An Interview with Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo

by Dr. Eugene Fisher and Gordon Nary




Interviewers: Between 2005 and 2016, you served as Head of the Caritas Internationalis Delegation to the UN in Geneva and as its Special Advisor on Health and HIV/AIDS. What are the principal global challenges in controlling the HIV/AIDS pandemic?


Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo: Much progress has been made in lowering the number of new infections annually – it was just reported at the International AIDS Conference during this week that 2017 represents the first year when new annual infections were below one million people. There also are almost 22 million HIV-infected people who have access to life-saving anti-retroviral medications and thus could avoid the serious illnesses and death resulting from AIDS. I think the title of the recent report published by UNAIDS in anticipation of the International AIDS Conference, being held in Amsterdam this week, accurately summarizes the current challenges: “Miles to Go: Closing Gaps, Breaking Barriers, Righting Injustices”.


There still are too many people living with HIV but who have not been diagnosed and thus have not started treatment; for those who are on treatment, too many are lost to follow-up and risk serious illness and death; and some who are on treatment do not benefit from careful monitoring and thus could become ill because the specific treatment regimen, which has been prescribed for them, may not be effective, yet they may not be able to access more expensive second or third line treatment.


Also, young people between 15 and 24 years of age are the most vulnerable to infection, but we have not yet invested enough resources in trying to help them adopt responsible behavior by which they can avoid HIV infection. Too often, we avoid topics like “responsibility” and “respect for oneself and others” as “old-fashioned” – yet these are important and effective ways to prevent HIV infection. For those already infected, we must help them understand that anti-retroviral treatment is 98% effective in preventing the spread of the virus through sexual means.


HIV-infected children are being left behind because we still need more “child-friendly” medications and diagnostic tools to identify infected children and to put them on treatment immediately. 1/2 of all infected children will die before their 2nd birthday, yet many children are diagnosed very late – as late as 5 years old – so many lives of infected children still are being lost.


Another vulnerable group is migrants, refugees, and displaced persons. They often are denied access to health care and social services where they have sought refuge. Because of major upheavals in their lives, they may abandon traditional cultural, religious, and family values and thus be exposed to the risk of HIV infection. European studies have indicated that more migrants are infected after their arrival in host countries than before they leave their homelands. I recently offered an update on this situation during the many meetings related to the 2018 International AIDS Conference held in Amsterdam.


Insisting on access to treatment for all people who need it, Pope Francis has said, “no human life is more sacred than that of another”.


Interviewers: You were appointed Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) in June 2016. What are your primary responsibilities?


Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo: I serve as intermediary among the member organizations of ICMC, which are the Commissions for Refugees and Migrants of the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences all over the world; I try to facilitate the sharing of good practices and experiences of such structures that are making every effort to provide welcome, protection, promotion, and integration to so many migrants and refugees in today’s world. I also serve as the CEO of our organization, thus overseeing our humanitarian assistance and protection programs provided by our 700 staff people in more than 40 countries of the world. Finally, I oversee the work of our Policy Department which advocates for just and inclusive and durable solutions for refugees and migrants and asylum seekers. Then there are the responsibilities of working closely with finance, administration, and fund-raising staff.


Our headquarters is Swiss-based; we have two separate corporations in Belgium and the USA – so there are different legal structures to balance. Our organization helps to convene civil society input to UN structures working on the two UN Compacts for Refugees and for Safe, Regular, and Orderly Migration. In all this work, I collaborate closely with the Vatican’s Section for Migrants and Refugees and try to disseminate the Teaching, examples, and concerns communicated by Pope Frances.


Interviewers: What are some of the factors that have contributed to increased migration to many counties and what can be done to reduce the need to migrate?


Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo: The root causes of forced migration include wars, persecution, civil conflict, loss of respect for law in “Failed States”, climate change, abject poverty, generalized violence through gangs and other lawless groups, human trafficking, indecent work conditions, and modern forms of slavery. The list seems endless. We also have the long-term migration situations – for example, last year, I visited ICMC programs in Pakistan along the border of Afghanistan, which Afghan people have sought refuge for more than 40 years, not to forget the Palestinian refugees who have been away from the homeland for more than 50 years and still have no durable solution in sight.


For more than 100 years, Catholic Social Teaching has focused on the ways to reduce the forced migration – through integral human development – a development that not only brings economic benefits to a few, but brings social protection, access to health care, spiritual care, and decent work to all. I rarely meet refugees or forced migrants or internally displaced people who say they wanted to migrate – most want to remain home, but they report the cause for migration was their responsibility to seek life-giving alternatives for themselves and their families. At the same time, we need to stop perceiving migrants as a burden and recognize their contributions to host populations – their skills, their culture, their values, their participation in paying taxes and contributing to the social infrastructure of the host societies. Pope Francis makes it clear that integration is a two-way street with host societies receiving migrants and offering them immediate assistance and with respecting laws and policies of host countries and constituting an important percentage of the workforce in many countries.


Interviewers: Are there internationally agreed on rules for defining what constitutes seeking asylum?


Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo: There is a long-recognized right of persons to seek asylum in a country outside their countries of origin. An asylum is a form of international protection given by a state on its territory to someone who is threatened by persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion in their country of origin or residence.


Interviewers: Could you briefly describe what seeking asylum means and how countries should process those coming to a country's borders seeking asylum?


Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo: For example, in the European Union (EU), this consists of refugee status as defined in the UN Geneva Refugee Convention, plus subsidiary protection for persons who do not qualify as refugees but in respect of whom substantial grounds exist that the person concerned, if returned to their country of origin, would face a real risk of suffering serious harm. Directive 2011/95/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 December 2011 reaffirmed such rights when defining standards for the qualification of third-country nationals or stateless persons as beneficiaries of international protection, for a uniform status for refugees or for persons eligible for subsidiary protection, and for the content of the protection granted.


Over and above the right and responsibility of States, on the basis of national sovereignty, to maintain regularity of migration within its borders, the fact that an increasing number of countries are closing their land or sea borders and thus are obstructing the possibility of migrants even to make an asylum claim, calls into serious question the political will of the leaders in such countries to adhere to previous national commitments to implement international laws and treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Interviewers: What are the basic moral issues involved in the decision by a country determining whether to grant asylum to those who seek it?


Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo: The moral issues have been known and recognized from time immemorial: governments have the responsibility to assure safety and protection for the populations in their sovereign territories. At the same time, almost all major faith traditions teach about the responsibility to welcome the stranger as “angels”, as visitors sent by God, and to serve the neediest and vulnerable. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was based on the premise that the ”stranger”, the person from a rejected population, saved the traveler who was a victim of robbery and abuse along the road.


These responsibilities also have been recognized under international law, including the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, under international humanitarian standards, including those regularly reviewed and updated in Red Cross Conferences and other humanitarian fora, and, most recently in the Draft Compacts on Refugees and on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration that States have developed during 2018 and hopefully will be launched by the end of this year.


Interviewers: Is there official Church teaching applicable to the issues of immigration and granting asylum?


Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo: In his Message on the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (14 January 2018), Pope Francis wrote: “The situation of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees require that they are guaranteed personal safety and access to basic services. For the sake of the fundamental dignity of every human person, we must strive to find alternative solutions to detention for those who enter a country without authorization.”


The Vatican’s “Twenty Points” document, issued to promote advocacy for the UN Compacts for Refugees and Safe, orderly and regular Migration, makes the following points:


“The value of each person’s safety – rooted in a profound respect for the inalienable rights of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees – should be correctly balanced with national security concerns. This can be achieved through appropriate training for border agents; by ensuring that migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees have access to basic services, including legal services; by ensuring protection for anyone fleeing war and violence; and by seeking alternative solutions to detention for those who enter a country without authorization.”


“The collective or arbitrary expulsion of migrants and refugees should be avoided. The principle of non-refoulement should always be respected: migrants and refugees must never be returned to a country which has been deemed unsafe. The application of this principle should be based on the level of safety effectively afforded to each individual, rather than on a summary evaluation of a country’s general state of security. The routine application of a list of “safe countries” often fails to consider the real security needs of particular refugees; they must be treated on an individual basis.”


“Legal routes for safe and voluntary migration or relocation should be multiplied. This can be achieved by granting more humanitarian visas, visas for students and apprentices, family reunification visas (including siblings, grandparents and grandchildren), and temporary visas for people fleeing conflict in neighbouring countries; by creating humanitarian corridors for the most vulnerable; and by launching private and community sponsorship programmes, programmes for relocating refugees in communities rather than concentrating them in holding facilities.”


Interviewers: Should domestic violence be a factor in seeking asylum in another country?


Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo: It is difficult to offer a general answer to this situation. Certainly, domestic violence is contrary to human dignity and to the equality all persons created in the image and likeness of God and thus needs to be stopped and to be addressed through taking legal and judicial action against the perpetrators. However, determination of asylum claims must be determined in the context of individual case situations.


Interviewers: Is racism a factor in limiting migration access to some countries?


Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo: In his Message for the 2018 World Day of Peace (January 1, 2018) Pope Francis raised serious concern with xenophobic and racist messaging which is sometimes spread for political reasons:


“Many destination countries have seen the spread of rhetoric decrying the risks posed to national security or the high cost of welcoming new arrivals and thus demeaning the human dignity due to all as sons and daughters of God. Those who, for what may be political reasons, foment fear of migrants instead of building peace are showing violence, racial discrimination, and xenophobia, which are matters of great concern for all those concerned for the safety of every human being.” Such attitudes could play a role in actions taken by political leaders to limit access to seeking asylum by certain groups of people or even to travel bans issued on a group basis.


Interviewers: What are the moral issues in the separation of children from their parents when attempting migration to the United States?


Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo: The Vatican’s Twenty Points document, cited above, urges: “The vulnerability of unaccompanied minors and minors separated from their families must be tackled in accordance with the international Convention on the Rights of the Child. This can be achieved by seeking alternative solutions to detention for legally underage migrants who enter a country without authorization; by offering temporary custody or foster homes for unaccompanied or separated minors; and by setting up separate centers for the identification and processing of minors, adults and families.”


Pope Francis made similar appeals in his Message for the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees: “The International Convention on the Rights of the Child provides a universally legal basis for the protection of underage migrants. They must be spared any form of detention related to migratory status and must be guaranteed regular access to primary and secondary education. Equally, when they come of age they must be guaranteed the right to remain and to enjoy the possibility of continuing their studies. Temporary custody or foster programmes should be provided for unaccompanied minors and minors separated from their families. The universal right to a nationality should be recognized and duly certified for all children at birth. The statelessness which migrants and refugees sometimes fall into can easily be avoided with the adoption of “nationality legislation that is in conformity with the fundamental principles of international law”.


Interviewers: Thank you for your insight, compassion, and commitment to social justice for those who seek our help.


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