Changes to borders opposed at Christian migration conference

13 October 2017

AP

Aid: boats from the German navy and Finnish special forces surround migrants off the coast of Libya in March last year

Aid: boats from the German navy and Finnish special forces surround migrants off the coast of Libya in March last year

FEAR must not determine border policy, a Christian conference in Sicily heard this month.

More than 100 people from Europe and the United States gathered at the “Living and Witnessing the Border” conference, which concluded last week in Palermo, to discuss the Christian response to migration.

An ecumenical statement, signed by the Mediterranean Hope project of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI), the Conference of European Churches, and the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME), which includes Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, opposed “any policy of closure or change of the borders to prevent or deny access to men, women, and children who would be entitled to international protection”.

The president of FCEI, the Revd Luca M. Negro, said that borders were becoming “more and more hostile”.

Doris Peschke, the general secretary of the CCME, told the conference that the portrayal in the media of “floods of people”, and the use of global statistics showing high levels of migration “feeds the mood for restrictive policies”. “We don’t deny that fears are there, but we should not be led by fear,” she said.

Last week, on her return, she said that the idea that millions were trying to cross into Europe was “a myth. There are tens of thousands, but not millions, waiting.” The increase in asylum applications reflected the fact that people were denied other means of entry, she said.

Part of the answer was to equip embassies and consulates better to process Visa applications, currently denied for arbitrary reasons. “We accept there needs to be control, but not just everyone travelling with only one bag being suspected of wanting to stay in Europe.”

She also spoke of concerns about the methods that underpin the reduction in migration from Libya to Italy, including reports that tribal chiefs and smuggling organisations had been put in charge of detention centres in Libya (News, 29 September): “Not all international organisations have access, and there seems to be lots of exploitation and forced labour; but also rape of women, and women being sold into households.”

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Current priorities for CCME include advocating higher resettlement figures in Europe. The UN estimates that 277,000 people located in 15 African countries are in need of resettlement. So far, only 6700 have been resettled. Another priority is to speed up family reunification.

Last year, the World Council of Churches affirmed that sovereign states could control borders, but that they must follow international humanitarian law. The “Statement on the Forced Displacement Crisis” acknowledged “the fear and uncertainty felt by societies, communities, and churches in countries receiving large numbers of new arrivals — the fear of loss of security, of culture, of tradition, of identity and of livelihood”, but went on to say that, “as Christians, we are called to remember our common humanity, the shared God-given human dignity of all,” and to quote the biblical instruction to welcome the stranger and to not be afraid.

UNHCR reports that, by August this year, 140,686 refugees and migrants had arrived by sea in Europe, compared with more than one million in 2015. By August, there had been 361,000 asylum applications, compared with 1.2 million in 2016.

This week, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, agreed to cap the number of refugees that Germany accepts at 200,000 a year, in a concession to coalition partners.

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