[ACNS] The refugee crisis in Europe is the “largest crisis that Europe has had to face since World War II,” the Church of England’s suffragan Bishop of Europe, the Rt Revd David Hamid, told ACNS this week. And the bishop warned that churches, governments and agencies need to prepare for a “medium- to long-term situation” that is “not going to go away quickly.”
Figures from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) show that over 762,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe by boat so far in 2015. Most of them – around 620,000 – have arrived in Greece; while Italy has received over 140,000 people, Spain almost 3,000 people and Malta over 100.
The UNHCR estimates that almost 3,500 people have died or gone missing trying to make the journey. Over half the migrants trying to reach Europe come from the Syrian Arab Republic, while 20 per cent come from Afghanistan.
“The numbers of people on the move have not been seen for over 70 years,” Bishop David Said. “The latest indications of arrivals by sea in Greece alone so far this year is 600,000. So we are looking at an enormous number of people who are essentially fleeing for their lives.”
He warned that the problem is not going to go away soon: “The consistent word . . . from our partners in the Middle East itself is that the end won't be in sight, really, until we resolve the wars and people are able to live in security.
“That does seem to be a long way off. We are going to face here in Europe – churches, government and agencies – a medium to long-term situation. This is not going to go away quickly.
“And even if the wars were to stop tomorrow, in Syria you still have over four million people living outside Syria – externally displaced people – as well as probably half the remaining Syrian population themselves displaced from their home villages and towns.
“The long-term reconstruction of the region is a long-term prospect and people expected to return to their homeland is not something immediate even if the wars were to end tomorrow.”
The Church’s response to the crisis has grown from an immediate pastoral response by local churches, chaplaincies and individual Christians; to a co-ordinated cross-denominational multi-national approach by Christian churches working together. Bishop David is helping to lead the Church of England’s response to the crisis and has been meeting church leaders from other denominations.
“The natural response that comes from Christians – in our churches and in others – is to reach out to those they see who are in desperate need,” Bishop David said. “And that is what happened almost immediately the moment people began to appear in the central squares of Athens having come from the ferry boats from the islands off the Turkish coast.
“It moved from that though to the churches [in Greece] – and our church has been key in this – seeing the need for there to be some co-ordinated response: not simply individual congregations or individuals in congregations reaching out to offer assistance in any way; but also co-ordinating efforts so that there is no duplication and so that there is some analysis of where the greatest need is and directing the few resources that are available to those needs.
“So the significant thing that has happened in Greece has been the co-ordination that has now happened between the Greek Orthodox archdiocese, our own chaplaincy, the Roman Catholic Jesuit refugee service, the Salvation Army, and the Greek Evangelical Church. Those are now in very frequent communication with each other and with the UNHCR and other non-church agencies on the ground so that there is now at least some co-ordination and sharing of information so that the response can be so much more strategic.”
And Bishop David is in no doubt that years of ecumenical dialogue is now bearing fruit in enabling this co-ordinated response.
“That in-depth joining of hands now is the result of years and years of relationship building so that there is actually trust,” he said. “Even though we are a minority church in the countries of continental Europe, in most places the ecumenical relationships have been built up over decades to the point that we are actually a very trusted partner. So when this crisis happened in Greece, the Greek Orthodox Church was immediately open to collaborating with us. We didn't have to start by building relationship and trust because it was already there – the door was open.
“One of the roles of our diocese – and our churches across the diocese – is to be that shop window for the Church of England and for Anglicanism, and to build those relationships. Then we see it bearing fruit in a place like Greece today when the bringing of churches together is necessary to address the crisis.”
While much of the work is being done by churches on the ground where the refugees are, there is still work for other Christians around the work to do, Bishop David said.
“Firstly, there is the advocacy level. I think churches all across the world are wanting to ensure that – regardless of matters of quotas and statistics and so on – that governments and agencies treat those who are travelling seeking refuge with a level of human dignity.
“That is something that, sadly, on the continent of Europe just isn’t happening. The camps around Calais for instance are leaving people in atrocious conditions. Regardless of whether decisions are taken to admit people as asylum seekers or not, they are human beings and merit the basic humanitarian assistance while their status is sorted out.
“Churches around the world can be advocates for that kind of humane treatment for people.”
The bishop also called for “direct support” to be given to church based agencies like Christian Aid, Cafod, Us (formerly USPG) and members of the ACT-Alliance. Those agencies, he said, “have people on the ground [and] can be trusted to funnel resources.”
But he said Christians and churches also have a role to play in ensuring the truth of the refugee crisis is told without exaggeration. “There is often exaggeration in some of the secular media. Sometimes this plays into people’s fear about the foreigner, fears of Islam, and all sorts of fears,” Bishop David said. “I think we need to be clear, as Christians around the world, in making sure the truth is being told about this: that people are fleeing war zones, are fleeing persecution and are needing protection.”