Migration: churches as bridges against fear

By Annegret Kapp
7 Jul 2010

In times of exploding budget deficits and unemployment figures, migrants are often used as scapegoats for all the ailings and failings of society.

In such a context it is the task of the church to uphold the human rights and dignity of all, the members of the World Council of Churches (WCC) Global Ecumenical Network on Migration have insisted during their annual meeting.

"We believe that churches have the mandate and the biblical mission to foster the creation of a society where all peoples of the planet enjoy the gifts of God, created for all, in the spirit of love, justice and equality," Seta Hadeshian reminded fellow members of the global network, which met in Geneva, Switzerland from 24-30 June 2010. Hadeshian is the director of Diakonia and Social Justice at the Middle East Council of Churches.

The Global Ecumenical Network on Migration (GEM) is made of members drawn from churches, church-related organisations and ecumenical bodies working on migration. It aims to deepen their understanding of global migration issues, set priorities, pool their advocacy resources and better impact upon global policy discussions.

One of the obstacles to the churches' vision is, in the words of Franca Di Lecce, director of the Service for Refugees and Migrants of the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy, that "contemporary societies are dominated by fear".

Reflecting on her experiences in Italy, Di Lecce said that the church needs to draw attention to the hidden logic behind migration policies. It is "a logic of war" that serves to hide "the failure of government" to provide "security, work, justice, peace and development".

For Di Lecce, promoting security really means "to promote legality, to punish organised crime, corruption, to combat unemployment and poverty through policies of social, economical and cultural inclusion directed towards all citizens, migrants and local people." Instead, security is often used as a slogan stigmatising migrants.

European refugee crises are created crises

"Refugee crisis" is another catch phrase that irritates the migration experts. "Over the past ten years, every year until last year the [numbers of] asylum applications have gone down" within the European Union, explained Doris Peschke, General Secretary of the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe.

By 2008, the number of applications reached "a level of 10 per cent of what we used to have 20 years ago," she added. While the number of people seeking asylum in some of the countries which joined the EU in recent years has gone up, numbers have been decreasing even in countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.

Therefore "the detention conditions in Greece, the deportations from Italian shores have [no] justification in terms of mere numbers," Peschke said.

There are, however, "created crises", for instance on Lampedusa. The reception centre on this island has become seriously overcrowded following a decision of the Italian government to no longer transfer refugees to the mainland. "If they had continued to transfer, there would never have been a crisis in that camp," Peschke explained.

The fact that in several countries undocumented migrants are detained under "conditions [that] can be worse than those for convicted criminals" poses a threat to the rule of law. At the same time, it has the effect that migrants are increasingly perceived as criminals. The wide-spread view is that "if they are put in detention centres, there must be something wrong with them".

On the other hand, many undocumented migrants do not trust and are fearful of the host country's authorities. That hinders their access to education and health services even in places where these are provided by the state.

A bridge between the communities

In a situation where locals and migrants are cut off from one another by prejudice and fear, "the church needs to act as a bridge holding the two communities together," believes Apostle Adejare Oyewole, of the Council of African and Caribbean Churches in the UK.

To help churches accomplish this, the Conference of European Churches (CEC) invites its members to use the holiday season to promote encounters between migrant and local communities through summer camps and festivities.

This invitation to facilitate encounters is part of the CEC campaign Migration 2010. Throughout this year, European churches use each month to highlight migration-related issues. During the Time for Creation, which churches celebrate between 1 September and 4 October, the focus will be on environmental displacement. Contemporary forms of slavery will be highlighted around the European Anti-Trafficking Day on 18 October. And migrants' rights will be promoted around the International Migrants Day on 18 December.

According to Di Lecce, it is also for the sake of mainstream society that churches must protest when cruelty against strangers becomes "normal". She told the members of the network about a sailor who had been involved in the deportation of migrants to Lybia and was too ashamed to tell his son about his work.

She then spoke about the case of a father and son who had jointly killed an Italian of African origin in Milan, because they suspected him of having stolen biscuits. "What kind of a society are we?" Di Lecce asked, calling for repentance.

Bringing her insights as a professor of ecumenical social ethics to the table, Dr Amélé Ekué of the Ecumenical Institute Bossey invited her listeners to discover vulnerability as a common human characteristic, shared by migrants and non-migrants, and even by Jesus Christ.

Ekué reads the crucifixion as an "act of reconciliation" in which "we are exposed to God's own vulnerability, which implies with the resurrection that victims of any inhumane treatment will be raised up again."

In a theological reflection at the end of the meeting, Bishop Francis S. Nabieu, of the All Africa Conference of Churches, said that churches should see migrants not just as a burden: "We all have gifts that we can bring to the table. The immigrants and the refugees bring the spirit of endurance."

References:

More information on Migration 2010 - http://migration2010.eu/

Global Ecumenical Network on Migration - http://www.oikoumene.org/programmes/justice-diakonia-and-responsibility-...

Listen to recordings of theological reflections and presentations on regional experiences in different parts of the world presented at the migration meeting - http://www.oikoumene.org/resources/audio.html#c33310

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(c) Annegret Kapp is web editor of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva.

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