Upon their return from visiting refugees and refugee projects in Greece at the end of May, the twelve women who participated in the delegation have written to the member churches of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to offer their reflections and recommendations.
Last summer we were all shocked with the news reports and images on television and in print of significant numbers of people fleeing from the war in Syria, and other places, and making their way across the water from Turkey and Lebanon towards Greece. The particular image of the young boy Aylan washed ashore seemed to be the tipping point for the world.
One of the CTBI Trustees, Bishop David Hamid, Church of England Bishop in Europe, was deeply aware of the situation migrants and refugees were facing in Calais and Athens as the ministers and chaplains in his care shared with him their deep concerns. With the support of the Churches Commission on Migrants in Europe (CCME), a first visit to Greece was undertaken in September 2015. On our return from that visit, and having consulted with a number of our members, the Trustees took the decision to make this area of work a priority. This is clearly a generational task.
At the AGM earlier this year, Kathy Galloway joined the Trustee board and has taken on specific responsibility for this work. Kathy headed up the visit of 12 women to Greece in May 2016.
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CTBI VISIT TO GREECE
To the member churches of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland: Grace to you, and peace.
Dear sisters and brothers,
We write to you as twelve Christian women holding positions of leadership in different member churches of CTBI. In your name and on your behalf, we recently visited refugee camps in Greece and met with Greek churches and organisations to learn more about their response to the refugee crisis there.
We know that the refugee crisis is a global one. 65 million people are now refugees, internally displaced or seeking asylum. We are writing as Europeans who visited a country which has been at the sharp end of the crisis in Europe, and whose situation has become the most familiar in our own countries. However, though focussed on Greece, our experience, observation and learning could be replicated in many parts of the world.
Ours was a visit of Christian solidarity, first and foremost with those whom fear, danger, increasing poverty and despair have led to embark on this dangerous journey, many with their children, a journey which has no guaranteed outcome. But it is also with the churches, NGOs, volunteers and local people who have responded, often where governments cannot or will not, often at cost to themselves, with generosity, humanity and compassion. We also seek to bear witness, and to amplify the testimony of those who do not have our privileges of voice and access. We now do so from three perspectives: women to women; northern Europeans to southern Europeans; and Christians to Christians.
1. Ours was a visit by women to women, and intentionally so. We know that the majority of refugees in the world are women; that they often bear the responsibility for children and the elderly and sick in addition to their own needs; that there are particular vulnerabilities for women and children who are displaced and uprooted, particularly in relation to sexual harassment, abuse and trafficking, forced or early marriage, and the huge challenges of providing for their children. Many of them have already been internally displaced, becoming refugees in their own country before leaving once again. So ours was a sisterly visit; we were anxious to hear the voices and stories of women, who are often silenced in the dominant narratives.
We found all of these facts to be clearly evidenced in Greece. Many of the women we met are seeking reunification with male family members who travelled last year when European countries, especially Germany and Sweden, offered sanctuary. Others have lost their husbands in war or persecution. Some are women alone. Many have been uprooted several times-within Syria or other countries of origin, from Syria to Turkey, from Turkey to the Greek islands, then on to the mainland. They are further hampered by an extreme lack of access to translation/interpretation, legal advice and aid and social and health services.
Conditions in the camps are severely overcrowded, unsanitary and dirty. In the closed camps, there is a frightening lack of security for women and children. Many of them do not separate women from unrelated adult men, and there is routine lack of police protection, either from the effect of fighting, or from extensive sexual harassment of women. Sexual exploitation of women and unaccompanied minors is acute. Traffickers watch and prey on vulnerable individuals with impunity, and threaten NGO and church personnel who seek to protect them.
Problems with health, lack of medicines, inadequate food, lack of education, play facilities and security and family separation are all serious issues for women travelling with their children. Unaccompanied minors are particularly at risk, and many are simply disappearing. Because of the problems with registration, the insecure situation in the camps, and the impunity with which people smugglers, traffickers and pimps are able to operate, it is impossible to know how many there are, and what is happening to them.
As pastors, as teachers, as mothers, daughters and sisters, our group identified strongly with the grief, fear and anxiety that so many of these women were experiencing, above all for the sake of their children. We did not find it hard to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine what our own responses might be. We were humbled and grateful to the women who invited us into their tents and their confidences; who demonstrated that even in the direst circumstances, the values of homemaking, generous hospitality and courtesy remained strong; whose dignity and persistence, advocacy for justice and capacity not to lose heart reminded us of the widow of Jesus’ parable in Luke 18, 1-8. We have recognised these qualities in countless women in our own personal and professional lives, we have met them over and over in women picking up the pieces in times of crisis, caring for the weakest and most vulnerable when everyone else has disappeared.
