Jesuit Refugee Service

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The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is an international Catholic organization that aids refugees, forcibly displaced peoples, and asylum seekers. JRS operates at national and regional levels. Founded in November 1980 as a work of the Society of Jesus, JRS was officially registered on 19 March 2000 in Vatican City as a foundation. The impetus to found JRS came from the then father general of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, who was inspired to action by the plight of Vietnamese boat people. JRS's international headquarters are located in Rome.

JRS has programs in 51 countries. The areas of work are in the field of Education, Emergency Assistance, Health and Nutrition, Income-Generating Activities, and Social Services. In total, more than 600,000 individuals have been beneficiaries of JRS projects.

Over 1,400 workers contribute to the work of JRS, the majority of whom work on a voluntary basis, including about 78 Jesuit priests, brothers and scholastics, 66 religious from other congregations, and more than 1,000 lay people. These figures do not include the large number of refugees recruited to take part in programs as teachers, health workers and others.

JRS is also involved in advocacy and human rights work. This involves ensuring that refugees are afforded their full rights as guaranteed by the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees and working to strengthen the protection afforded to internally displaced persons (IDPs).

JRS contributes to refugee research at the University of Oxford and the University of Deusto. At Oxford, the "Pedro Arrupe Tutor" oversees research undertaken in the name of JRS as well as facilitating the formation of personnel at JRS. At the Institute of Human Rights, University of Deusto, Bilbao, JRS and the Loyola Jesuit Province are joint sponsors of the newly established Pedro Arrupe Tutorship. The main tasks of the Tutorship include conducting research, teaching and consultancy concerning refugees and forced migration for church agencies, other non-governmental organizations and for governments.


In the late 1970s, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, was moved by the perilous journeys to exile of the Vietnamese boat people. Although the Vietnam War had ended in 1975, it was not until 1979 that great numbers of people began to leave the country and seek refugee elsewhere through risky journeys by sea. At that time Fr. Arrupe appealed to Jesuit major superiors for practical assistance. The generous 'first wave of action' provoked him to reflect on how much more the Society of Jesus could do if its responses to this, and to other contemporary crises of forced human displacement, were planned and coordinated. From that initial sentiment has grown a world-wide service to forcibly displaced people. On 14 November 1980, Fr. Arrupe announced the birth of the Jesuit Refugee Service.


The suffering of the Indochinese boat people who fled the aftermath of war and communism in Vietnam in the late seventies and early eighties profoundly moved Pedro Arrupe SJ, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Convinced of both the “dramatically urgent” needs of the refugees and the potential of the Jesuits to respond, Fr Arrupe set up the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in 1980.

The founder of JRS had a vision for the network he founded: JRS should deliver a “human, pedagogical and spiritual” response and meet urgent needs ignored by others, focusing especially on “those groups or areas that receive little publicity or help from elsewhere”. Administration, he cautioned, should be kept light. The main idea was to make men available to be in the refugee camps.

Thirty years later, JRS is still guided by the vision of its founder. With projects in over 50 countries, its priority is to be with refugees, concentrating energies on sectors where personal relationships and pastoral accompaniment are emphasised, especially education.

JRS is a “common apostolic work” of the universal Society of Jesus, which has confirmed its mission to accompany, serve and defend the cause of refugees, a mission implemented by Jesuits together with lay colleagues, many of whom are refugees, and members of other religious congregations.

JRS embraces the definition of a ‘de facto refugee’ in Catholic social teaching, which encapsulates internally displaced persons, those displaced by erroneous economic policies and humanitarian reasons, and many others.

As an international humanitarian NGO led by Gospel and Ignatian values, its vision is inspired by the spirituality of the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola. One of the key messages of the 35th Jesuit General Congregation (2008) was to reach new physical, cultural, religious and social frontiers, to go beyond frontiers, to the edges of humanity, to those who are estranged.

In mid-2008, JRS set up in the Middle East, attending to Iraqi refugees.

The search for new frontiers has taken JRS to places where refugees face deprivation and abuse of their basic rights: traditional refugee camps, detention centres and prisons, conflict zones, border areas, and in the heart of big cities.


There are more than 45 million forcibly displaced persons living in the world today, including refugees, internally displaced persons and other forcibly displaced migrants. In general they come from Africa, Asia and Latin America (the vast majority of displaced Latin Americans are from Colombia), and they generally seek asylum in neighbouring countries. Between three-quarters and two-thirds of the world’s forcibly displaced population live in Africa, Asia Pacific, South Asia, and Latin America, whereas only 13 percent of forcibly displaced persons live in Europe and approximately one percent in North America.

