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JRS - Jesuit Refugee Service

History of JRS Asia-Pacific

(preserved from - 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


At the time when the Jesuit Refugee Service was established, many Jesuits were already working with and on behalf of refugees. So JRS was never in a position to initiative policy decisions, for these had been preempted by people already in the field. In the early years, to coordinate was to discern the value of what was already being done, and to establish future directions.

The history of JRS Asia/Pacific also begins in the lives and work of men working with refugees. Before Mark Raper was appointed regional coordinator in September 1982, some ten Jesuits were already working directly with refugees in camps, and critical decisions had already been made about the shape of future Jesuit work with refugees.

The First Jesuits In The Field

Some Jesuits had been working with displaced persons in their own country. Thus after the Indonesian invasion of December 1975, Joao Felgueras, Jose Martins and Daniel Coelho served the people of East Timor.

Others had found new demands placed on their already generous commitments by the arrival of Indochinese refugees. In Macao, for example, Luis Ruiz, whose generosity to Chinese refugees was already almost legendary, extended his work to welcome the Vietnamese as well. Other Jesuits worked with refugees in Hong Kong on a part time basis.

In other countries less affected by the immediate influx of refugees, Jesuits had been drawn into the lives of refugees by their research or advocacy. Ando Isamu in Japan was involved in community education, and through a social institute focused Japanese concern upon the plight of refugees. In Indonesia, Fr. Hardaputranta, who carried a responsibility for coordinating the care for East Timorese refugees on behalf of the Indonesian Catholic Church, was involved with Indochinese refugees from the beginning through the Bishops Institute for Social Research and Development. The interest of Australian Jesuits in refugees was awakened and encouraged by Asian Bureau Australia (ABA) under the direction of Mark Raper. Young Jesuits were also involved in establishing some chapters of the Indochinese Refugee Association (ICRA) which became one of the most influential organisations in resettlement and advocacy in Australia.

After refugees began to arrive in great numbers in the countries neighbouring Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, some Jesuits offered themselves for pastoral work among them. Gildo Dominici, who had taught in Vietnam prior to the conquest of the South, worked in Galang, Indonesia, a camp where several thousands of refugees lived after fleeing from Vietnam. He was joined there by Yves Ramousse of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris. Until 1970, he had been Bishop of Phnom Penh, and was later made responsible for Cambodians throughout the world.

The heaviest concentration of Jesuits working with refugees, however, was in Thailand, where refugees had arrived from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Some Jesuits had gone there during the crisis of the 1979, while others had answered the call for the short term volunteers in 1980. The number of Jesuits involved and the variety in their vision made them particularly important in the subsequent shaping of JRS.

Joe Devlin, who had worked in a Vietnamese orphanage prior to the fall of Saigon, came in 1979 to Song Khla, in the South of Thailand. There he welcomed new arrivals as they left their boats. In 1980, Angelo D'Agostino came to work with Catholic Relief Service (CRS) in Chonburi Camp near Phanat Nikhom. This became the principal transit camps for refugees chosen for resettlement in developed countries. They needed urgently to learn the languages of the countries to which they were going. So when the Indian Assistancy agreed to send volunteers to work with refugees for short periods of time, Paul Macwan, Pierre Ceyrac, Noel Oliver and John Bingham went to teach in Chonburi camp.

The arrival of this group was significant also in that it marked the beginning of Jesuit association with the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR). This arm of the Thai church responsible for work with refugees was founded in 1979 under the direction of Fr. Bunlert Tharachatr. It came to enjoy the confidence both of the church and of the Thai army, which had a large role in developing and administering refugee policy within Thailand.

Two other Jesuits had also come to Thailand. Bob Maat, a trained physician's assistant, worked for some time in Khao I Dang, the major holding centre from which Cambodian refugees went to be resettled. After his experience there, he studied Khmer in the hope of working in a deeper and more prolonged way with Cambodians. In 1980, Ed Brady was working with the COERR team in education at Ban Vinai, the major camp for the Hmong situated by the Mekong River.

If this account chronicles only the names and placements of Jesuits at this stage, it does mean either that the relationships which Jesuits had developed were insignificant, or that Jesuits were playing a leading role in their organisations. But it was the Jesuits working in the field who shaped the future directions and even policies of the Jesuit Refugee Service. Only later do the relationships now being formed have a discernible influence on the decisions taken about the shape and directions of the Service.

Issues In Thailand

By early 1981, the Jesuits at Phanat Nikhom had completed their contract, and COERR no longer required their services there. But Piere Ceyrac and John Bingham were keen to continue working with refugees from Cambodia, while Bob Maat was already working with the American Refugee Committee in Nong Samet, one of the Cambodian border camps. They had then to decide how and under whose aegis they should work.