As policy-makers and leaders, we are disappointed, though not surprised, by the lack of attention paid to the voices and concerns of women, to the particular vulnerabilities of children, especially unaccompanied minors, and by the failure to include women more fully in strategic and political responses to the refugee crisis in Europe, for ‘nothing about us without us is for us’. Any policy-making group in our churches working in relation to refugees and migration should appropriately reflect the gender balance of refugees in its makeup. We also call upon our member churches to seriously address the issue of impunity with regard to sexual harassment, abuse and violence experienced by women refugees, their children and unaccompanied minors in our countries, and to evidence the ways in which they are addressing the issue.
The vulnerability of women and children – and especially unaccompanied minors – to people smugglers and traffickers is greatly exacerbated by the extreme lack of safe passage available to registered refugees. Almost everyone we spoke to had needed to resort to people smugglers, at great cost and high risk, because they felt they had no alternative for reaching safety. As one of the church women in Athens said, the present situation was an open invitation for smugglers and traffickers to fill the gap. It does not seem to us that the current arrangements adhere to the UN Convention on Refugees, nor are they concerned with the safety and humanitarian wellbeing of refugees; rather they are designed to keep people out. Humanitarian visas and/or corridors should be introduced as a means of enabling safe passage.
2. Ours was a visit by northern Europeans to southern Europeans. In 2015, a staggering one million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe, most of them making the perilous journey from Turkey to Greece. The scale of the crisis continues, with over 135,000 people arriving in the first two months of 2016. This has put huge pressure on asylum systems in many European countries, but particularly in Greece, and now increasingly in Italy. In and through all of this, Greek citizens have responded with compassion and generosity, especially given their own financial plight, which is unequally borne by the poor and middle classes. Whether this will be sustainable as the crisis moves from being one of transit to one of managing a refugee population which is stuck and frustrated is a vital question.
This perfect storm has left Greece bearing the brunt of its force. But it is a European and ultimately a global issue. The vast majority of refugees from Central Asia and the Middle East are in other countries in these regions: in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan. Greece and Italy are not receiving the assistance that has been promised by other European countries in resourcing and in resettlement. Without urgent and sustained action, the crisis will intensify and the harm will be lasting, not just to the refugees but to Europe as a whole.
The United Kingdom has just held a referendum on its membership of the European Union, and issues around migration have come to the foreground, often in a way that reveals deep confusion and misunderstanding about their complexity. Some of the campaign, exacerbated by parts of the media, has revealed worrying levels of scapegoating, xenophobia and sometimes outright racism. But underlying this has also been fear, grief and anxiety for the future of their children of many in the UK who feel left behind, excluded or ignored by economic insecurity, cultural change and the politics of austerity. The European Union, especially when communities in the UK have lost (or never had) any sense of its originating values of peace and security, inclusion, human rights and the common good, has come to symbolise loss of agency, identity and economic opportunity for many. The campaign has also revealed deep divisions of many kinds across the UK, and the implications of the result for the five countries of Britain and Ireland are huge and unpredictable. The words from Galatians 5, 14-15, from the lectionary for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost have rarely seemed so pertinent: ‘For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.’
The narratives around refugees are very conflicted, and extreme sensitivity is now required for those who seek to challenge and change them. But the UK leaving the EU does not mean leaving behind our legal and moral responsibilities to people in need. The UK remains a founding signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, the main international treaty that protects the rights of people in need of safety. We need to remember this, and to remind ourselves also of a long history in both Britain and Ireland of welcoming refugees and of taking major steps in times of war for the protection of children and the most vulnerable.
Evacuation in Britain during the Second World War was designed to protect civilians, particularly children, from the risks associated with the aerial bombing of cities by moving them to areas thought to be less at risk. Operation Pied Piper, which began on 1 September 1939, officially relocated more than 3.5 million people. In the first three days of official evacuation, 1.5 million people were moved: 827,000 children of school age; 524,000 mothers and young children (under 5); 13,000 pregnant women; 70,000 disabled people and over 103,000 teachers and other ‘helpers’. Children were parted from their parents. Nearly 20,000 children were evacuated overseas, and over 30,000 people arrived in Britain from continental Europe and 25,000 from the Channel Islands.
Of course, this was a different crisis, responding to an external threat. Britain was at war. But what is remarkable is that at a time when it was poorer, weaker and infinitely more at risk than it is today, a massive logistical operation, involving cultural upheaval for the entire population, was undertaken with almost the sole purpose of keeping the children safe! We should be better at understanding and communicating what drives people to the truly horrendous path of the refugee and the asylum-seeker. For at heart, despite abuses and despite cultural, economic and political challenges, the vast majority of refugees are simply seeking what all of us want-safety, the necessities of life and a future without fear for our children.
“By the rivers of Babylon-there we sat down and there we wept …” (Psalm 137, 1)
The experience of emigration is part of our nations’ collective memories. In the process, families were separated, usually for ever, traditional ways of life were destroyed and the web of life was torn. These economic migrants made lengthy, dangerous and squalid journeys to find a new and better life for themselves and their families.
