There are some 35 million refugees and forced migrants worldwide – a number roughly equivalent to the populations of New England, New York and part of New Jersey, according to Boston College theologian Rev. David Hollenbach, SJ. "The question is whose responsibility is it to take care of these people?" he said. "It's not just that these people become hungry, but their spirits and their psyches are wounded. How do we help fix that?"
That is just one of the pressing questions under consideration at BC's Center for Human Rights and International Justice, which, while academic in nature, works closely with practitioners in the field, through collaboration with organizations such as the Jesuit Refugee Service, operating in 50 countries around the world, Catholic Relief Services and a number of immigration organizations working to defend people faced with serious deportation orders in the United States.
The Center's goal is to bring the perspective of multiple fields to bear on the major human rights and humanitarian crises of today.
"We normally think of human rights as something that's concerned with the law, but it's really about suffering, and how we respond to that suffering in its multiple dimensions: physical, psychological and political, among others," said Fr. Hollenbach, who specializes in issues of global social justice, has been a visiting professor in Africa and Ho Chi Minh City and has traveled to Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt to research religion and human rights in the Middle East.
"We want to be very deeply interdisciplinary," he said. "Most of the human rights centers at universities in the United States today tend to be focused in law schools and political science departments. We have law and political science very much represented in our center but we also have community social psychology, theology and ethics.
In addition to Fr. Hollenbach, the Center's leadership includes associate directors Donald Hafner, a Boston College political scientist and vice provost who specializes in international politics, U.S. foreign policy and national security; Daniel Kanstroom, a clinical professor at Boston College Law School and director of its Immigration and Asylum Clinic, whose new book Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History, traces the history of the immigration code and who has extensive experience litigating immigration and asylum cases; and M. Brinton Lykes, a professor of social psychology at BC's Lynch School of Education, whose research includes the effects of state-sponsored terror and organized violence and who recently received a national award for her human rights work.
Through multidisciplinary training programs, including seminars and a certificate program for graduate students, applied research, and the interaction of scholars with practitioners, the Center seeks to nurture a new generation of scholars and workers in the United States and abroad who can draw upon the strengths of many fields - and the wisdom of rigorous ethical training - in their efforts to promote human rights and international justice. In addition, the Center offers a speaker and film series, and undertakes a number of specific projects on major human rights issues.
One such project centers on the plight of refugees around the globe. The Center officially was launched in 2005 with a public forum on the subject featuring former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and past president of Ireland Mary Robinson, who said the Center, with its distinctly holistic approach provided by leadership drawn from several BC schools, can play a critical role in addressing the issue of the world's refugees, and in particular that of labor migrants facing increasingly stringent deportation policies.
Since then, Center has embarked upon a collaborative project in partnership with Catholic Relief Services, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and the Institute for Peace and International Relations at Hekima College of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. It will identify and analyze the multidimensional issues raised by forced migration confronting those who seek to aid forced migrants in the African context, to the end that greater clarity about these important ethical issues will inform the development of more effective political and humanitarian responses.
In October 2006, the Center hosted the first phase of this project, a four-day conference in Nairobi Kenya entitled "Ethical Responsibilities Toward Forced Migrants as a Framework for Advocacy." The conference brought together practitioners working with people displaced by humanitarian crises and academic specialists in the study of forced migration and social ethics. The ethical issues arising out of the conference discussions included refugee’s freedom of movement, the gender dimension of forced migration, international responses to forced migration, as well as the need to recognize the plural identifications of refugees and internally displaced persons. The conclusions of the conference will be published in early 2008 by Georgetown University Press in a book titled, Refugee Rights: Ethics, Advocacy, and Africa, edited by Fr. Hollenbach. A follow-up conference will be held at Boston College in the fall of 2008.
Among the questions the Center for Human Rights and International Justice also examines is what roles international legal structures and organizations can play in a world where right seems increasingly identified with might.
"We want to take a very strongly humanistic approach to these questions," Fr. Hollenbach said, "as part of our commitment as a Jesuit university to approaching issues from a deeply human level."
Among the Center's other projects is one focused on post-deportation human rights, which provides legal advice, counsel, support and representation to those who have been deported from the United States, as well as the families whom they have been compelled to leave behind. It also is piloting an interdisciplinary community-based research project, involving Center associate directors Kanstroom and Lykes, and affiliated faculty member Qingwen Xu, analyzing the impact of deportation on families and communities in the U.S. and abroad.
Elizabeth King is the Assistant Director at the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College; Patricia Delaney is the Deputy Director of Public Affairs at Boston College.