A short history of JRS Asia Pacific

JESUIT REFUGEE SERVICE ASIA PASIFIC
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue: No. 99 / December 20th, 2000

The history of JRS Asia Pacific begins in the lives and work of Jesuits already involved with refugees in the region in the 1970’s. By 1979 the plight of vast numbers of refugees in Africa and Asia had reached a critical point and was arousing ever greater worldwide sympathy. Fr Pedro Arrupe, as Superior General, was clear that the Society of Jesus had to respond to this emergency. His letter of November 1980 to all Major Superiors of the Society of Jesus became the foundation document of the Jesuit Refugee Service. In the late 70’s and early 80’s some ten Jesuits around Asia were already working directly with refugees in camps. In September 1982 Mark Raper was appointed to coordinate JRS in Asia and the Pacific. This included all of South Asia, which was later to become a separate JRS Region.

Prior to Fr Arrupe’s letter of 1980 some Jesuits had been working with displaced persons in their own country. Thus after the Indonesian invasion of December 1975, Joao Felgueras, Jose Martins and Daniel Coelho served the people of East Timor.

Others had found new demands placed on their already generous commitments by the arrival of Indochinese refugees. In Macao, for example, Luis Ruiz, whose generosity to Chinese refugees was already almost legendary, extended his work to welcome the Vietnamese as well. Other Jesuits worked with refugees in Hong Kong on a part time basis.

After refugees began to arrive in greater numbers in the countries neighboring Vietnam. Laos and Cambodia, some Jesuits offered themselves for pastoral work among them. The heaviest concentration of Jesuits working with refugees was in Thailand. Some Jesuits had gone there during the crisis of the 1979, while others had answered the call for the short-term volunteers in 1980. The number of Jesuits involved and the variety in their vision made them particularly important in the subsequent shaping of JRS.

In South Asia around this time large numbers of-Afghan refugees had settled inside the borders of Pakistan and Iran. In Sri Lanka many people were forced from their homes in 1983, when the ethnic Singalese reacted violently to armed campaigns by the ‘Jaffna’ Tamils. In other countries less affected by the immediate influx of refugees. Jesuits had been drawn into the lives of refugees by their research or advocacy. Ando Isamu in Japan was involved in community education, and through a social institute focussed Japanese concern upon the plight of refugees. In Indonesia, Fr. Hardaputranta, who carried the responsibility for coordinating the care for East Timorese refugees on behalf of the Indonesian Catholic Church, was involved with Indochinese refugees from the beginning through the Bishops Institute for Social Research and Development. The interest of Australian Jesuits in refugees was awakened and encouraged by Asian Bureau Australia (ABA) under the direction of Mark Raper.

A meeting was held in Bangkok on August 6, 1981 between Fr. Arrupe and all the Jesuits in Thailand – both those of the region and those who had come to work with refugees. It came at an opportune time, for out of it came a broad framework within which Jesuits would work with refugees in Thailand. It also left open many of the larger questions. At the meeting Fr. Arrupe commended the work already undertaken, and supported strongly the desire of the participants that the work should continue in some form. He recognized the delicacy of the work in a volatile political climate, and also the demands that the commitment to refugees would make on an already thinly stretched Thai Jesuit community. He insisted that Jesuits working with refugees should cooperate with others and particularly with non-Christian groups. He was aware that charges of ideological bias might be made against Jesuits, but accepted the risk as part of the cost of any worthwhile enterprise. After this meeting, the Jesuit commitment to refugees in Thailand took shape and began to expand.

The plight of the boat people only worsened during the 1980s. The number of refugees fleeing from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia grew enormously. At the same time, commitments through the JRS expanded in the camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines. Most projects were concerned with education, technical training, pastoral formation and health.

The period that followed the establishment of the Office of JRS Asia Pacific in Bangkok was one of consolidation. It concluded late in 1989 with the appointment of Tom Steinbugler to replace Mark Raper as the Regional Director of JRS Asia Pacific. Mark had been chosen to replace Dieter Scholz in Rome. JRS Asia Pacific still supported the Jesuit work with refugees in Sri Lanka and India. Elsewhere, lrie Duane and [Lizzie Finnerty] undertook a small commitment to Afghanistan refugees in Pakistan at the end of 1989. The meeting at Chachoengsao in Thailand in November 1989 perhaps pointed to the future directions of JRS. The meeting sent Mark Raper to Rome to replace Dieter Scholz and welcomed Tom Steinbugler as director of JRS-AP.