Today, we think of them as brave, resourceful, even heroic. We are compassionate towards the plight that led them to leave – the famines, clearances, poverty and destitution they suffered – and about the hardships they initially endured in their new world. And when their descendants return to the old country to visit, we rightly welcome them with open arms and praise their achievements and their prosperity. We believe that they had no alternative but to go, and we are proud of what they did.
How curious then that our attitudes to immigrants into the UK and Ireland should often be so different. The image of ‘Fortress Europe’, securing its own interests and then pulling the drawbridge up behind it, is not a very good advert for the much-lauded benefits of democracy, freedom and free trade, especially when compared with the numbers of migrants received by countries in the Middle East and Africa. But this is how much of the world sees Europe – and Christianity.
3. It is therefore particularly relevant that ours was a visit by Christians to Christians. The solidarity evident in churches working together across all their differences was inspiring. We have seen and had communicated to us the expression and activation of Christian values. Apostoli (the humanitarian arm of the Orthodox Church of Greece) working in cooperation with IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities, a member of the ACT Alliance) have not only provided food parcels, soup kitchens, heating fuel, medical supplies, school kits, and support for farm cooperatives to thousands of the most vulnerable Greek individuals and families in their internal crisis. They also came to the assistance of overwhelmed local authorities in the Aegean islands with first aid, immediate registration, emergency food, baby and personal hygiene packs, clothing.
The Naomi Project, an initiative of the German Evangelical Church in Thessaloniki, provided thousands of meals for months in the Idomeni ‘wild camp’ (now cleared) and run a refugee support service. Caritas Greece provides support and advice in the camps. The Jesuit Refugee Service runs a Children Integration Centre, offering support around culture and customs to refugee children placed in local schools. Their Welcome Centre offers a hostel for around 45 particularly vulnerable people, and visits and assistance in camps. The Salvation Army runs a day centre providing meals, baby items, clothes and shoes, as well as other services. They have a particular concern around vulnerable or unaccompanied women and minors, who are at great risk of being trafficked or forced into prostitution. The Bridges Humanitarian initiative offers assistance and companionship, with an emphasis on supporting asylum and registration. Separately, Voula Antouan offers a chance to study the bible, without discussing religion, and without any proselytising.
We had the opportunity to meet and hear from and pray with women involved in a number of groups associated with Churches Together with Refugees in Athens at the home of the Anglican Chaplain in Athens. This body meets together regularly for support, co-ordination and theological discussion and reflection, and the groups involved work on a range of support services in and around Athens, including legal aid and family reunification, shelter and protection for unaccompanied minors, provision of non-food items, counselling, medical and psycho-social care, information distribution, language lessons and issues around trafficking.
Among the most important values that people of faith can offer in the context of war and displacement is the belief that care, justice and compassion are not confined by the boundaries of our own states. From a faith perspective, our country is the whole world. If it is not, then we are not true to our faith. As one UK church leader has commented:
“The natural inclination of the Church has been internationalist, because our Christian faith does not recognise borders but sees the world and all its people as one. We are part of a world-wide community with a responsibility to one another and the whole of creation. Over recent years, the urgency of taking that international responsibility seriously has become more clear as global poverty, environmental degradation, and the refugee catastrophe call us to find co-operative and international responses.”
We affirm this, and our visit was a demonstration of CTBI’s commitment to that responsibility. What lies ahead of us in the UK and Ireland in relation to the refugee crisis, and migration issues in general, is a huge practical and political challenge, but above all, it is a great spiritual task, perhaps the defining one of our generation. It is a task that requires change of us also.
The poet Norman McCaig wrote:
‘The frontier is never
somewhere else. And no stockades
can keep the midnight out.’
Ultimately, the frontier is in the hearts and minds of women and men, and we believe that the gospel speaks to us in the face of all the Project Fears of our time.
Under the title of What future for Europe? Reaffirming the European project as building a community of values, the Conference of European Churches has sent an open letter of CEC to churches and partner organisations in Europe and an invitation to dialogue and consultation. In particular, they commend the faith in action which is expressed in diaconia (service) and koinonia (fellowship). We understand our visit and its follow-up to be part of that dialogue and consultation, and we respectfully make the following suggestions as steps which British and Irish Christians can take, at a time when there are many we are unable to take.
So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. (Ephesians 2, 17-22)
Christians claim a coherent identity in the love of God, who is in Christ reconciling not just the Church but the world and especially the poor, the forgotten and the despised, to himself. At a time when the dangers of ‘othering’ are increasingly visible, it is crucial that our churches, and we ourselves, bear witness to a gospel which invites us to live out of our freedom rather than our fears. “In everything, do to others what you would have them do for you”, said Jesus. (Matthew 7,12)
This is two-way traffic: to see ourselves from the perspective of the other, and to extend to the other the same generosity and kindness that we would wish to receive and have done in the past. In so doing, we become a model of resistance to violence through the love that acts, and, putting aside our differences for the sake of a greater unity, acts together. This is the overwhelming message and testimony we have received from the Christians we met in Greece.
