Churches around the world cannot but be concerned about the fate of migrants fleeing from poverty or violence in their home countries. In Africa, the promise of a better life is luring many young people to Europe and the USA, where a lot of them end up as illegal migrants.
In Sri Lanka, the armed conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is producing migrants by the thousands who now live in fear of abduction. In Jordan and Syria, some Iraqi Christians have waited for immigrants' visas for more than ten years.
Stories like these, told at a 6-8 June 2007 conference on migration, challenged churches to play a more central role in addressing this issue.
Participants representing churches, church-related organizations and ecumenical bodies from Africa, Asia, Australia, the Caribbean, Latin America the Middle East, North America and the Pacific attended the conference of the Global Ecumenical Network on Migration (GEM), hosted by the All-Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) and held in Nairobi, Kenya.
The GEM network was formed in 2006 by the World Council of Churches (WCC) to engage and challenge churches in their work with migrants, replaying what used to be the Global Ecumenical Network on Uprooted people, created in 1999.
The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) in Amman, Jordan, for example, is currently providing humanitarian aid for Christian refugees from what Middle Eastern churches are now calling "one of the world’s fastest-growing refugee crises".
Since the US-led campaign against Saddam Hussein began in Iraq, two million people have been displaced, the majority of whom, according to the UN, have fled to the neighbouring Arab countries, Iran and Turkey. Among them are also members of Iraq's Christian minority, many of whom feel they have no future in Iraq whatever the outcome of the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict, says George J. Hazou, chairperson of the department of services for Palestinian refugees in the MECC.
With the fall of Hussein, these Christians became targets, Hazou told the GEM conference, with churches being bombed and Christians being kidnapped, after years of living peacefully with Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. "In some Muslims' minds, Christians were associated with western forces," he said, adding that Christian women took to wearing veils to avoid being attacked on the streets.
Another story of violent conflict was the one told by Rev. Freddy De Alwis, joint executive secretary for Justice, International Affairs, Development and Services in the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) on the situation in Sri Lanka which he described as “going from bad to worse".
De Alwis is not only critical of the government, but also of the church, which "did so many things in the past," but now seems to be "sleeping": "They are only trying to do evangelization, church-planting and Christianization, and that's it. They are not bothered about the people, because the people living in the north-east are mainly Hindus and Muslims."
Though his church has been monitoring the problem of abductions by gunmen - a daily threat for refugees in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo -, De Alwis is concerned that the church hierarchy is not worrying enough about it. "Innocent people are victims. That's why I am so angry," he said.
Juliana Omale-Atemi of the African Women and Child Feature Service (AWC) drew the conference’s attention to a steadily growing population of women migrant workers, who risk "abuse and exploitation, simply because they are women." She added that some girls are abducted and trafficked for use in the hospitality, entertainment and sex industry.
"There is scope for the church to influence how international migration is managed, and to champion the human rights issues faced by migrant women as well as their families and communities in their countries of origin," she argued.
Migration has been affecting the face of the church in both countries of migration and origin, with migrants facing difficulties in balancing psychological and spiritual needs.
"Many migrants have stopped going to church, have lost their faith and values. Those who attempt to go to the mainline churches that relate to their home churches feel that they are not welcome," the Rev Gertrude Kapuma, a vice president of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) said. Such frustration has resulted in the formation of many small churches with African liturgy to accommodate the needs of migrant Africans, she reported.
At the conference, GEM members decided to visit each others' regions to raise awareness on the impact of migration among member churches, providing information on the legal, social and psychological situations of migrants in host countries, and the relationships between churches in home and host countries.
Several conference participants stated that the church must understand the problem of migration, advocate against racism, and educate their people on the challenges they may meet in countries of migration. They also want churches to speak out more forcefully on the human rights of migrants, and monitor their governments' observance of the conventions they have ratified.
From now through 2008, reports the coordinator of the WCC's Migration and Social Justice project Sydia Nduna, the GEM is planning to monitor forced removals from Europe, while pushing for closer cooperation on migration policies between the African and European Unions.
"We are calling for educational processes within Africa first, since that's where we are," the Rev Professor Maake Masango of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa declared. "To the European churches we are saying that if our migrant workers are shipped in a brutal way, are called illegal, are captured and treated in the most inhumane way, then the churches in Europe must address the people of their countries on this subject."
Fredrick Nzwili is a freelance journalist from Kenya. He is currently a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (www.eni.ch) based in the country's capital, Nairobi. His material is also syndicated by the World Council of Churches.