An American Baptist involved in refugee and immigration advocacy urged Baptists from around the world to get involved in issues concerning displaced and stateless persons.
Another Baptist scheduled to speak on the topic ironically could not attend the session during the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) in Izmir, Turkey, due to visa hurdles.
“God has a call for us to do this,” Aundreia Alexander argued on Tuesday. “I am hoping we, as Baptists, can be at the forefront of working on this issue.”
Alexander, the national coordinator for Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services at American Baptist Churches USA, has served both as a minister and a state assistant attorney general.
Combining her educational background in law and theology, she leads ABC-USA to advocate for and with those with little legal protection or voice.
“As followers of Jesus Christ and members of the Baptist family, we share common moral and theological principles that are the framework to compel us all to love and care for our neighbors,” Alexander said.
“We believe that all people regardless of national origin are made in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, believe there’s an undeniable biblical ability to love and show compassion for the disenfranchised, [and] believe that we are to love our neighbor as ourself and show mercy to neighbors in need,” she said.
Alexander noted recent data showing there are more than 51 million individuals forcibly displaced in the world, which is the highest number on record.
She argued that this makes it important that the BWA address the issue.
“It’s very appropriate that the BWA will be dealing with this issue right now,” she said.
Forum moderator Olu Menjay, who leads the BWA’s Commission on Human Rights Advocacy that sponsored the session, mentioned his own past as a displaced person in Liberia and his later immigration experiences.
Menjay, who serves as a BWA vice president and leads the Ricks Institute in Liberia, called the topic of helping refugees and stateless persons “a hallmark of the BWA’s work.”
Alexander explained that many of the newly displaced persons are Syrians, with the nation on track to surpass Afghanistan as the primary country of displaced persons.
Afghanistan has led the world in number of refugees for 30 years.
Other main countries of origin for refugees are Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Iraq, Colombia, Vietnam and Eritrea.
The main countries hosting refugees currently are Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Kenya. The U.S. ranks 10th with more than 200,000 refugees.
The statistics on refugees only count officially recognized refugees, with many others not counted by the United Nations. The rankings are also by raw numbers and not percentage of the country’s population.
“There are degrees of invisible,” Alexander said as she explained differences between terms like “refugee,” “displaced” and “stateless.” However, she insisted advocacy issues often deal with rights for each type.
Stateless people, those not considered a national person by any country, are not necessarily immigrants as they might be in the nation of their birth.
However, they do not generally count as a legal refugee and it remains difficult to accurately track the numbers of stateless people. Estimates suggest as many as 10 million people worldwide are stateless.
Stateless status sometimes emerges due to discrimination or legal technicalities. Stateless people are often left with few or no legal rights in their land.
Alexander noted that stateless women and children are more likely to be victims of violence, sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
“Even in death they’re not officially documented,” Alexander said as she noted that stateless persons sometimes couldn’t pass their few possessions down to their children or receive a proper burial.
There are about 4,000 stateless persons in the U.S., she said, which creates unique problems not faced by other immigrants.
“Our current laws do not have any avenue for stateless people to get citizenship,” Alexander explained. “The broken immigration system is broken in so many ways that if someone is stateless in the United States, they don’t fit any of the current categories.”
She stressed the importance of not using the term “illegal alien” to describe immigrants, as it is often inaccurate.
She also noted that such undocumented persons, most of whom are not stateless, are often not legally recognized as refugees.
Alexander urged Baptists to avoid a “Messiah complex” by just trying to advocate “on behalf” of other people.
Instead, she argued for advocacy that joins with displaced and stateless persons as they seek to empower themselves.
The other planned panelist for the session on immigration and refugee issues, Joyanta Adhikari of Bangladesh, could not attend because of visa issues that kept him from being allowed to enter Turkey.
Adhikari serves as the executive director of the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh.
He was to speak about the Rohingya people in Bangladesh. Considered one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, many of the Rohingya people have fled Myanmar and live in refugee camps or ghettos in neighboring Bangladesh. Many of the Rohingya are categorized as stateless persons.
Discussion during the forum from attendees focused on how to engage local Baptist churches, rather than merely leaving advocacy to the BWA or national bodies.
The EthicsDaily.com documentary, “Gospel Without Borders,” explores immigration issues and how Christian communities in the U.S. attempt to advance the common good.
The film offers a medium for Baptists and other Christians to use to consider biblical ways to talk and act on immigration issues.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.