JRS definition

In deciding with whom to work, JRS feels that the scope of existing international conventions is too restrictive. It therefore applies the expression 'de facto refugee' to all "persons persecuted because of race, religion, membership of social or political groups"; to "the victims of armed conflicts, erroneous economic policy or natural disasters"; and, for "humanitarian reasons", to internally displaced persons, that is, civilians who "are forcibly uprooted from their homes by the same type of violence as refugees but who do not cross national frontiers ."[citation needed]

Internally displaced persons

Internally displaced persons are "persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised State border." (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Introduction, paragraph 2).

The majority of forcibly displaced persons in the world are displaced within their countries of origin. Nearly 12 of the 26 million persons internally displaced are from Africa, in particular Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

Asylum seekers

An asylum seeker is an individual who has made an application for protection but whose application has not yet been determined. If an asylum seeker's application is successful, s/he is then recognised as a refugee.

The practical determination of whether a person is a refugee is left to government agencies within the host country or to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). The percentage of successful asylum applications varies from country to country, even for the same nationalities. After waiting years for their claims to be processed, many asylum applicants who receive a negative response to their application cannot be returned home, leaving them in limbo. Unsuccessful asylum seekers who do not leave the host country are thereafter usually considered to be undocumented migrants. Asylum seekers, particularly unsuccessful applicants, are increasingly held in detention centres, particularly in Europe and the US.

It can often be virtually impossible for asylum seekers to leave their countries of origin with adequate documentation and visas. Therefore, most asylum seekers are forced to undertake often expensive and hazardous journeys to enter countries irregularly where they can seek and be granted refuge.

Prima facie refugee

In response to conflicts and mass human rights abuses, individuals often flee countries en masse. In these circumstances, it would be impractical and unnecessary to examine each individual asylum application. These individuals are referred to as prima facie refugees. Examples of refugee movements like this can be found in Sudanese fleeing to Chad, Chadians fleeing to the Central African Republic, Somalis to Kenya, Sri Lankans fleeing to India etc.

Stateless persons

Statelessness is where there exists no recognised state in respect of which an individual has a legally meritorious basis to claim nationality, or where they have a legally meritorious claim but is precluded from asserting it due practical considerations such as cost, circumstances of civil disorder, or fear of persecution. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that there are approximately three million stateless persons in the world. Statelessness is often a cause of forced migration as individuals move on to regions of the world where they could be offered basic rights and escape human rights abuses.

Undocumented migrants

Individuals who cross national borders without adequate documentation (passports, visas, etc.) are referred to as undocumented migrants (or erroneously as illegal immigrants, as irregular entry is rarely a criminal offence). Although undocumented migrants may be in need of international protection, frequently they do not seek asylum. While significant numbers of undocumented migrants would not be recognised as refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention, this does not mean they are not in need of international protection. Many have fled extreme poverty, generalised conflict, economic collapse etc. In host countries, they are regularly denied access to basic services – such as social welfare, education and healthcare – and the right to work.

1951 UN Geneva Convention

There are many definitions of a refugee, ranging from the most restrictive to the most inclusive. After the Second World War, the UN member states drew up what is now known as the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It originally applied to those who were displaced in Europe before 1951. In 1967, a protocol to the Convention removed the temporal and geographical restrictions.

The Convention defines a refugee as a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country.

Other definitions

Since the above definition refers only to individuals in fear of persecution, regional organisations in both Africa (African Union 1969) and Latin America (Organisation for American States 1984) have developed wider definitions which include mass displacements which occur as a result of social and economic collapse in the context of conflict. JRS recognises the human dignity in refugees through its accompaniment.


Based on the needs of refugees and the capacities of the organisation, JRS staff provide services to more than 500,000 refugees and other forcibly displaced persons worldwide. These services are made available to refugees and displaced persons regardless of their race, ethnic origin, or religious beliefs.


Education is the core JRS activity in most regions. It comprises services involving formal and informal instruction, including pre-school, primary, secondary and third level education, special education (especially in Asia), distance education, scholarships, life-skills and vocational training, adult literacy, computer and language classes, extra tuition and revision classes, and education for peace and reconciliation. In Africa and Asia, JRS strengthens the educational system in communities by training teachers and providing them with incentives, constructing schools, providing school equipment and supporting parent-teacher associations.

