioned, often carried deeper, while occasionally the discussion was translated into new projects or initiatives.

1. Refugee Experience

The primary focus of each meeting was the experience of the refugees themselves. The participants tried to describe refugee experience as they touched it in each of the camps, and they returned to it when facing issues to do with organisation or policy. In doing this they felt a tension between the desire to emphasise the pain which each refugee feels and the call to insist on the injustice which refugees suffer. To stay with the pain of refugees lives was to accompany them as fellow human beings. But it could ignore the massive evil which makes and keeps people refugees. On the other hand, to look only at the causes of refugees sufferings could distract one from the personal value and needs of each refugee. So it was always difficult to describe the refugee experience, impossible to enter it adequately as an outsider, and demanding to hold together its different dimensions.

2. The Quality of Presence

At the meetings the quality of JRS presence to refugees was also discussed. Those who spoke stressed the pastoral character of the commitment of JRS workers, who came above all as friends to refugees. They wished to maintain the simple face to face quality of its commitment to refugees. This point was made in different ways: some claimed that our best gifts are simplicity and poverty of resources, others stressed the gift of time which could be more precious to people than even satisfaction of their more immediate needs. The quality of their presence would enable JRS to complement and perhaps even to challenge the attitudes seen in some of the larger agencies.

This emphasis, however, raised difficult questions. They emerged particularly in discussion of the Khmer border camps. The refugees there had no opportunity for resettlement. Their future lay in Cambodia. The leaders of the camps, moreover, claimed to represent the true government of Cambodia. Those who wanted a pastoral presence to the people, therefore, had to decide how to identify with their cause, and whether in fact the leaders cause was the cause of the people as whole. To criticise the resistance effort seemed to call into question the one hope which could sustain people in their difficult lives. But to endorse their cause seemed to support an empty rhetoric which could be murderous in its consequences, and perhaps also to support the unearned and misused power of one group of refugees over others. But the issues were unavoidable because the assistance given to these camps by the governments of the region and by the larger powers inevitably reflected their political interests. So volunteers were inevitably drawn into a larger design which could be malignant in its intentions and in its consequences for refugees.

These complexities of presence to refugees at the Cambodian border inspired calls for a more rigorous social and political analysis. It was necessary to identify the causes of the refugees situation, the interests served by making, sustaining and oppressing them as refugees, and the proper courses of action to be taken. The calls were not met effectively, but at least issues were aired and differences recognised.

3. Emergency Relief or Development ?

The position of the Khmer refugees posed another question about the JRS commitment to refugees. Because these refugees could expect to stay long in camps and would eventually move back to their own country after a settlement had been reached, the JRS commitment to them needed to be defined. Was it a long term commitment, or was it a commitment to meet them in their immediate and most pressing needs ?

There was an inherent tension between emergency relief and development. To conceive the JRS commitment as primarily one of emergency relief could ensure the ability to meet new crises, but it could be seen as abandoning refugees at the time when their deepest needs were most strongly felt. A pastoral approach built around friendship and spiritual support seemed to require a demanding and even indefinite commitment to learn the people's language and culture, and as far as possible to identify with them. But htis approach would limit the flexibility which JRS offered in the service of refugees. While these wider issues were not resolved in theory, the unique situation and needs of the Cambodian refugees were recognised.

4. Attitude to local churches

Discussion of long-term commitment to Cambodian refugees raised also questions about the relationships of JRS with the local churches. The pastoral and spiritual care for refugees introduced the range of issues which had been canvassed within the catholic church some ten years before at the Synod on evangelisation.

