Migrants benefit wealthy host nations, UN and churches told

By agency reporter
December 2, 2008

The falsehood according to which wealthy host countries are "victims" of migration needs to be challenged, as in fact their economies benefit from the exploitation of their work, an international consultation says.

This was one of the points made at a meeting convened mid-November by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in New York City, in which speakers condemned the trend to treat migrants as commodities and stressed that migrants are human beings, created in the image of God.

Migration was the primary theme of the WCC's 16-21 November 2008 United Nations Advocacy Week, during which some 120 representatives of churches, ecumenical organizations and networks from all over the world discussed priorities and strategies for church advocacy at the UN and in their own countries.

Participants discussed the threats to the human rights of migrants, the theological imperative to welcome strangers and practical measures which churches can take.

While today's global economy is characterized by a growing mobility of goods and capital, many states put heavy restrictions on workers, particularly low-skilled labour coming into their territory. At the same time, poor living conditions oblige many people to leave their countries of origin.

Dr Theodor Rathgeber of the German Forum for Human Rights, who identified "asymmetrical economic conditions" and policies putting the global South at a disadvantage as main causes for this form of migration, challenged participants to fight the myth that host countries were "victims" of migration. Rather, their economies were benefiting from the exploitation of migrants, he explained.

Theologically, the need to care for the strangers was founded in the parable of the Good Samaritan. With this story about a foreigner rescuing a man forsaken by his countrymen and fellow believers, Christ rules out xenophobia, "as the unexpected help comes from the culturally and religiously other", summarized Niki Papageorgiou, who teaches Sociology of Religion at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.

She added that the church has a "dynamic and radical" discourse on unconditionally welcoming the culturally and religiously other. However that discourse did not necessarily reach the believers. Churches needed to support their theology of diversity with actions at the local level, such as social services and dialogues between natives and migrants, Papageorgiou said.

John Nduna, director of the alliance of Christian aid agencies ACT International, voiced concern that refugees should not be confounded with economic migrants: "Refugees are forced to flee from their homes in order to save their lives. In most situations returning to their homeland is not an option."

Looking to a future in which climate change will unfold more and more, participants anticipated a sharp rise in displacement and ensuing conflicts as large areas for example in Bangladesh, the Nile delta and around the Sahara will become uninhabitable and millions of people will be pushed into areas traditionally occupied by other populations.

Rev. Baranite Kirata from Kiribati explained that people of this island nation in the Pacific had looked for work abroad already in the past, but always with a longing to come back home one day. With the atolls bound to disappear as the climate changes ever more significantly, his people experienced a feeling of spiritual loss, too, he said.

The rights of migrants were also the centre of visits which the participants of the advocacy week paid to missions of nine United Nations member states in order to promote the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Of 39 countries that have ratified the convention so far, none is a host country in the developed world. "No other international convention shows such a split between developed and developing countries," said William Gois, regional coordinator of the Migrant Forum Asia.

None of the 27 missions representing European Union member states agreed to a meeting on the topic of the convention. Other missions reacted more positively to the ecumenical commitment to have the convention signed, ratified and implemented. For example the representative of the Philippines told his visitors he would like to cooperate with the WCC in finding more countries that are willing to put the convention on their agenda.

Seta Hadeshian, director of Diakonia and Social Justice at the Middle East Council of Churches, explained that the convention, which in the Middle East has been ratified only by Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Turkey, was "the only available international instrument able to protect domestic workers" in the region.

The rights of millions of migrant female workers were therefore unprotected, she added, while abuse and violence against them were rampant, leading for example in Lebanon to numerous suicides and accidental deaths of women trying to flee from the house of their employer.

Challenging Christians to recognize the image of God in each stranger, Papageorgiou reminded them that "all people [are included] in the body of Christ."

More on the WCC's work on Migration: http://www.oikoumene.org/?id=3123

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