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Fr. Michael Gallagher, SJ, represents Jesuit Refugee Services at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland
Modern Missionary: A Voice for Refugees at the UN

By Brooke A. Iglesias

As an attorney for a refugee asylum project in south Texas in the 1990s, Fr. Michael Gallagher was often tapped by U.S. immigration authorities to represent the very people they were prosecuting whom they believed had a good chance for victory. They recognized the talent of the Georgetown University Law School graduate, whose passion for justice work was shaped by the 1960s fervor for civil rights as well as time in India exposed to poverty on a massive scale.

Today, Fr. Gallagher represents the interests of refugees around the globe as the Jesuit Refugee Service’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. 

No longer in the field among 43.7 million displaced people living in desperate conditions, Fr. Gallagher spends much of his day in his Geneva office, reading reports and policy papers and monitoring developments, especially those related to armed conflict in the countries JRS serves, or, as in the case of Somalia, from where some of the refugees it serves in Ethiopia and Kenya come. 

In 2001, after having completed master’s work in refugee studies at Oxford University, Fr. Gallagher was assigned director of JRS initiatives in Zambia. In 2006, he was named Southern Africa regional advocacy officer for Angola, the Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe. He was assigned to his current position in 2009.

In his Africa days, he would post news from various countries to the refugee camps via satellite phone so that displaced persons could track developments in their home countries.

Before his work with JRS, Fr. Gallagher was an attorney with the Las Americas Refugee Asylum Project in El Paso, Texas, and was the provincial’s assistant for social and international ministries. In the late 1980s, he directed the poverty law center at Loyola University New Orleans.

Today, on trips out of the office, he trains field worker teams in the nuances of international humanitarian and human rights law to assist in their advocating on refugees’ behalf. 

Back in Geneva, he works with  Lutheran World Federation, World Vision, the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Islamic Relief and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and is part of a UN working group that is fighting against fear of the  foreigner or stranger through draft commitments for faith leaders. 

He also works with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to solve challenges that develop in the field and cannot be resolved locally.

Globally, nearly 44 million displaced people—more than half of them children—live in desperate conditions within and outside of their own homeland or in detention centers, separated from their families by violence, persecution and natural disasters, according to UNHCR. They live in places like the Dadaab refugee camp complex, a patch of African desert near the Kenyan-Somali border dotted with thousands of make-shift shelters of tents, scraps of tin and tarp held with twine, home to nearly half a million people.

“All their familiar supports are gone,” said Fr. Gallagher, who noted that most refugees are women, children and the elderly. Most of the men are either fighting or are already dead, he said.

Fr. Michael Gallagher with refugee children in Rwanda
Michael Gallagher, SJ, with refugee children at a JRS Camp in Rwanda
About 1,400 JRS staff and other volunteers serve refugees in 50 countries through a network of 10 regional offices that extend from the Americas to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Asian Pacific region.

Their accompaniment of refugees in education, emergency aid, health care and social services informs his advocacy as he represents their interests to UN agencies and other non-governmental organizations in Geneva.

In some cases, the physical presence of field teams can even provide protection to refugees and help prevent attacks in dangerous situations.

“Accompaniment gives a person an opportunity to share,” he said, and those interactions between refugees and JRS field staff can lead to resolving problems. 

Fr. Gallagher said the work of JRS field staff almost always involves collaborating with people of various cultures and religions. JRS workers in Thailand are mostly Buddhist; Ethiopian volunteers are Christian and Muslim. In Syria, he said volunteers providing meals and other life-saving assistance are all over the political spectrum.

“Most people are brought together by a desire to assist those who have left everything behind,” he said. 

Fr. Gallagher also represents JRS to Diplomatic Missions in Geneva, where he works closely with the permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations.

He exchanges information with other representatives of non-governmental organizations and sometimes lobbies countries to press for legal or policy change to help refugees.

“An example of this would be encouraging some European countries to consider funding rule of law programs in Eastern Congo where our teams encounter victims of sexual violence on a daily basis, but where, regrettably, impunity for these crimes is the rule rather than the exception,” he said.

JRS advocates for resolving humanitarian needs, “where there must be a response to danger, where the state lacks the ability or will to assist those who are suffering,” such as with Sudanese child soldiers, violated women, war victims and others who are persecuted, he said.

JRS also works with developing countries to address food security, education and challenges posed by climate change. Regardless of the refugees’ case for aid, they all share the need for community, safety and basic human rights, he said.

In 2012, Fr. Gallagher, writing for the UNHCR, dissected the parable of the Good Samaritan to answer the questions of “who is my neighbor?” and “who must I love as myself?”

“The victim’s circumstances, apart from the fact that he is traveling to Jericho, are not known,” he wrote. “The only real consideration is responding to the needs of a neighbor.”

Fr. Gallagher said the parable compels everyone to reflect on who needs help, what type of help is needed, and “how complete” that assistance should be. 

The Good Samaritan, in his model of accompaniment, completely restored the traveling stranger he found suffering. For the millions of refugees who need help, the work of Fr. Gallagher and his JRS colleagues is a sign of such hope.

For more on the mission and work of Jesuit Refugee Service, visit www.jrs.net.

This article originally appeared in Summer 2013 issue of The Southern Jesuit, the mission publication for the former New Orleans Province. 




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