In 2009, JRS provided education services to approximately 285,000 young people in 25 countries worldwide.[citation needed]


Healthcare services offered by JRS include referrals and payment for medical treatment; healthcare services in detention centres; work in clinics and hospitals; food supplements; health education and training for medical and nursing staff.

In 2009, JRS provided more than 18,000 persons in six countries with healthcare services.

Human rights protection

Human rights protection covers legal casework, including asylum cases, and legal advice. Another aspect of this work is the organisation of training and awareness seminars, which are provided to public officials, local NGOs, and refugees. In JRS, legal work and advocacy are closely tied to research into the causes of forced displacement.

In 2009, JRS provided services directly related to human rights protection to more than 25,000 individuals in 20 countries.


Whether helping refugees integrate into their new host communities or preparing them for their return home or resettlement in a third country, JRS seeks to promote self-sufficiency among refugees. Services include helping refugees access employment and land, providing technical training and assistance and facilitating the establishment of small businesses by making available funds, grants and loans, as well as tools and other resources. Such initiatives are implemented in many spheres – farming, crafts, production of food, soap and other commodities – and go beyond the economic aspect (self-sufficiency, earning an income) to encompass human (restoration of dignity and hope) and social (integration, community initiatives) elements.

In 2009, JRS provided livelihood services to more than 60,000 individuals in 14 countries.

Pastoral care and social services

This area of support is extremely broad. Pastoral care refers to targeted initiatives – capacity-building among catechists, youth, community leaders and small Christian communities – and to wider ministry that reaches thousands. The latter includes liturgical services, including administration of the Sacraments, and pastoral accompaniment, especially of people who are ill, traumatised and bereaved. For instance, in detention centres, JRS offers chaplaincy services.

Other forms of support include psychosocial, social and recreational services, and community development activities. The degree of JRS involvement includes offering a listening ear or therapy for mental health problems and the organisation of support groups. Landmine survivors, victims of abuse, ex-child soldiers and those who have experienced trauma are among those supported.

In 2009, JRS provided pastoral care and social services to approximately 200,000 refugees and other forcibly displaced persons in 38 countries.

Peace building

Violence and armed conflicts nearly always lead to neglect of fundamental human rights. Under life-threatening circumstances, many are forcibly displaced and seek humanitarian assistance, shelter, food, healthcare and education. As part of the process of promoting peace and reconciliation, JRS offers training seminars and workshops, community outreach, planning and organising, awareness-raising, cultural and sports events, and the rehabilitation of war-torn structures. Peace-building often, but not exclusively, takes place in the context of return, with programmes aimed at developing the community at all levels.

In 2009, JRS organised peace-building activities for more than 17,000 refugee and host community members in eight countries.

Emergency relief assistance

A large part of the work of JRS involves the distribution of food and non-food items, such as mattresses and blankets, clothes, seeds and tools, money for transport and referrals and the provision of medical treatment. JRS also distributes tents in refugee camps, renovates buildings in post-conflict situations and helps refugees find accommodation in urban areas.

In 2009, JRS provided emergency assistance to more than 300,000 forcibly displaced persons in 24 countries.


Fundamental to the threefold mission of JRS is addressing the root causes of human displacement. The organisation strives to change unjust policies at the most appropriate level: locally, nationally or internationally.

First and foremost JRS carries out advocacy work on the ground. When the refugees with whom staff are working are denied services, JRS intervenes. For instance, if the food distributed in a refugee camp is not received by those most in need, JRS personnel intervene directly with the organisation responsible. If this fails, the information is passed on to staff in the national, regional and international offices. Where appropriate, JRS works with other organisations raising issues publicly in the media or privately in centres of power, such as Geneva, Rome, Brussels and Washington.

JRS advocacy is qualified by key characteristics. Rooted in field work, it is based on Jesuit values and is relations-centred and research-based. The organisation is currently developing research facilities in cooperation with the Arrupe Tutor in Oxford University and other universities.

Advocacy priorities are set at project, national and regional levels. Key issues are also taken up by JRS at international level. These include education, food security, and reconciliation. JRS also often works in coalition with other NGOs, particularly in campaigns against the use of child soldiers, landmines and detention. JRS country and regional offices play a role in providing information from the ground which can be used in work with the media and in advocating with national governments and international organisations, such as UN agencies.

