CHURCHES and aid agencies have issued a joint letter asking EU leaders to adopt a more “humane” response to the European refugee crisis, one that complies with international law and ensures the dignity of every person.
The letter has been signed by an ecumenical group of Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant Churches, as well as Christian agencies, including the Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe, the Conference of European Churches, and ACT Alliance, the umbrella organisation for churches and humanitarian organisations.
The institutions said that they were “particularly concerned” by the deal between the EU and Turkey, which came into force on Sunday, under which all migrants landing on Greek shores now face being sent back to Turkey. The deal includes a promise by the EU to resettle one Syrian from Turkish camps for every Syrian sent back to the country, which is hosting nearly three million people.
The deal seeks to reduce the incentive for Syrian refugees to make dangerous boat crossings to Greece, encouraging them instead to stay in Turkish refugee camps to win a chance at resettlement in Europe.
The EU will also speed up talks on Ankara’s bid to join the 28-nation bloc. It is intending to double refugee aid to €6 billion, and give visa-free travel to Turks in Europe’s Schengen passport-free zone by June.
But since the agreement came into force, migrants have continued to arrive on the Greek islands. The Prime Minister of Greece, Alex Tsipras, has said that it will find it difficult to enforce the deal.
The letter from church and Christian organisations calls on European leaders to create safe routes for refugees, and for their social needs to be met swiftly on their arrival in the EU. It criticises the slow implementation of last year’s agreement by EU member states to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy, and said that less than 1000 have been relocated so far.
“Our organisations bring together the greatest number of Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant Churches, and Christian service, relief and development organisations active in Europe today. Based on our Christian faith and extensive experience of working with people in situations of extreme precariousness and vulnerability, and with refugees inside and outside the European Union, we wish to call on you to develop more humane responses for refugee protection in full compliance with European obligations under international law and human rights so that the dignity of every person is respected and ensured.
“We are convinced that Europe can and must do more in this global refugee crisis,” the letter said.
The Bishop in Europe, the Rt Revd David Hamid, said that the letter was an “excellent summary” of the “concerted and ambitious action” EU countries needed to take.
Pope Francis, departing from his script in his Palm Sunday address in St Peter’s Square, urged people not to turn their backs on refugees and migrants.
After mentioning the part of the Gospel which recounts how Jesus was denied justice and abandoned to his fate, he said: “I am thinking of so many other people, so many marginalised people, so many asylum-seekers, so many refugees. There are so many who don’t want to take responsibility for their destiny.”
Jenny Brown, senior EU relations advisor at Christian Aid, said on Tuesday that the charity was "deeply concerned that the agreement with Turkey appears to ride roughshod over the basic principles of treating people with dignity and in accordance with international law."
She went on: "The proposal to send people back to places where they are not guaranteed protection is immoral and potentially illegal. Yet despite that, deportations from the Greek islands back to Turkey are already happening. The EU is clearly trying to keep the ‘problem’ elsewhere. Instead, what it should be doing is ensuring that European countries, including the UK, take a fair and proportionate number of refugees, and provide safe and legal means for them to reach the EU."
More than a million people entered Europe last year, many of them fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East and Africa.
About 4000 people have drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea, including 400 so far this year. Many are children.
Lords vote. The Government was defeated in the House of Lords on Monday, as peers voted to accept 3000 unaccompanied child refugees into the UK from Europe, in an amendment to the Immigration Bill. The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, who supported the amendment, said during the debate that, “the figure of 3000 feels like a fair share for the UK to take in terms of our size and place in Europe. . . The Government are concerned that, if we take unaccompanied refugee children, their families might claim asylum for family reunification at a later date. Yes, this might happen —but against this, we must look at the plight of these 24000 children right now. The Church, therefore, with others asks the Government to work with UNHCR to bring refugee children who are in extreme risk to the UK in addition to the other pledges that we have made. The hard truth is that at the moment there are no refugee children like this from Europe being resettled in this country.”