As the 1990’s began the work of JRS included very large programs and large numbers of personnel. JRS was perhaps the only NGO represented in every one of the many camps that had grown up around the region. By this time the governments involved in giving shelter and resettlement to Vietnamese refugees had decided to bring the crisis to an end by naming a cut-off date for new arrivals, and instituting a screening process to distinguish between refugees and non-refugees (the Comprehensive Plan of Action). ‘Screened-out’ asylum seekers were to be repatriated. This was a time for JRS to discern how it could best accompany the many groups of refugees who were destined for repatriation. The anxiety and needs created by the Comprehensive Plan of Action created a need for counseling and for competent legal advice. Accordingly, from 1990, JRS established programs of legal and social counseling. Many young lawyers volunteered their time and expertise to help refugees.

At the same time a program to monitor the condition of people returning to Vietnam was begun in Ho Chi Minh City. Even before the Cambodian refugees returned home in 1993, JRS programs were begun in Cambodia. They built on many years experience gained in the camps, particularly in work with the handicapped, including mine victims. The work in Cambodia was conceived as a service to much-needed national reconciliation.

As the screening process concluded and the Vietnamese asylum seekers were either repatriated or resettled, Tom Steinbugler handed over to Quentin Dignam as Regional Director early in 1994. Quentin presided over the downscaling of JRS programs with Indochinese and the withdrawal of JRS workers as these camps were closed. As the JRS work in Cambodia was clearly a work of development rather than a commitment specifically to refugees, responsibility was transferred from the JRS to the Jesuit Service Cambodia and to the Jesuit Provinces of Asia in 1995. In June 1993 Fr Vincent Mooken was appointed as the first Director for the new JRS Region of South Asia, although JRS Asia Pacific maintained responsibility for JRS programs with Bhutanese refugees in Nepal until the end of 1997.

Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s refugees from Burma fled the risk of imprisonment, torture and death. In 1988 some 7,000 students had left Burma to seek refuge in Thailand or to set up camps in territory effectively controlled by minority tribes. In the year 2000 there are over 120,000 refugees from Burma living in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border. There are hundreds of thousands more victims of the Burmese junta displaced inside Burma or living precarious lives as illegal migrant workers in neighboring countries.

Steve Curtin took over from Quentin Dignam as Regional Director in January l997. Steve continued the work that Quentin had been doing to strengthen JRS programs with refugees from Burma taking refuge in Thailand. Around our region in the year 2000 we see countries in various stages of growth away from totalitarianism towards greater liberalization and democracy but the cost is high and in some places the progress is painfully slow. In 2000 with new and massive forced displacements having occurred in Indonesia and East Timor, JRS Asia Pacific is continuing new programs in both those countries. Andre Sugijopranoto from the Indonesian Province will take over as Regional Director from 1 Jan 2001 with responsibility for projecting the concern of the Society of Jesus for displaced people into the Asia Pacific region which includes China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, East Timor, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Micronesia and other Pacific island states.

JRS is very grateful to be able to harness the skills and resources of many workers, Jesuits, friends and benefactors in touching the lives of displaced people in the Asia Pacific region. Regional Directors have come and gone but the refugees and their long term friends in the Regional Office and at Suan Phlu, Phnom Penh and other places near and far are the heroes of JRS Asia Pacific.

Perhaps the end of this short history of JRS Asia Pacific is the place to remember some of our workers who have died whilst serving with JRS. In November 1985 shortly after the office moved to Bangkok, Neil Callahan died. He had been unwell at Phanat Nikhom, was diagnosed as terminally ill when he returned to the United States, and eventually died after a prolonged and painful illness.

At the beginning of 1988, Surimart Chalemsook (Look Nut) died. She had given herself tirelessly in giving life to JRS workers during the time she worked in the office. She had then begun herself to find a rich life in the border camps. She was killed in a road accident on the Chonburi road. At the beginning of the next year Bill Yeomens also died after a short illness.

Ma Yee Yee Htun was not a JRS worker but a refugee who grew very close to the hearts of the JRS Bangkok team in 1989. Yee Yee fell ill at the Burmese border and was nursed at the JRS Office in Bangkok until her death aged 29 in January l990. In 1992 Sr Carmelita Hannan RSJ fell ill soon after arriving to work with JRS in Thailand. She died from cancer in Melbourne soon afterwards.

In 1996 Richie Fernando SJ, aged 26 years, was killed by a hand grenade released by a student in the Jesuit Service technical school for the handicapped near Phnom Penh. On 11 September 1999 the JRS East Timor Director, Fr Karl Albrecht was killed in Dili, Fr Dewanto a newly ordained priest was killed on September 6th in the massacre in Suai where he had been sent to help the Parish Priest to minister to thousands of people seeking refuge in the church.

These deaths were all tragedies. But they also brought home sharply what is involved in refugee life. They were experienced as a call to share the life of refugees. They recalled the prolonged agony of life and the way in which so many refugees experience life as a slow process of dying. They recalled the precariousness of refugee life, where sickness, violence and war always threaten. They recalled finally the extraordinary courage by which many refugees contrive a generous life out of wholly inadequate materials.

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