Our world is facing the largest migration crisis since World War II and the migration route across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa and the Middle East to Europe is the most deadly route, claiming the lives of over 3,000 people in 2015 and more than 30,000 lives in the past 30 years. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees over 720,000 people have successfully made the journey to Europe in 2015, but they have done so mainly through dangerous and exploitative means. Most have fled their countries due to war, violence, persecution, political instability, famine, deadly diseases and scarcity of resources. Though many know the trek may be fatal, the hope of life free from these atrocities motivates them to take risks that—to observers—seem incomprehensible.
What migrants and refugees often underestimate is that they will experience ongoing difficulties, abuse and possibly death at the hands of those willing to exploit their vulnerability and lack of legal protection. Migrants and refugees are frequently abducted by human traffickers and forced to work or pay ransom for their freedom. Often they know they will be paying someone for illegal transport from one country to another, but don’t realize they will be abused and exploited by those they pay. Sometimes it means being forcibly placed on an unsafe boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea, without food, water or life jackets. Other times it means being killed before they even see the waters of the Mediterranean. Often it means a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, hoping and praying that someone will come to their rescue as the engine has stopped, the boat is sinking or has capsized, or people they are journeying with begin to die due to asphyxiation from the fumes, dehydration or illness.
Those who make it ashore are thankful to be alive, but often the worst part of their journey is not over. They are escorted to reception centers, where the goal is to sort them into two categories: those who will be allowed to stay in Europe legally, and those who will not. These reception centers are often overflowing, meaning they cannot meet the basic needs of those who have arrived after a harrowing experience at sea. Due to the sheer numbers of people arriving and the intricacies of each case, asylum claims take a long time to process—sometimes years. Those who have asylum cases denied face detainment and deportation, or “refoulement”, which is also a very lengthy, costly and traumatic experience.
The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol are the only set of international laws and regulations that explicitly detail the rights and responsibilities of asylum seekers and the countries that signed onto the Convention. These laws and regulations have been the foundation of worldwide refugee laws and recognize that refugee issues are global issues, thus requiring international cooperation to resolve them. However, one of the largest deficits in these laws and regulations is that a refugee has no legal protection from harm until he or she has reached the country in which he or she claims asylum. This leaves the sole responsibility of finding safe passage, from the country they are fleeing to the country in which they claim asylum, on refugees.
Therefore, the current migration crisis has led to two polarizing legal—and moral—problems. The first is that the majority of refugees who are entering Europe currently are doing so illegally, as there are no safe, legal means of requesting asylum in European countries until they physically step foot in Europe. This has led to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Africa and the Middle East making the journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe—as highlighted above. This path also leads to illegal migration of refugees from Southern or Eastern Europe to other European countries, as the Dublin Regulation of the European Union states a person claiming asylum in Europe must do so in the first European Union country he or she lands once arriving in Europe.
Currently the two main EU countries where the majority of refugees enter Europe are Greece and Italy. However, for various reasons, many asylum seekers do not want to claim asylum in these countries. Thus, hundreds of thousands of migrants are currently attempting passage to Northern and Western Europe, another leg of their journey to refuge that is dangerous, as those attempting to travel to other EU countries face imprisonment, death, and inhumane living conditions (lack of appropriate shelter, food, water, sanitation, etc.)
The second legal—and moral—problem is that some European countries do not want to process asylum claims, or do not want refugees traveling through their countries to claim asylum in other countries, and are resorting to imprisonment of refugees and implementing militarized border patrols. Hungary is one of the most recent examples, having erected razor wire fences along their borders with Serbia and Croatia and criminalizing entry of migrants.
What if it were possible to develop a process that is both legal and humane? The Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy (FCEI) and the Community of Sant’Egidio have been working on establishing a humanitarian corridor from Morocco to Italy, allowing the safe and legal arrival and protection of refugees to Europe. In cooperation with government officials in Morocco and Italy, and with support from the UNHCR, the process is simple but profound. A person wishing to apply for asylum in Italy can enter the Italian Embassy in Rabat, Morocco, and file his or her asylum claim. Asylum claims filed within the Embassy will be given special priority. For those whom asylum status is granted, the Italian government will pay to provide safe transportation of the refugee from Morocco to Italy.
After landing in Italy, the refugee will be provided with intensive services for up to three months by FCEI and Sant’Egidio, including housing, food, clothing, Italian language courses, and psychological counseling. FCEI is also receiving some generous support from individuals, churches and denominations within the United States and Canada. The initial goal of the project is to successfully process and transport 250 refugees to Italy by the end of 2015. Further work is being done to open humanitarian corridors from Lebanon to Italy and Ethiopia to Italy, with a second goal of the safe passage of an additional 1,000 refugees to Italy in 2016.
While the numbers for the pilot program are small, if it is successful, the program could result in a reduction of incentives for refugees to use dangerous operations run by human traffickers, and would serve as a model of legal and humane policies and practices for governments around the world.
Historically, the church has been known as a place for people in need to find refuge and sanctuary. It is fitting, therefore, that the church is leading the way in finding, and implementing, humane and just assistance for today’s refugees. After all, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was once a refugee as well.
JJ TenClay works in Palermo, Italy, with the Humanitarian Corridors program of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy, a partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through its affiliation with the Waldensian Evangelical Church. TenClay is a member of La Comunità di Sant'Egidio, a Christian lay community officially recognized by the Catholic Church with 50,000 members in more than 70 countries. Among its main activities are service to the poor, including refugees, and interreligious dialogue.