International coalitions

Aware it is rare for one organisation alone to achieve major policy changes, JRS cooperates with other groups with common aims at local, national, regional and international levels. Although most of the time cooperation takes place at project level in an ad hoc manner, some of these issues need to be tackled internationally and in a more structured way. For this reason, JRS International is a member, in some cases a founding member, of four international coalitions: the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Cluster Munitions Coalition, International Detention Coalition and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

Child soldiers

JRS is committed to stop the use of child soldiers, prevent their recruitment and use, secure their demobilization, and promote their rehabilitation and reintegration. JRS also works with young people who may be vulnerable to recruitment into armed groups in a number of countries including Colombia and Venezuela and with former child soldiers in places such as Sri Lanka, Burundi and Thailand.

In 1998, JRS came together with six other leading NGOs to establish the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (CSC). JRS teams contribute information to the group which is used in the publication of the global report on child soldiers. Current projects include one in eastern Chad. In Abeche, two JRS social workers help about 40 children. Each former child soldier is visited at least once a week, to ensure those who are enrolled in school are attending classes, and to learn if the business-owners are facing any new problems they may need help with. JRS acts as a mediator with the government on tax issues when former child soldiers start small businesses, or when they face harassment from local authorities. JRS organizes meetings with teachers and community leaders to ensure the former child soldiers are not being marginalized but are instead being integrated back into local society.

As a member of the CSC, JRS promotes the adoption of and adherence to national, regional and international legal standards (including the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict) prohibiting the military recruitment and use in hostilities of any person under eighteen years of age; and the recognition and enforcement of this standard by all armed groups, both governmental and non-governmental.


Governments increasingly detain refugees, asylum seekers and migrants upon entry to the country and while final asylum decisions or other requests to remain in the country are pending.

Hundreds of thousands of people are held in administrative detention centres and closed camps around the world where living conditions frequently fall below international human rights standards and restrictions are placed on access to asylum for people in need of protection from serious human rights abuses.

Men, women and children, the elderly and disabled – the great majority of whom have committed no crime – are held against their will in removal centres, immigration detention centres, jails, prisons, police stations, airports, hotels, ships and containers pending a final decision on their cases or removal from the country that may take months or years to effect, often in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. Several governments around the world host large refugee populations and often place limits on the movement of resident refugees.

As part of its investigation into global detention conditions and standards for immigrant detainees, JRS/USA has compiled the results of a survey sent a survey to organizations working in the immigration detention arena in countries throughout the world, in particular those where JRS staff members are present.

The survey contained twenty-three questions related to detention conditions for immigrants and asylees. Data was also collected from an identical survey returned by one other non-governmental organization as well as from research from websites run by JRS-Europe, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, Amnesty International-Netherlands, the Swedish Migration Board, Detention Watch Network and UNHCR. Access the results here.

Landmines and cluster bombs

Up until the 1990s, antipersonnel landmines were used by almost all the world’s armed forces, in one form or another. Thanks to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, landmine use has dramatically dropped. Today, although the weapon is only used in a handful of conflicts, it continues to pose a threat.

JRS helped establish the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in 1994, to accompany those injured by landmines, help survivors tell their stories, promote solid ethical reflection and support national campaigns. The awarding of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize to the Campaign gave a boost to the many tireless JRS staff who participated in the campaign. Tun Chunnareth, who has worked with JRS Cambodia for years and is himself a landmine victim, has been a prominent spokesperson for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. It was he who accepted the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on behalf of the campaign. JRS continues to lobby for the signing and ratification of the Mine Ban Treaty by other countries.

JRS provides information for the ICBL's annual 'Landmine Monitor', a study into the use, production and destruction of landmines, as well as a watchdog style report on states' commitments under the Mine Ban Treaty (1997 Ottawa Convention). JRS has played a leading role in the campaign and contributed research on Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia for the 'Landmine Monitor'. In addition JRS continues to support landmine survivors in countries such as Bosnia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Kosovo, and actively raises awareness of the issue in these and other landmine-affected countries.

Following the signing of the treaty banning landmines, civil society groups, including JRS, established the Cluster Munitions Coalition, and shifted their advocacy activities to concentrate on the prohibition of cluster munitions. These weapons, when fired, release hundreds of submunitions and saturate an area as wide as several football fields. Like landmines, cluster munitions, or cluster bombs, often fail to explode on impact, representing a fatal threat to anyone in the area. Most cluster munitions, therefore, hit areas outside the military objective targeted.

