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Middle East, Central Asia refugee crises ‘unprecedented in recent times’

February 27, 2015
Rick DelVecchio

More than 6 million people in five war zones in the Middle East and Central Asia have been forced to flee – a humanitarian crisis “certainly unprecedented in recent times,” the regional director for Catholic Relief Services told Catholic San Francisco.

Kevin Hartigan, the Europe, Middle East and Central Asia regional director for the overseas humanitarian arm of the U.S. Catholic Church, said the Syrian civil war is the greatest crisis, with 3 million refugees reaching other countries. At least 3 million more people have been uprooted in crises in Gaza, northern Iraq, Ukraine and Pakistan. The agency also provides humanitarian aid in Afghanistan.

“The Syrian civil war is unprecedented in our lifetime … The extent of the crisis in Iraq is horrible – the speed and severity of what has happened with ISIS is fairly rare,” Hartigan said. “Definitely we have more work in assisting the civilian victims of man-made disasters in the Middle East than we’ve had in many, many years.”

The Minnesota-raised, Stanford-educated Hartigan was in San Francisco Feb. 19 and 20 and shared a panel at Stanford Feb. 21 with Auxiliary Bishop Robert W. McElroy, a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

CRS has 900 staff in the region, all but 40 of them locals. Working outside refugee camps run by international relief agencies, the Catholic agency provides humanitarian aid to refugees living in host homes or makeshift accommodations.

“The Catholic Church has an advantage in working with people outside the camps,” Hartigan said. “We tend to leave the work in the camps to other organizations and work outside the camps because, working outside the camps, you need volunteers, community members, people who speak the language.”

He said “the local church and CRS has a real advantage in reaching people outside camps with host families.”

Often, those providing humanitarian aid are themselves victims.

“All our staff, and Caritas Iraq staff, in northern Iraq, are displaced people” from Mosul and surrounding areas, Hartigan said.

In Pakistan, CRS is the only organization providing shelter to refugees fleeing conflict in the nation’s tribal areas.

In Iraq, Hartigan said, while CRS is still focused on relief to get the population through the winter, the agency is making plans with the local church to address the education needs of hundreds of thousands of out-of-school children. The local church is playing a key role in this phase for Christians and non-Christians alike.

“People think of the Iraqi Christians as victims right now, which they are, but the other (side) is the Iraqi church is completely motivated to provide assistance,” Hartigan said.

In Gaza, the humanitarian effort includes a Catholic parish, three schools and the Missionaries of Charity.

Asked what U.S. Catholics can do to support CRS’ work in the region, Hartigan said “donations are extremely needed right now.” He said contributions help the agency support the local church in conflict areas.

He added that people can sign up for the agency’s advocacy network. The website is http://actioncenter.crs.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ccgp_signup.

In 2009 CRS and the U.S. bishops created the Catholics Confront Global Poverty initiative “to defend the life and dignity of people living in poverty throughout the world, and to urge our nation to act in response to the many faces of poverty through advocacy and action.”

The initiative’s priorities for 2015 are protecting funding for poverty-focused international assistance, including food aid; promoting reforms to U.S. food aid programs to make them more effective and efficient; supporting peace in regions such as Iraq, Syria, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Southern Sudan; and pursuing peace in the Holy Land (Israel/Palestine).

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