What European Christians are Thinking about Their Latest Refugee Crisis

Several days ago the foreign and interior ministers from 22 European countries held an emergency meeting to discuss the growing refugee crisis along Europe's southern borders. This brief article describes what some European Christians think about the current refugee crisis and the results of that emergency meeting.

Written by Duncan Hanson*

In the last days, I have spoken with a number of European Christians about the ever increasing presence of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East in their countries. It is probably fair to say they are not all of the same mind. Some, like a Spanish airplane pilot who I met on a plane returning to Europe from the Middle East, perceive a demographic threat from immigrants, especially from Muslim immigrants. Others, like a Catholic Brit, who has lived in Pakistan, Kuwait, Iraq and Spain, politely dismiss the idea that the comparatively small number of African and Middle Eastern immigrants in his country could ever become a majority in his country. In fact, this Brit sees African and Middle Eastern immigrants as a positive asset to Europe. He points, for example, to the Moroccan immigrant who fixes his and his mother's appliances and without whom he'd have to put out a good deal of money to buy new water heaters, furnaces and stoves rather than continue to make do with what he has.

After decades of conversation about immigration with Protestant and Catholic leaders in Western and Southern Europe, I believe most of them are more in tune with the Brit whose opinion I just reported than with the Spanish pilot. In the last five years, I've only met two European church leaders who believe that African and Middle Eastern immigrants, including Muslim immigrants, actually pose a threat to their churches or to their countries. Many of the church leaders, who do not see African and Middle Eastern immigrants as a threat, say their openness to immigrants is rooted in their interpretation of Scripture. A second factor for a growing number of European church leaders is that their congregations are attracting new members who are immigrants: by necessity they see immigrants not just as the "other" but as human beings and, in some cases, as cherished friends.

But, as a Lutheran bishop in Germany told me in the context of a conversation about immigration in Europe and the USA, politicians usually respond more quickly to polls than to Scripture. Public opinion polls show many European voters would like to tighten Europe's borders even more hermetically than they are now.

I suspect these poll results go a long way toward explaining the shortcomings of the ten-point program for dealing with immigration which was agreed to at a recent meeting of the foreign and interior ministers from 22 European countries. The vaguely formulated
program of the European foreign and interior ministers commits 3,500,000 Euros a month to pay for ships and helicopters for rescuing refugees from boats in danger of sinking. That sounds good until you compare the 3,500,000 they have budgeted with the 9,300,000 million Euro per month which Italy by itself was spending until October 2014 to rescue refugees, when the Italian government canceled the program.

A well-informed North American professor believes that the modest sums allocated to rescuing refugees sends a simple message: saving immigrant lives is a low priority for European governments.

Several points of the ten-point program describe how the European Union governments will work with Libya and other North African governments to persuade them to prevent refugees from leaving their countries for Europe. A Libyan politician, quoted in the German press, said that his country was too involved in dealing with its own internal conflicts to think about devoting its limited resources to preventing refugees from leaving Libya by boat for Europe. It's easy to guess that the same might be true of other North African countries.

An Austrian Catholic priest told me that, in his opinion, the European foreign and interior ministers' ten-point program is a callous sellout to public prejudices that will likely cost the lives of thousands of desperate people trying to enter Europe.

Here are some facts, as reported in the Italian press: At this writing, at least 1727 people have died so far this year while attempting a water crossing into Italy from North Africa. This number is 50 times higher than it was at this point last year. Even so, during last week alone, 10,000 new immigrants, almost all of them undocumented, arrived in Italy from North Africa. Astonishingly, these 10,000 people paid an estimated twenty million euros to those who provided them transport across the Mediterranean. Although some experts, including the Waldensian leader of Being Church Together, Paolo Naso, doubt these figures, the European border security agency, Frontex, estimates there are 500,000 to 1,000,000 refugees in Libya waiting to leave for Europe in the near future.

All of this comes at a time fraught with political difficulty because of the facts on the ground. In the long run, immigrants come to Europe for a reason: they do jobs that Europeans won't take but that are increasingly essential to the advanced economies. But the job situation, especially in southern Europe, is so bad that the immigrants have become scapegoats for problems created elsewhere
So what could Europe realistically do to address its refugee crisis, if its politicians could muster up the needed political will? Here are four ideas:

  1. They could give out multiple-entry visas with work permits that would allow refugees to come legally and safely to Europe and work in Europe for an extended period once a year. A multiple-entry visa system would provide eager workers for agricultural and other jobs most Europeans don't want to do.
  2. European governments could establish 'humanitarian corridors' for safe and legal access to Europe for refugees who can present evidence that they have a 'well-founded reason to fear that they will be persecuted in their countries of origin.' This would ensure that the main burden does not all fall on countries with long coast lines (Italy, Greece and Spain are prime examples) as well as give African and Middle Eastern immigrants an alternative to paying large sums to shady operators.
  3. Europe could decriminalize innocent third parties who choose to rescue refugees in danger of drowning after their boats have capsized or sunk in the Mediterranean Sea. Right now the owners of freighters and pleasure boats that happen to rescue refugees lost at sea can be criminally prosecuted.
  4. The European Union could give development aid to create jobs in West African and sub-Saharan countries so that some potential refugees might be enticed to stay put rather than leave for Europe.

Whether the above four ideas are actually practical or not needs discussion. Unfortunately, European politicians still aren't talking seriously about Europe's latest refugee crisis. The paucity of funds they propose to allocate for the "solution" makes this clearer than ever.

*The author, the Rev. Dr. Duncan Hanson, a good friend of the Waldensians and Methodists of Italy, has invested most of his adult life in dealing with issues in European church and political life. Most recently, he has served as area coordinator for Europe for the Reformed Church in America.


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