What could the World Council of Churches do regarding global migration?

by Lemma Desta last modified 20 January 2016 05:04 PM
What could the World Council of Churches do regarding global migration?

Zoya Hameed, a physician from the UK, hugs Hanin, a Syrian refugee girl, on a beach near Molyvos, Greece. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

20 January 2016

It's true: migration is a common phenomenon in human history. People have always been moving from one place to the other either forced by circumstances or by choice.

However, in our post-colonial, post-cold-war world of globalization, with increased inequality both with in countries and between countries as well as with increased awareness and enhanced transport, the scale of human migration continues to grow every year.

Despite the commonality and complexity of factors causing human migration, we are witnessing a one-directional flow. Mostly, people are moving away from countries and regions with conflict, instability, restrictions and scarcity of opportunities to countries with stability, freedom, and opportunity. One could also say, they are moving from non-western countries to the western world comprising of North America, Europe and Australia.

The overarching reason is simple and straightforward. The western world owns a larger share of the world’s wealth, industry and production, academic and research facilities, military, intelligence and diplomatic advantages, political and cultural power.

The most challenging aspect of global migration today is the refugees’ situation. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are about 60 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide (2016).  About 40 million of them are internally displaced, and the rest are crossing to other, mostly neighboring countries, with a very small part traveling to distant shores.

The majority of the world's refugees cannot afford to travel longer distances to seek protection. Many countries and societies are affected by the global refugee crisis, especially countries neighboring to a crisis.

Many of countries hosting refugees have been bearing the burden for a longer period, assisted both bilaterally and by UN agencies. Global structures like refugee resettlement schemes do not meet the need — far from it. Too few countries receive refugees and they do not take in as many as are seeking protection.

Many people spend a considerable number of years in refugee camps hoping that they will be able to resettle in a third country. In desperation, some refugees take matters in their own hand, travel to places like Europe crossing boarders illegally, and seek asylum.  The number of asylum applications in the whole of Europe has been on the rise for several years, reaching more than 1.2 million in 2015.

Sadly, many have perished on their way. According to the International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project since 2000, more than 46'000 persons have lost their lives on their way to reach places of refugee, safety and protection.

The global refugee crisis is caused by multifaceted factors such as poverty, inequality and injustice as well as repression, instability and wars. The post-9/11 "war on terror" played major role in destabilizing countries like Iraq and Afghanistan causing massive displacement. In the vacuum emerged Islamic terrorist organizations like Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and ISIS that significantly added to the number of people fleeing from their countries and seeking refuge.

In the wake of the Arab spring further weakening governance in many countries the Middle East and North Africa, the situation is getting worse. Without political solutions for the civil war in Syria, crises in Yemen and Libya, instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, unresolved situations in Somalia and Eritrea, and the unpredictable future in many countries, the refugee crisis is far from over.

The refugee crisis is not new for Europe. But Europe was unable to manage asylum needs efficiently and in coordination before witnessing tragic death on its shores in 2013 and 2014, and massive arrivals of refugees in 2015.

On the political level, the European Union launched a new “European Agenda on Migration” in an effort to respond in a coordinated fashion. Through several summits and meetings, EU leaders came up with a toolbox to deal with the crisis.

In the realms of public opinion and media, the terrorist attack in Paris and sexual harassment scandals in Cologne and Stockholm are overturning the public sympathy and euphoric slogans of "Refugees welcome". Outside the spotlight, tendencies of anxiety over immigration and right wing ideas have been creeping up in European societies.

The tragic deaths of refugees at our borders and in our waters, the plight of refugees living in slums in the midst of our cities or outside the fortifications of "fortress Europe", deep-seated prejudices towards the Roma people and general fear about the other (ethnic, religious, racial) still challenges the moral integrity of European societies and its relation with the other. As countries like Sweden, which once set an exemplary standard, radically change their policy, we are entering in to a new era.

We are erecting walls, setting up fences, closing borders in the name of control, instead of welcoming refugees. Our media fans fears and conspiracy theories. Our political elites are polarized and incapable of leadership for fear of risking positions of power or loosing elections.

Europe set a standard as a refugee welcoming destination. While other parts of the world are trying to learn from Europe, Europe is on the verge of losing its achievements: values of free movement, solidarity and trust between nations.

First, it was about refugees, but now it is about us. The financial crisis was a tough test for the European monetary and market union. The refugee crisis is an even tougher test for Europe as a political and cultural union.

The East and the South are skeptical about ideas and suggestions from western and northern Europe. By scraping Schengen, we risk ending Europe as a political, cultural and market union. That would mean the loss of two or three generations' work.

If things continue as they began now with fences, walls, and border controls, Europe gives a bad example for the rest of the world. Borders and fences reinforce feelings of nationalism, exclusivism and may even make Europe more vulnerable to racism, even as a number of its citizens have been born in other parts of the world.

Not welcoming refugees goes fundamentally against European values. Of course, Europe needs to enforce rules, controls and mechanisms, but never go in to drastic change towards reactionary policy. Europe needs to rediscover and be secure of its Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian foundation with a great refugee welcoming tradition. Being confident, can Europe meet diversity and extremism and deal with it effectively.

In such a situation, Churches have a unique role to play. The World Council of Churches (WCC) and other church organizations with their head offices in Europe bear a responsibility to stand up for a just treatment of refugees and foreigners. "No" to "fortress Europe", "yes" to a more humane and Christian Europe where others are also welcome.


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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