Let us build a house where hands will reach
beyond the wood and stone
to heal and strengthen, serve and teach,
and live the Word they’ve known.
Here the outcast and the stranger
bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger:
all are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.
Church of Scotland
CTBI Trustee and Delegation Visit Leader
The CTBI group to Greece
The participants in the visit were:
- Esme Allen, Media Officer, Christian Aid Scotland
- Anne Browse, President, Methodist Women in Britain
- Maha Campbell, Church of Scotland elder, Arabic interpreter
- Christine Elliott, Director of World Church programmes, CTBI
- Kathy Galloway, Church of Scotland minister, CTBI Trustee
- Joulie Gindi, Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK
- Clare McBeath, Baptist minister and Co-Principal, Northern Baptist College
- Sarah Moore, URC minister and President of the Cumbria Area of the URC, CTBI Trustee
- Judith Morris, Baptist minister, General Secretary Baptist Union in Wales, Cytûn
- Isobel Owen, Programme Officer with the Anglican Alliance
- Cecilia Taylor-Camara, Secretary to the Office of Migration and Policy of the Conference of Catholic Bishops for England and Wales
- Kathryn Viner, Presbyterian Church of Ireland minister, Irish Council of Churches
1. Welcome, hospitality and integration
I. Aware that many churches in the UK and Ireland already run friendship clubs and drop-in centres (which offer welcome, conversation, cultural exchange and practical support to specific groups within the surrounding community) perhaps churches in your area could open up a similar group to include refugees, or join an existing project in your neighbourhood. These settings are often particularly important for women refugees, who tend to be more isolated and value the opportunity for language support. Hosting such groups is an important means of breaking down barriers in a non-threatening environment. Advice is available from many existing groups. Refugees’ testimony, and certainly our own experience, strongly affirm that such groups offer much fruitful learning, real friendship and reciprocal challenge and support. They are good ground for the growth of mutual respect and dignity. We cannot love our neighbours unless we are open to being loved by our neighbours. We cannot extend hospitality to strangers unless we accept hospitality from strangers.
Learning and information may be vital in discovering whether and where there are refugees in your local area, and what their needs are. Inviting a speaker may be a first step, especially in communities and churches where there appear to be few refugees. Amongst many online resources, CTBI’s FocusOnRefugees.org website has resources for learning and discussion, as does Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees sfar.org.uk and EMBRACEni.org in Northern Ireland. The Refugee Councils are also an invaluable source of advice, resourcing and information. The recent Made for Goodness resource1 from the Joint Public Issues Team also provides context, information and biblical reflection. Local authorities are also a good source of information and ideas, and often welcome local initiatives.
II. Take part in events during Refugee Week and Refugee Festival Scotland, or plan to run an event next year. There are opportunities before then, including the Refugees Welcome march in London planned for 17 September and other events in the lead up to the United Nation General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Refugees and Migrants in New York on 19 September.
III. Make prayer, preaching and bible study on refugee issues an ongoing part of your church’s life. Many resources are available to assist with this.
IV. Embed an ongoing concern for asylum, migration and refugees in your church structures and calendar.
2. Policy and advocacy
I. We suggest a small piece of research is carried out into what is already being done by churches across the UK and Ireland, with a particular focus on women refugees. This might include liaising with women’s organisations, many of whom already support women refugees in their work. Many women refugees are people of faith, and there may usefully be some policy and advocacy directions that arise from this.
II. We encourage support for the planned Christian Aid initiative on Changing the Story around refugees, and similar initiatives from other agencies.
III. Support the inter-agency campaign for Safe Passage for refugees.
3. Fundraising and volunteering
I. Beyond the UK and Ireland, Christian Aid, CAFOD, SCIAF, Trocaire and other church-based agencies work with refugees right across the world, including in source countries and in Europe. Supporting them financially in this work continues to be vital and can be a practical first step. They reach places we cannot ourselves reach, and through their membership of The ACT Alliance and Caritas Internationalis, they have a global reach and impact.
II. Many churches in the UK and Ireland have their own refugee-focused initiatives and appeals, and partnerships with churches and congregations on the ground in Europe and globally, which always welcome support.
4. Wider engagement and dialogue
I. Consider responding to the Conference of European Churches invitation to consultation and dialogue on What Future for Europe.
Finally, we would call for individuals, churches and denominations to share with us their work with refugees as a way of encouraging and educating others, sharing good practice and providing opportunities for prayerful support and action.