06/16/2015 04:21 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2016

On World Refugee Day, let's push forward

(Washington, D.C.) -- In the late 1970s, Jesuit Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, was so moved by the dangerous ocean journeys of Vietnamese refugees that he appealed to his fellow Jesuits to provide practical assistance.

The spontaneous and generous 'first wave of action' from the Jesuits provoked him to reflect on how much more the Society could do if their responses to this, and to other contemporary crises of forced human displacement, were planned and coordinated. To that end, Jesuit Refugee Service was founded to accompany, serve and advocate for refugees and forcibly displaced migrants.

Thirty-five years later -- during the "worst migration crisis since World War II" -- Jesuit Refugee Service urges you to remember that the key to change is within each of us. While governments may decide to accept or reject refugees, only we have the power to truly welcome them. We must change our fixed view of refugees as 'the other.'

It seems a lifetime ago Pope Francis prayed at Lampedusa island in the Mediterranean Sea for refugees making perilous water crossings. And for many of those refugees, it was indeed a lifetime: thousands have died in the Mediterranean Sea; thousands more are now in danger at sea in South Asia. Those seeking safety by land face violence and danger en route, and often face discrimination and jail on arrival.

World Refugee Day is commemorated on June 20. As the day draws near this year, refugees around the world are being pushed back and pushed out. Australia is pushing refugees from Nauru to Cambodia.

Colombians are being kicked out of Venezuela. Kenya has threatened to expel nearly half a million Somali and other refugees. Boats with

Rohingya asylum seekers are turned away by countries in Asia Pacific, and left stranded at sea. (Although on May 20 both Indonesia and Maylasia announced they would allow refugees to land on their territory. But, they are confined to camps after arrival.)

Thousands of people are drowning attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from the Middle East and North Africa. UNHCR reports that in 2014 in 3,500 died attempting to cross the Mediterranean. At least 1,800 have died thru May 13 of this year.

In deciding who to serve, JRS believes the scope of existing international conventions defining the word "refugee" is too restrictive. JRS 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."

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, she or he is then recognized as a refugee, and this confers certain rights and obligations according to the legislation of the receiving country.

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

Where refugees are not literally expelled, they are often shunned, mistreated or jailed. Their very presence is criminalized and they are often excluded from their host communities. In South Africa, foreigners this year faced violence and riots. In Europe, refugees are forced to rely on the informal labor and housing markets. In the United States, refugees fleeing widespread violence in Central America are held in detention.

The key to change is not a top-down approach. We must start with our own individual perceptions. Refugees are the we, the us, as opposed to they or them. Let's not just save lives; let's save dignity.

"Integration and hospitality are not only about opening our borders, but opening our communities. The latter does not result from the decisions of a few leaders, but from our own personal decisions. To change our countries we must start with our communities, and to change our communities we must start with ourselves," said JRS International Director Peter Balleis S.J.

JRS urges that we stop pushing back, that instead we push forward -- push ourselves, our neighbors and our communities to become beacons of welcome. Together we can unlock potential. Together we can welcome. Together we can transform the world.

Learn more about Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.