During the past two years, Italy has experienced massive migration flows from North Africa as hundreds of thousands of people try to cross the Mediterranean to escape persecution, war and mass killings.
To help address this humanitarian crisis, the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy started a programme, “Mediterranean Hope.” At its inception, the programme was based on three pillars: an observatory on Mediterranean migration on the small island of Lampedusa, where many migrants still arrive; a “House of Cultures” that helps unaccompanied teenagers share and integrate with the Italian population; and a relocation desk in Rome to help migrants on their journey.
“After one year of hard work, we realized that the number of those who still died in the Mediterranean was unbearable for our conscience -– 3,000 in the last year, we estimate — and that we had to do more in a practical and realistic way,” said Dr. Paolo Naso, advisor of the Tavola Valdese (of the Waldensian Church) and coordinator for International Relations with Mediterranean Hope.
The Federation of Protestant Churches, with the Community of Sant’ Egidio, tried to find alternative ways for people who were risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean in the boats of smugglers.
“We decided to press our government to implement the issue of “humanitarian visas” for vulnerable people, as clearly foreseen in the Schengen rules,” said Naso. The Schengen Agreement, which led to the creation of Europe's borderless Schengen Area, calls for the harmonization of visa policies.
The churches were successful in their advocacy, said Naso. “The Italian government decided to adopt this as a good practice to test, so we are at work with our partners in Morocco and Lebanon –- and within the next year, Ethiopia, too –- to help groups of refugees start this procedure that, from the legal point of view, is exclusively in the hands of the Italian consulates.”
The deaths in the Mediterranean are simply not a “necessary destiny,” emphasized Naso. “The loss of life is, instead, a consequence of a policy that can and must change — and we offer a practical model.”
Italy urges other European churches to act
If other churches in Europe adopt the same language, the “humanitarian channels” for migrants will be multiplied, and the Italian model will be fully transformed from good practice to an effective policy, added Naso. “Churches can do more in this regard since they have the moral authority to intervene in the public debate because of their vision, witness and actions,” he said. “We don’t intend the corridors as an exclusive way but as a practical possibility to press the national governments and institutions to act responsibly.”
When immigrants arrive in Italy, they are received and accommodated for about one year in facilities run by the Federation of Protestant Churches and the Community of Sant’Egidio, explained Naso. In the meantime, they apply for asylum, learn Italian, attend vocational training when necessary and start the process of integration into Italy. “The voluntary presence of church people in this phase is an added value in terms of assistance and moral sustainability,” he said.
One of the member churches of the federation is the Waldensian Church — a union of Methodist and Waldensian Churches — which, thanks to public funds received by the state for social programmes — was able to offer consistent support for this project. “The surprise has been that, promptly, other grants arrived from other churches in Europe, among them the Evangelical Church of Westfalia, and from the U.S.,” said Naso. “Even more surprising has been the offering of individual donors who appreciated our proposal of –- let me say – “political diakonia”. Service to the other in need is our Christian commitment, but to make it effective we have to confront, challenge and force the legislation and the policies.”
For a long time and at an early stage, Italian churches have highlighted the difficult situation in the Mediterranean, said Doris Peschke, general secretary of the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe. “They were the first to alert the rest of Europe to the difficult situation, and to the deaths at sea. They have sought very early to develop alternatives, and we have been working together on identifying what can be done to work with people,” she said. “Therefore we are calling for ’Safe Passages to and through Europe’, and the humanitarian visas are one of the instruments available to governments to make entry to Europe possible and reduce deaths at sea”.