The right to migrate

Our responsibility to welcome people in our own communities.

Love the Stranger

Alongside the right of every person to flourish in their homeland, Pope Francis explains that: “until substantial progress is made in achieving this goal, we are obliged to respect the right of all individuals to find a place that meets their basic needs and those of their families, and where they can find personal fulfilment.”19 Pope Paul VI also underscored the importance of people’s right to migrate, calling on nations hosting migrants to “favor their integration, facilitate their professional advancement and give them access to decent housing where, if such is the case, their families can join them.”20 This is an important aspect of the principle of the universal destination of goods emphasised in Fratelli Tutti. Regardless of where people are born, they should have access to the goods necessary to enable them to flourish.

Catholic social teaching suggests that this right should be broadly interpreted, encompassing the search for economic opportunities as well as escaping threats to personal safety.

In Exsul Familia Nazarethana, Pope Pius XII states that the Holy Family in exile are the model and protectors of every migrant and refugee who “compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land”.21 Likewise, the Catechism states that: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.”22

This approach has also been emphasised by successive Popes in their messages to mark the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. In 2000 Pope John Paul II underscored the legitimacy of migration to escape poverty, stating: “In many regions of the world today people live in tragic situations of instability and uncertainty. It does not come as a surprise that in such contexts the poor and the destitute make plans to escape… [they] have no alternative than to leave their own country to venture into the unknown.”23

At the same time Catholic social teaching recognises a qualified right of states to control their borders. The Catechism sets out that: “political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions.”24 Pope John Paul II affirmed that the right to migrate “is to be regulated, because practicing it indiscriminately may do harm and be detrimental to the common good of the community that receives the migrant.”25 Furthermore, in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis pointed out that while every nation has a responsibility to uphold universal rights: “it can fulfil that responsibility in a variety of ways. It can offer a generous welcome to those in urgent need, or work to improve living conditions in their native lands by refusing to exploit those countries or to drain them of natural resources, backing corrupt systems that hinder the dignified development of their peoples.”26 These different ways are, of course, not mutually exclusive.

The right to migrate does not, therefore, automatically invalidate all border controls. However, the acceptability of such measures is limited to circumstances in which they are clearly required to protect the receiving community. Controls on migration should be exercised with compassion, giving special attention to people who need to leave their country in order to flourish and live in dignity. As Pope Pius XII wrote to the US Bishops: “the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth, considered very carefully, does not forbid this.”27

On this basis, the starting point for public policy should involve respecting a broad right to migrate and restricting it only when demonstrably necessary, rather than beginning with sealed borders and facilitating immigration only when desired. Furthermore, any decision by states to regulate migration “cannot be based solely on protecting their own prosperity.”28 Upholding the common good of our society must never be reduced to economic calculations or utilitarian concepts of welfare. It should also consider social peace, distributive justice, and care for the poorest of our sisters and brothers.29 Our responsibilities for the promotion of the common good do not stop at national boundaries and require that we hold within our hearts, within our churches and within our systems of government, a desire to welcome migrants and refugees.

In exercising these rights and duties, politicians must develop policies that are humane and effective. It is important that governments work together to establish safe routes, such as resettlement programmes and humanitarian corridors, for the passage of refugees. It is also important that visa schemes are well- managed so that migrants can quickly contribute to the common good of their new communities and so that they and their families are not beset by uncertainty or inhumane conditions.

The Church understands the concern that some countries and communities might have about high levels of migration. Pope Francis noted in Fratelli Tutti: “in some host countries, migration causes fear and alarm”30 and he recognised that this is part of our natural instinct. Governments have to balance the protection of the rights of their citizens with their duty to welcome migrants and refugees, but it is important that we do not allow this to result in hostility. Pope Francis has warned that fear and alarm about migration is often exploited for political purposes, leading to a xenophobic mentality as people close in on themselves. As Christians, we must never view migrants as less worthy, less important or less human. Indeed, we should promote a better life for those coming to our country and appreciate the many riches that people bring with them. Echoing Pope Francis, we affirm that our country will be more fruitful and productive the more it is able to develop a creative openness to others.31

As part of the Universal Church, we also have an opportunity and a responsibility to understand the stories of migrants and refugees, through dialogue with the Church in their home countries and those they have passed through during their journeys. In doing so we can better respond to Pope Francis’ call to remember that migrants and refugees “rather than simply being a statistic, are first of all persons who have faces, names and individual stories”32, and to offer a more human response, rooted in the reality of people’s experiences.

Our principles

  • We uphold the right to migrate, which may be exercised not only by those fleeing threats to their safety but also by those seeking to build a better life for themselves and their families
  • We recognise that states have a right to control their borders; however, such measures cannot be based on economic factors alone; states have a responsibility to promote the common good of the people within their boundaries, but they also have obligations to the wider world
  • We encourage the extension of safe routes such as resettlement programmes, visa schemes and humanitarian corridors, so that people can exercise their right to migrate in a dignified and humane manner
  • We must not allow the concerns that some communities might have about migration to be exploited for political purposes or allow such concerns to develop into a xenophobic attitude; Christian communities must play their part in providing a genuine welcome to migrants and refugees
  • We seek and promote dialogue with the local Church in people’s countries of origin, and the countries through which they have travelled, so that we can better understand their stories


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19. Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (2020) 129.

20. Pope Paul VI, Octogesima Adveniens (1971) 17.

21. Pope Pius XII, Exsul Familia Nazarethana (1952).

22. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2241.

23. Pope John Paul II, Message for the 86th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (2000).

24. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2241.

25. Pope John Paul II, Message for the 87th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (2001).

26. Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (2020) 125.

27. Pope Pius XII, Exsul Familia Nazarethana (1952).

28. Pope John Paul II, Message for the 87th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (2001).

29. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ (2015).

30. Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (2020) 39.

31. Ibid, 39-41.

32. Pope Francis, Meeting with the People of Lesbos (2016).