After years of campaigning, in May 2008 in Dublin, Ireland, 107 countries negotiated and adopted a treaty that bans cluster bombs and provides assistance to affected communities. The Convention on Cluster Munitions, CCM, prohibits all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions. Separate articles in the Convention concern assistance to victims, clearance of contaminated areas and destruction of stockpiles. It becomes binding international law when it enters into force on 1 August 2010.

Representatives of States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty, some states not party, international organizations, UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and ICBL members met in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, from 28 November through 2 December 2011, to assess challenges and progress made in the universalization and full implementation of the Mine Ban Treaty. Song Kosal, from the Cambodian Campaign to Ban Landmines, discussed her experience after a landmine accident and the need to spread the word about landmines. And the International Campaign to Ban Landmines recently interviewed Sister Denise Coghlan, Director of Jesuit Refugee Service — Cambodia and member of the Cambodian Campaign to Ban Landmines. Sister Denise has been based in Cambodia and involved in the landmine issue and the campaign for more than 20 years.

Priority problems

Key issues are also taken up by JRS at international level. These include food security, reconciliation, and education.

Food security

Too many refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in camps and centres served by national and international humanitarian organisations, live a "hand to mouth" existence. Their access to food depends on the adequacy and timing of aid received from a few donor nations responding to urgent and competing appeals in which new crises compete for attention with ongoing needs.

Most people would find the standard food ration of 2100 Kcal per day, often consisting of nothing more than grain, salt and a small amount of oil, meagre and monotonous at best. Chronic food insecurity leads not just to the immediate misery caused by hunger, but also to malnutrition and increased susceptibility to illnesses. This is particularly true for the most vulnerable — the youngest and oldest in the population, pregnant and lactating women and those with compromised immune systems.

Food shortages of even a relatively short duration can lead to developmental deficiencies in children, with severe and sometimes permanent consequences for their physical and mental development. Malnourished girls are more likely later to die in childbirth due to impaired physical development. Malnourished children tend to drop out of school and are at increased risk of abuse and exploitation and recruitment as child soldiers. Some women, desperate to feed their families, are even forced to resort to trading sex for food, which contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, as well as to a loss of human dignity.

Often, refugees and IDPs facing food cuts will feel they have no alternative than to leave the camps and move on in search of livelihood opportunities without the appropriate travel documents or official sanction — thus becoming "irregular movers", risking arrest and imprisonment, or becoming victims of human smugglers and traffickers.

In protracted refugee situations where donor response is flagging, where partial integration is thought to have been achieved, or where authorities wish to encourage repatriation, permanent ration cuts may be instituted. The premature institution of ration cuts faces refugees with the choice of remaining in their host country without sufficient food, or returning to their home countries prematurely. Some refugees may be forced to return to situations where their lives are at risk, either because of security conditions at home or because no adequate arrangements have been made to ensure their livelihood upon return. Such coerced repatriations are much less likely to be sustainable. People forced to repatriate in this way will frequently move on again. The same dynamic applies to IDPs effectively forced to return home due to lack of food in their place of refuge.


Armed conflicts continue in some forty countries around the world. Fundamental human rights are neglected in all violent conflicts and this greatly affects civilians. In such life-threatening circumstances, many people are forcibly displaced and obliged to search for humanitarian assistance, shelter, food, health and education. As gross violations of human rights are a major cause of the forced displacement, putting an end to these violations could create a crucial opportunity for voluntary return home of those displaced. A serious barrier to their sustainable return is the lack or failure of the process of reconciliation.

Present in more than 50 countries, where it implements some 200 projects, JRS facilitates reconciliation between victims and perpetrators, between self-perceived “enemies”. Inspired by Christian faith that does justice and open to multi-religious and multicultural dialogue, JRS approaches reconciliation work through the perspective of its three-fold mission:

  • accompaniment of primary parties in the transformation of conflicts (JRS facilitates reconciliation based on direct encounters between victims and perpetrators);
  • service with a special emphasis on education in general, and peace education in particular (helping to prevent children and young people from inheriting hatred from previous generations); and
  • advocacy giving a voice to the excluded (speaking the truth from the viewpoint of all parties, searching for accountability and reparation, and promoting restorative justice).

JRS considers access to education a human right and a means to building peace and development. Education plays a prominent role among the services JRS offers to refugees and other displaced persons. Worldwide the organisation provides pre-, primary, secondary and third level education to approximately 285,000 young people. As well as renovating and rebuilding schools, JRS trains teachers and distributes educational materials. Based on this experience of the needs of refugees, JRS also advocates on behalf of displaced children to ensure they are provided with an adequate education.


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