A coalition of Protestant and Catholic organizations has reached an agreement with the Italian government to provide travel and integration services for refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. The government will provide humanitarian visas to ensure the right to take up residence; the visas will not allow passage to other countries in the European Union. Christian agencies will furnish airline tickets to Italy as well as accommodation, assistance with asylum procedures, educational opportunities and Italian language courses.
Air transportation will provide an alternative to the dangers of illegal passage across the Mediterranean, described by Marco Impagliazzo of the Catholic lay movement Sant’Egidio as “a death journey” for up to 3,700 migrants who died or went missing in 2015.
With the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI), Sant’Egidio soon will open assistance offices in Morocco and Lebanon, with the future possibility of a third office in Ethiopia. The first arrivals in Italy are expected at the end of January 2016.
Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, met with Italian religious leaders earlier in the week and discussed plans for the project.
“This admirable agreement is an essential early step in addressing the humanitarian crisis facing many places in the world,” said Tveit. “It is a model for churches, related faith-based organizations, governments and the international community to act together in the interest of humanity. It has been undertaken with a deep respect for the dignity of all, the safety of all, and our common interest in the realization of justice and peace on earth.”
Christian organizations led by Sant’Egidio and the FCEI will contribute 1.2 million euros (1.3 million Swiss francs or US dollars) to the initial effort. The Italian government will not provide money directly but has agreed to issue the necessary visas for entry and residence.
“This is the first project of this kind in Europe,” said Luca Maria Negro, president of the FCEI. “We hope that other countries and churches will follow. We are particularly proud of the ecumenical character of this initiative, and for the support and encouragement we have received from ecumenical bodies and from several sister churches.”
Negro explained, “About 1,000 refugees are expected to arrive in the next months through these humanitarian corridors. We are thrilled that this agreement will allow vulnerable people to enter Italy legally and to seek asylum here.”