Looking for opportunities for local churches and civil society to help tackle refugee issues?
Addressing the joint World Council of Churches/United Nations Refugee Crisis Conference on Monday 18 January, Ambassador Knut Vollebaek representing the Church of Norway listed ten urgent issues and effective responses around legal recognition and integration.
Many of the issues present practical opportunities where individuals or groups could make a real difference in their communities.
1. Representatives of churches and civil society should study the text of the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to refresh understanding about the obligations of receiving states. In view of the massive influx of refugees, more and more countries are taking legal and practical measures to limit the rights of refugees. There are even initiatives seeking to rewrite the Convention.
2. The legal rights of refugees have to be addressed. Applications for asylum must be handled properly. What institution or ombudsman represents refugees in these legal matters?
3. As soon as possible after arriving, refugees should be given information about the country and culture in which they now live. This facilitates long term integration and minimises negative incidents. Civil society may need to fill this gap given capacity issues within the responsible state authorities.
4. Language courses should be started immediately and not delayed until after refugee status or residency has been granted. Language proficiency is crucial to any integration process. It is unwise (and counter-productive) to tie refugees tightly to the communities in which they may only be temporarily sheltering. International languages (French, English, German, etc) are more useful than less-widely spoken languages. Language cafés can facilitate education, language training and integration with local communities.
5. Find out about the religious affiliation of the asylum seekers and try to connect them with appropriate local religious groups. Secular European authorities can overlook the importance of religion in people’s lives.
6. Let the refugees do their chores themselves (preparing food, cleaning etc). There is a need to improve substandard accommodation. However, Norway’s use of hotels to accommodate asylum seekers has in some instances made the transition to regular accommodation unexpectedly difficult.
7. Get to know the people that have come and learn about their stories. Personal relationships and friendships are important. Norwegian Red Cross matches guides with refugees. Congregations invite refugees to gatherings to listen to their stories. The massive influx has made refugees into mere numbers. They must be seen as individuals and we must learn about their reasons for fleeing and their lives before fleeing. Being a ‘refugee’ is not someone’s lifetime profession.
8. Try to find employment for adult refugees. With unclear status and long-running application processes, there is a tendency for refugees to be ‘kept idle’ for months and years. Churches and civil society may be able to step in [with imaginative opportunities].
9. Education is fundamental for long term successful integration. Adults may need relevant education to find local employment. Even more important is education for children which should be of highest importance and not be delayed until formal refugee status has been granted.
10. Make sure that violations of national laws are not covered up. If churches and civil society do not address legal violations and crime carried out by asylum seekers, then they play into the hands of nationalistic and populist groups that will gain strength and sympathy and be detrimental to long term integration.
Ambassador Knut Vollebaek concluded by recommending that overly altruistic rhetoric be avoided. Without doubt we have a moral obligation to help people in need. However, addressing the refugee crisis is as much an act of self interest given the great number of refugees and asylum seekers in our countries. Let us therefore avoid a futile discussion about a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious society. We must discuss how to make our already multi-faceted society viable and as good as possible for as many as possible.
A full set of videos from the two day conference are available.