Churches in Europe urge a coordinated European humanitarian response

That response is needed to protect refugees living in Greece

by Burkhard Paetzold, World Mission | Special to the Presbyterian News Service

The Moria Refugee Camp is on the Greek island of Lesvos. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

LOUISVILLE —  “When I left there, I was ashamed  — and I consider myself a convinced European — to be a member of this European Union,“ said Martin Dutzmann, the authorized representative of the Protestant Churches in Germany (EKD) at the German government and the EU after returning from his recent visit to the overcrowded and chaotic refugee camp Moria on Lesvos Island. And, he adds, “the EU has kept the situation in the camps on the Greek islands at bay for years.”

It was almost foreseeable that a head-in-the-sand policy of the EU will not lead anywhere. And now, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan uses the suffering of refugees to put pressure on the EU to support his military invasion in Syria, the situation on the border between Greece and Turkey and on the Greek islands has become dramatic again in recent weeks, especially in Lesvos.

Police are using tear gas against refugees, among them families with small children.  A reception facility has burned down. Refugees are attacked and prevented from arriving by an extreme right-wing mob, journalists are beaten, staff from non-governmental organizations and people who live on the island and work for refugees are threatened. One child died when refugees tried to go ashore. There are reports that the Greek coast guard is pushing away crowded boats with people and even using warning shots against them.

“To repel people who are in need and are now pushing to the border with water cannons and tear gas is reprehensible,” says Dutzmann. “It is equally reprehensible that the Turkish president is exploiting these people for his Syria policy. However, the EU allowed five years to pass without finding a consistent asylum policy.”

“The churches have always called for safe and legal refugee routes to Europe,”
Dutzmann added. “You can now see how urgent this demand is.”

Christians and churches in different European countries have not only called on their governments to act but have taken initiative themselves.  For instance, World Mission’s global partners, including the Waldensian Church, the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy and St. Egidio, have established a humanitarian corridor for almost 3,000 refugees to arrive safely from the Middle East in Italy and to accommodate them.

The Evangelical Church of Greece and its Perichoresis program support hundreds of refugees in a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees program for integration and accommodation.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in solidarity with partners in Greece and asks for prayers and support for the Evangelical Church of Greece, Naomi Ecumenical Workshop, Lesvos Solidarity and others.

Meanwhile on the island of Lesvos, Greek nationalists have attacked activists supporting refugees, humanitarian workers and journalists. Dozens of violent incidents have been  recorded on the island. Militant white supremacists from Austria and Germany have arrived.

Efi Latsoudi is one of the island’s best-known figures. A psychologist, she’s the coordinator of the Pikpa solidarity camp and Mosaic cultural center and in 2016 won the the Nansen prize from the UNHCR. She has been threatened on Facebook and says that she has never seen such a high level of violence on the island.

In December, the Conference of European Churches (CEC) together with the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe issued an open letter to the EU leadership:

We hold dearly the inviolable dignity of every human being created in the image of God and are deeply committed to the concepts of the common good, global solidarity and a society welcoming strangers,” the letter states. “It is against this background that we address you today on the issue of a comprehensive protection- and human rights-oriented EU asylum and migration policy.”

The two organizations have made strong recommendations to the EU institutions urging them to facilitate a comprehensive, preferably long-term, legally-sound mechanism for search and rescue at the EU’s southern border. There is a need to “adopt a system of relocation of those rescued at sea as well as those arriving in the member states at the EU external border,” the letter says.

Dr. Torsten Moritz, General Secretary of the CCME, said that “at the moment, EU asylum and migration discussions focus very much on protecting borders and keeping migrants and refugees outside Europe. “

When asked about the fear of some politicians that Germany cannot bear any more refugees, Dutzmann said this: “I understand that politicians have to pay attention to whether and how refugees can be integrated into our society. Looking back makes me confident. The Chancellor (Angela Merkel) said at the time, ‘We can do it.’ She was right. German society has achieved an enormous amount since 2015! Immigration to Germany and Europe must be regulated. But I don’t see that we weren’t efficient enough to take on even more people with us.“

Over the past few months, 140 German cities have offered an additional reception capacity for refugees. Together with many NGOs and churches they ask as an initial step that Germany no longer block the family reunification of refugees in Greece with their relatives in Germany.

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