The resolution of these questions had to take account of a complex set of relationships. In the first place, while Jesuits working with refugees in Thailand were comparatively small in number, they formed a very significant proportion of the Jesuits in the Thai region. While the Jesuits resident in Thailand had supported the ministry to refugees with great generosity, a substantial Jesuit commitment to refugees in Thailand would need to be based on good personal relationships with the other Jesuits of the Thai region and on clear guidelines for their work.

This issues was made the more delicate by the political situation in Thailand at that time. A few years before, student demonstrations had led to the establishment of a constitution and an elected government. In 1976 this administration had been overthrown by an army coup and the establishment of a right wing government. Further coups followed in 1977 and in 1980. In this volatile political situation, the Jesuits whose principal work lay with students and in universities were vulnerable. For most were foreign-born and, like others who worked with students, they were readily suspected of encouraging student dissidence. Since the refugee issue was sensitive in Thailand, any uncontrolled Jesuit work with refugees and particularly the advocacy of human rights which it might entail, could have serious consequences for the other Jesuit works in Thailand. So the Jesuit commitment to refugees in the region had to take account of these delicate relationships.

The relationships between Jesuits working with refugees and the Thai Catholic church had also to be established. They involved issues of equal delicacy. The Thai church was small, and was always likely to be suspect of divided loyalties by the predominantly Buddhist majority in country and government. So an independent Jesuit presence to refugees could be seen as threatening. This issue became focused in discussion of the relationships between Jesuit work with refugees and COERR, the catholic body concerned with the welfare of refugees. Previously Jesuits had been involved with refugees through various voluntary agencies, most notably CRS, which represented the United States catholic church, and was supported by US government funds. To make a formal commitment to COERR would represent a new policy.

Any work with refugees in Thailand had to take account also of the large number of agencies involved. The voluntary agencies were coordinated to some extent by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and later also by the related body established to handle the relief of Cambodians in the border camps: the United Nation Border Relief Organisation (UNBRO). Jesuits working with refugees would inevitably confront the political context and the constraints which governed the work of these agencies.

To work in the camps also involved taking stands on political issues. The border camps, for example, were nominally under the control of the Khmer Peoples Liberation Front (KPNLF), the forces of Prince Sihanouk, and the Khmer Rouge. These were waging guerilla warfare against the Vietnamese army which had occupied Cambodia. As support given to civilians in these camps was indirectly support for the military forces associated with them, presence in the camps seemed to imply a judgment about the legitimacy of the resistance cause. This could be seen as a partisan position.

The relationships between the Jesuits in the field and the newly established JRS had also to be negotiated. Many questions arose, of which the most pressing was whether or not JRS should act as an agency in Thailand. As an agency, it would undertake works in its own name and appoint people to them. The alternative was to recommend people to other agencies.

The issues which faced the Jesuits in Thailand in 1981 were more broadly significant for JRS. While the decisions taken there would be taken in the light of local conditions, they would also involve the resolution of issues which affected Jesuit work with refugees in any field.

Proposals And Issues

These issues can be discerned in visionary proposals made early in 1981. the proposals suggested that Jesuits should work in the border camps which lay just inside Cambodia. The people inside the camps were technically not refugees but displaced persons. For their status was governed by the fiction that they were ruled by the legitimate Cambodian government, the coalition of three resistance groups.

It was suggested that Jesuits should commit themselves to serve the Cambodians in the camps, in the hope eventually of accompanying them on their return to Cambodia. While it was insisted that Jesuits should not adopt a political role, the proposal inevitably implied support for the institutions and leadership in the camps. Any plan to move to Cambodia with the victorious armies of the resistance assumed support for their cause. It was also proposed to establish a 'university' at the Border to serve the Khmer people and to act as a sign of hope in their abandonment.

These proposals are of interest for their implications. Had they gone ahead as suggested, they would have attracted the interest of many groups. The Thai government had a stake, for it supported the legitimacy of the 'government' formed by the resistance factions, but did not wish to encourage more Cambodians to leave their country for the border. To offer education and services was likely to make the Border a more attractive option.

The proposals would be of concern also to UNBRO, which was responsible for feeding and sheltering those at the Border. Anything which seemed to encourage or assume the persistence of the camps, and which made conditions there more tolerable, would extend the demands made on them. Furthermore, an overt endorsement of the cause of the resistance parties would make less plausible the claim of the United Nations to be independent. This claim was already compromised by the support given to camps controlled by factions in an internal conflict. The more their independence was compromised, the more difficult would be the primary task of seeking a durable solution to the conflict.

Finally, the commitment to Cambodian people within Cambodia had implications for the church of Cambodia, for the Thai church, and for the nature of JRS commitments. For the focus of commitment was now conceived as one not made [not] directly to refugees but to the whole Cambodian people. If the work of JRS was conceived in this way in each of its theatres, it would be difficult to ask people to move to meet new situations and changed conditions. Flexibility of response would be threatened. But if flexibility of response was [were] to be the overriding goal, commitment to the people who were served might seem less than total.