There was little debate about the quality of JRS work for refugees. It was to be committed to the Cambodian church. This had no structural existence inside Cambodia, for all the priest had died and all churches had been destroyed under Pol Pot. But after the Vatican had established the Office for the Promotion of the Apostolate among Cambodians (BPAC) in 1983, and had appointed Mgr. Ramousse responsible for the Khmer people throughout the world, he and his fellow Khmer-speaking priests from the MEP had encouraged and coordinated the effective pastoral care of Cambodian catholic throughout the world. Hence a long term Jesuit commitment to the pastoral care of refugees necessarily involved close relationships with the MEP priests and coordination within the structures being established. So work with Cambodians in the camps and any extension into Cambodia raised complex issues touching on the relationship between church, catholic agencies, and priests working within those agencies.

5. Discerment

The issues involved in reflecting on the quality of JRS presence to refugees pointed finally to the need felt for consistent and sensitive discernment on the priorities and spirit of the JRS commitments. Because situations changed so rapidly, significant relationships developed so imperceptibly, and the consequences of particular courses of action were so heavy with significance for the future, workers needed always to be sensitive to new demands and new opportunities. Although the pressure of work and the demands on workers made discernment difficult, the annual meetings provided a forum for advocating it.

6. Communication

At the meetings it was often asked how JRS should communicate with different audiences. The workers themselves felt the need to be better informed. For the refugees with whom they worked often needed to represent their cases to officials. To work effectively on their behalf one needed information about ways both to overcome the obstacles to resettlement and to present cases cogently to the responsible officials.

But the more workers knew about government policy, the more they wanted to change it. So they needed to communicate further with those responsible for the making of policy, particularly in the countries of resettlement. For there the most important decisions about refugees were taken. This led each JRS meeting to desire to animate the international network of Jesuits and their publics to act for the good of refugees.

Human rights also raised difficult issues of communications. In almost every camp administrations or the security forces of the host country. Such violations placed volunteer workers in a difficult position. Because their own presence in the camps was often precarious, they needed to be discerning both in the issues which they took up and in the ways they represented them. Otherwise they could be excluded from the camps without securing any significant gain for refugees.

In almost all fields the means of publishing abuses of human rights were risky. In some camps the workers mail was read, so that even private communication had to be circumspect. To protest to the camp authorities could lead to their loss of face, and so to retaliation against the plaintiff. Wider publicity could threaten the agency for which the volunteers worked. At these meetings, the anguish of the workers, and the limitations of what could do became clear. But it proved difficult to develop guidelines for action that were at once effective and comprehensive.

Although it too presented dilemmas, the communication of refugees experience to other audiences was less controversial. It was seen to be important. Most participants recognised the importance of their own personal communication. They also believed it helpful to make material available to influence public opinion in favour of refugees. The audiences most important to influence included workers in developed countries. At a time of economic recession fear of the loss of jobs could prejudice them against refugees. It also included those who could help refugees by a practical sympathy which could be aroused if they knew of the conditions under which refugees lived. Communication with church groups could be particularly effective in this respect. Finally, policy makers needed to be addressed. They needed detailed information and well-researched proposals for shaping public policy. So in each of these areas, effective communication could benefit refugees greatly.

It was also recognised, however, that insensitive publicity could be damaging. Journalists could exploit the private sufferings of the refugees and so further threaten their human dignity. Furthermore, while advocacy of the refugees cause through effective publicity promised good results, it was sobering to remember that tendentious reporting and the subordination of complex truth to the simple demands of a cause had contributed to their sufferings in the past. Publicity could also make workers own positions more precarious, as local authorities reacted to unfavourable publicity by shooting the messenger. More subtly, too, it could focus attention on the achievements of workers and agencies and not on the needs and dignity of the refugees themselves.

Despite these real dangers, it was generally agreed that JRS should encourage effective and responsible communication, for which some workers were better equipped and more favorably disposed than others. Since the dissemination of information and the preliminary screening of requests for help to prepare material on refugees was time consuming and required professional judgment, it was eventually to be coordinated centrally by the JRS Office.

