Migration "is a fact of life. It is as much an instinct to survive as it is an inevitable consequence of globalization. We can neither turn our backs on it, nor control it," declared a statement of participants at a 15-16 April Public Hearing on Migration held in Beirut, Lebanon. "Migrants are not commodities, illegal aliens or mere victims, they are human beings."
Around the world, people are leaving their home countries in search of safety, freedom or a better life, the consultation heard. These migration flows are a challenge to churches as migrants bring their own traditions and values into local parishes or create their own religious communities.
At the same time, participants acknowledged, churches need to live up to their mandate to act and speak out in favour of the weak where migrants and refugees are being victimized. These global phenomena and the way they play out in the Middle East were the focus of the hearing.
"Welcoming the stranger is not optional for Christians. Nor is it conditional." said World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary the Rev Samuel Kobia addressing the hearing on Tuesday. The church should strengthen its hospitality in an "era of new forms of migration", whilst being an "advocate and defender of the right of people to move freely within their own nation and leave their home and live elsewhere in search of their God given right to life with dignity," he added.
Reminding the audience of the 54 Burmese who died the previous week from suffocation in a truck which should have smuggled them into Thailand, the Christian Conference of Asia general secretary Dr Prawate Kid-arn called for a positive understanding of migrants. "Migration is a courageous expression of an individual's will to overcome adversity and live a better life." For Kid-arn, the "most effective way to prevent trafficking is to provide legal channels for migration and employment that meets national standards".
This assessment was backed by Doris Peschke, general secretary of the Churches' Commission for Migrants in Europe, who called the European Union's migration and asylum policy "contradictory and ambiguous". Peschke cited the positive example of internal migration within the EU which is addressed "not with laws on aliens but with social and integration programmes", adding that this is "the response needed also for third country nationals".
Lebanon and the Middle East in general, are both a place of origin and a destination for migrant workers and refugees. Representatives of local civil society gave significant input to the hearing and at the opening reception, leaders of the country's six most numerous Muslim and Christian communities presented Lebanon as a model of a religiously pluralistic society and committed themselves to tackling the issue of migration together.
"Christian emigration must be stopped. Christians you must come back," Professor Ibrahim Shamseddine told the hearing in a session on the effect of the Middle East peace process - or the lack of such a process - on migration. "I am taking this stance not because I am a moderate, but because I am a fundamentalist, as I hold on to the non-violent foundations of Islam."
Lebanese Christian students spoke powerfully of their attachment to their country in a context in which university graduates all face the question 'What am I staying here for?' "Lebanese society rather than a melting pot is a Taboulé dish, where diverse ingredients create a succulent mix", said Nayiri Kalaydijan, a student at the Haigazian University.
Immigration to Lebanon, particularly by female domestic workers, proved to be a controversial topic. Whilst a Sri Lankan participant at the hearing challenged the treatment of Asian workers by immigration authorities, an official explained that the Lebanese immigration authority is the first in the region that made it illegal for officers to use violence against detained foreigners.
Dr Ray Jureidini, professor of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo, who had presented his research on the issue of domestic migrant workers in Lebanon, agreed that there had been notable progress on the treatment of migrants and stressed the positive influence of the Catholic agency Caritas in detention centres.
The topics raised at the public hearing will be taken up at a 17-18 April meeting of the Global Ecumenical Network on Migration (GEM), which brings together regional ecumenical organizations, churches and Christian agencies working on the topic around the world.
Both the public hearing and the GEM meeting are co-organized by the WCC and the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) and hosted by the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia in Beirut, Lebanon.
Full text of the statement by the public hearing on "The Changing Ecclesial Context: Impact of Migration on Living Together"
More information on the Global Ecumenical Network on Migration
Middle East Council of Churches