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Churches demand governments help refugees

Posted on: March 14, 1997 10:40 AM
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Church organisations from across Europe are calling on governments to ratify an international convention on displaced people which has been gathering dust for more than six years.

Only seven countries - and no leading Western nation is among them - have ratified the United Nations-supported 1990 convention to improve the official status of migrants, according to Patrick Taran, secretary for migration at the World Council of Churches (WCC).

Mr Taran was speaking after the first Pan-European Ecumenical Conference on Uprooted People, held in London from 6 to 9 March. The conference was jointly sponsored by the WCC and the Conference of European Churches (CEC).

Participants at the gathering expressed concern at trends by governments in every region of Europe to close their borders to non-nationals, and the increasing pressure to repatriate refugees despite continuing conflict in their countries of origin.

Refugees, migrants and displaced people, in country after country around the world, were facing an "onslaught of inhumanity" in which governments adopted restrictive measures "with the support of their peoples, [making] migrants the scapegoats for the ills of society", Mr Taran said.

About 130 participants, including delegates from eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union as well as many displaced people, attended the conference on uprooted people. A public rally on Saturday 8 March addressed by three bishops - an Anglican and a Roman Catholic bishop from Britain and an Anglican bishop from The Gambia - drew an audience of more than 200 people.

The events were organised to mark the launch in Europe of the WCC's Ecumenical Year of Churches in Solidarity with Uprooted People. According to A Moment to Choose, a WCC resource book, uprooted people are "those forced to leave their communities; those who flee because of persecution and war, those who are forcibly displaced because of environmental devastation and those who are compelled to seek sustenance in a city or abroad because they cannot survive at home".

According to The World Refugee Survey 1996, the global population of "refugees and asylum-seekers in need of protection and/or assistance" totals 15.3 million people, mainly located in three areas: the Middle East 5.5 million, Africa 5.2 million and Europe 2.5 million.

Participants called on their churches to become "the church of the stranger", welcoming migrants and absorbing them into church activities.

Explaining the work of the churches, Mr Taran told the press conference: "The churches are in the front-line, but the churches can't work in isolation.

"The globalisation of economic and political policies call for a global response. We want to offer an alternative vision to that governments are adopting." He pointed out that much of the North's surplus food was exported to the South, forcing local farmers off the land and swelling the uprooted population in cities "seeking visions of Dallas and California".

The conference sent a message of solidarity to Inderjit Bhogal, a Methodist minister, who began a 270-kilometre walk on 10 March in protest at the treatment of asylum-seekers in the United Kingdom.

Mr Bhogal was born into a Sikh family in Nairobi in 1953. He came to Britain in 1964 and became a Christian while a teenager. He was later ordained into the Methodist Church.