During these years Mark Raper had taken responsibility for coordinating information about refugees. In late 1983 he published the first issue of Diakonia, a small news sheet which described aspects of refugee life, particularly as it was seen by JRS workers. It also told of the movements of JRS workers. This publication was directed mainly to existing Jesuit publics and to agencies familiar with JRS. Mark also available for interviews, wrote short articles on refugees and had photographs made to illustrate written material. In 1984 he began discussions with the Kuangchi Program Service in Taiwan. Jerry Martinson was its director. These discussions resulted in a number of programmes and videotapes which were shown to great effect to audiences in many lands. Earlier, other initiatives had been taken, of which the work of Ando Isamu in Japan figures prominently. Of the audiences which I described earlier, church groups were the targets of most of the publicity. It was easier to gain access to church media than to specialised or to mass audiences.

7. Recruitment

Participants at the meetings were concerned also to attract competent and committed volunteers to work with refugees. To recruit effectively involved welcoming volunteers and ensuring that they were suitable and well prepared for their task. While short-term volunteers had been influential in initiating projects and in establishing a network of active and committed people in the countries to which they returned, the future of JRS work with refugees lay in the hands of people who would give at least a year or two to work with refugees, could plan and review their work, and could pass on their skills and programmes to those who followed them.

The questions involved in recruiting were broached during these years, and a beginning made. At first because of the complexities of the preparation, screening, remuneration and insurance which needed to be provided for lay volunteers, only religious were recruited. These functions could be undertaken by their own congregations. But it was recognised as desirable to recruit lay workers. All those recruited continued to be placed through other agencies.

8. The Structures of JRS

An issue which remained of more immediate concern to the JRS coordinators than to most of the participants at the meetings was the structure of JRS. Each new development within JRS raised the question of the extent to which it should be an agency with a centralised administration and with responsibility to appoint workers and establish policies. The alternative was to coordinate workers while allowing decisions about policy and even recruitment to be taken in the field.

The meetings themselves showed some ambivalence on the point. While workers wished to retain a degree of autonomy, which in any case was necessary and inevitable because of their placements within other agencies, they also asked for support from JRS. This could be provided only be a well supported and well staffed office. They also sometimes sought the protection of JRS to provide some space within the local church or within the organisations for which they worked.

Where people had a double allegiance to their agency and to JRS, there was always the risk that they would be drawn unconsciously to play one off against the other. This could lead JRS to be seen as an agency, and so to be expected to assume the responsibilities as well as the privileges of one. In these discussions, debate was often focused on the question of who precisely was a member of JRS. The confusions which arose in discussion indicated that different models of JRS could co-exist happily within a single mind within the course of a single speech.

Conclusion

The themes of discussion at the early JRS meetings indicate both the dilemmas which face any work with refugees and the questions peculiar to the commitment of JRS. These questions pointed to many tensions. They included the tension between commitment to emergency relief and to development, the tension between the claims of agency and of network, the tension between commitment to people and commitment to cause, and the tension between immediate love and hard, discerning love.

By 1985, when the JRS Office had moved to Bangkok the number of people working with JRS had grown, the relationship between JRS and local church agencies had developed satisfactory, and the network of relationships between Jesuits and their publics on which the whole enterprise depended for its efficacy had been greatly enriched. It was already impossible to speak of JRS as no more than a Jesuit organisation.

When judged by the vision which Fr. Arrupe had enunciated, however, it still had many weaknesses. One of the most notable, paradoxically, lay in its comparative visibility. For while there were many Jesuits working with refugees throughout Asia, the local Jesuit provinces had still to find ways of making the refugee ministry part of their own pastoral thrust. The generosity with which the Jesuits of the Thai region had welcomed and provided hospitality to JRS workers was only one example of the support and welcome given to the Society's commitment to refugees, but for many and understandable reasons, the provinces were slow to make these initiatives their own. In comparison with Africa and India, where the obstacles to coordinated refugee work were much greater, Asia saw more volunteers from other provinces and more substantial programmes. These programmes, however, took the form of a "mission" rather than that of an indigenous response to local challenge.

 


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