REFUGEES from North Africa and the Middle East can now reach safety in Italy without relying on people-smugglers and the dangerous passage across the Mediterranean, thanks to an ecumenical alliance of Italian Christians.
As many as 3700 people are believed to have died while making the crossing in 2015.
The Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, and the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Roman Catholic organisation, have reached an agreement with the Italian government to open offices in Morocco and Lebanon (and possibly, at a later date, Ethiopia), to help refugees to fly to Italy.
Once the refugees have arrived, the project will house them, and provide lessons in Italian. The Italian authorities have agreed to provide the refugees with limited visas (which do not allow onward migration across the EU) while they apply for asylum.
“This project is like a peace treaty, because it will allow us to save many human lives,” the president of Sant’Egidio, Marco Impagliazzo, said. The Churches will contribute €1.2 million (£890,000), which will enable them to bring up to 1000 refugees to Italy.
The organisations emphasised that they would not compromise on security checks: all refugees are to be vetted before they are put on a flight to Italy. The first people to reach Italy through the new routes are expected to arrive this month.
Last week, the International Organization for Migration reported that one million migrants and refugees had crossed into Europe in 2015 — more than four times the previous year’s figure.
The deal with the Italian government was announced on 17 December, but is an expansion of the Federation’s programme Mediterranean Hope, which has been running since 2014. The project works with refugees who land at the Italian island of Lampedusa, and also runs a home in Sicily that provides accommodation for up to 40 especially vulnerable migrants.
The president of the Federation, Luca Negro Maria, said: “It is Christmas time, and we obviously think about that young mother who had to deliver her baby in a manger, as she could not find a place in an inn. Today, that inn is Europe, for many people. We are ready to welcome and accompany those who will come.”
Both organisations involved in setting up the humanitarian corridors have said that they hope the model will be used in other countries as well.
The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, met Italian religious leaders in the week the agreement was announced. He said that the “admirable” project should be replicated across Europe.
In Athens, St Paul’s Anglican Church, part of the diocese in Europe, has brought together eight Christian denominations to co- ordinate their work in supporting refugees in Greece, holding monthly meetings and hosting delegations from British churches that are interested in seeing what Greek Christians are achieving.