But if the ministry were conceived as one to the people of Cambodia, as Jesuits moved into Cambodia, they would have some responsibility for the growth of the church in that country. They would need to define more precisely the relationships between themselves and the local churches from which they came, those where they were stationed, and the church of the country from which the refugees themselves came.

The 1981 Bangkok Meeting

A meeting was held in Bangkok on August 6, 1981 between Fr. Arrupe in Bangkok and all the Jesuits in Thailand - both those of the region and those who had come to work with refugees. It came at an opportune time, for out of it came a broad framework within which Jesuits would work with refugees in Thailand. It also left open many of the larger questions.

At the meeting Fr. Arrupe commended the work already undertaken, and supported strongly the desire of the participants that the work should continue in some form. He reorganised the delicacy of the work in a volatile political climate, and also the demands which the commitment to refugees would make on an already thinly stretched Thai Jesuit community. He insisted that Jesuits working with refugees should cooperate with others and particularly with non - Christian groups. He was aware that charges of ideological bias might be made against Jesuits, but accepted the risk as part of the cost of any worthwhile enterprise.

Within this general encouragement of the work with refugees, Fr. Arrupe made two decisions with far reaching ramifications. In the first place he accepted the demand of the then Archbishop (and later Cardinal) of Bangkok that Jesuits working with refugees should be placed with COERR, so that their work would be incorporated into the Thai church. Secondly, he asked that the Thai Jesuit region appoint as JRS coordinator. The appointment would enable work with refugees to respect the sensitivities both of the Jesuits of the region and of the local church. Some time after the meeting, responding to Fr. Arrupe's insistence, the Thai Jesuit region appointed Alfonso de Juan to this position. He remained responsible for the student hostel at Xaviel Hall.

Subsequent Developments

After this meeting, the Jesuit commitment to refugees in Thailand took shape and began to expand. Xavier Hall continued to be a house of welcome for Jesuits working wiht refugees in Thailand, and Fr. Cerutti took untold pains in posting mail and cashing cheques for refugees. In the field, Pierre Ceyrac and John Bingham began to work with Cambodians in Ampil camp at the Cambodian border. They were loosely associated with COERR, and supported educational and social work within the camp. Bon Maat continued to work with ARC at Nong Samet in a programme directed towards patients with tuberculosis. Ed Brady remained at Ban Vinai, where the following year he was joined by John Blanchard who became involved in a social programme. In 1982, Yves Brasseur came to establish a programme of French teaching and of cultural orientation for refugees accepted by France and French Canada.

By this time, workers in Thailand were no longer responding to crisis. They faced a longer term commitment. Moreover, the worldwide sympathy for refugees which in 1979 had allowed so many to resettle had now diminished. Refugees could expect to wait in camps much longer, and were more likely to be rejected. They faced a correspondingly more unwelcoming reception in countries of first asylum. In Thailand the enormous number of people housed at Khao I Dang had diminished, and the Border camps already wore a more permanent air, with little promise of the political settlement which would allow th refugees to return home. The same situation prevailed in the camps which held the Hmong and Lao in the North East of Thailand. So the needs of refugees increasingly looked to the longer term - to education, support of culture, and the ability to participate in the decisions which shaped their lives.

During these years, the Jesuits working with refugees were also developing close friendships and working relationships with the volunteers among whom they lived. Moreover, in many cases they had some pastoral and spiritual responsibility to the catholic volunteers in the towns where they lived. So, when they met together, they already represented a broader group of people to whom they were close and to whom they were responsible.

In the following years these relationships deepened. JRS, too, took an active role in recommending, supporting or sponsoring people to work with refugees in programmes in which Jesuits were involved. The JRS network in the field grew more complex and rich, and so that people could ask who actually belonged to JRS. The tension between JRS as a network of Jesuits and as a network of Jesuit relationships began to be explored.

Of the people working with refugees in these early years, some later formed close bonds with JRS. Sr. Pierre Marie Bail, who worked with the lepers in Ban Vinai, has had a great influence on all who have come to know her. Bernadette Glisse worked for many years as a teacher of midwives with ARC in Nong Samet before going in 1988 to Cambodia in the same capacity. Elsie Webber, who came to Thailand with the first influx of refugees, has been indefatigable over many years in representing the cases of refugees seeking resettlement. Hiroko Horiuchi came first to Thailand in a programme for short-term volunteers, which was organised by Joe Pittau from Sophia University. She later returned for an extended period of service. This was an early example of the international Jesuit network of Jesuits and their publics of which Fr. Arrupe had dreamed.

Many volunteer workers had links with Jesuits either when they first came to work in the camps or later. Such links and the friendships which developed within them formed the early strength of JRS. It was based on friendship, and expressed itself in shared prayer and a common reflection on the Gospel.


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