[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] The European Union’s political leaders are gathering in Brussels for two days of talks on the refugee crisis; and five Christian ecumenical organisations have used the occasion to write to the EU’s leaders calling for stronger action.
The EU’s 28 heads of state or government will discuss economic and energy security issues this afternoon before moving on to “a comprehensive debate on migration and EU-Turkey relations” over a working dinner this evening.
“Beyond agreeing a common position on an EU-Turkey agreement, we also need to take stock of the situation along the Western Balkans route after our common decision to end the irregular flows last week as well as our effort to massively step up humanitarian support, not least to Greece,” EU Council President Donald Tusk said in a letter to the EU’s national political leaders.
Tomorrow morning (Friday) the EU political leaders will hold a breakfast meeting with Turkish Prime Minister On Friday morning, EU Heads of State or Government will reconvene at 10h00 for a breakfast meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu “with a view to adopting the EU-Turkey Statement.”
In their letter to the EU’s leaders, the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME), the Conference of European Churches (CEC), Eurodiaconia, EU-CORD, and the ACT Alliance EU are calling on European governments to “fulfil their promises and obligations under international law.”
The organisations “bring together the greatest number of Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant Churches and Christian service, relief and development organizations active in Europe today,” they tell the EU leaders; and they say that their appeal is “based on our Christian faith and extensive experience of working with people in situations of extreme precariousness and vulnerability and with refugees inside and outside the European Union.”
They say: “In April 2015, when a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa led to hundreds of people losing their lives, promises were made to address the situation. And indeed, thanks to the insistence of the Italian government, a wider search and rescue mandate was included also in the Frontex operation with Italy. However, in the first months of this year more than 400 persons have lost their lives in the Aegean Sea, among them many women and children.
“While we call on the European Union to increase efforts for, preferably civilian, search and rescue operations, we also believe that the creation of safe passages is the only way to prevent refugees from risking their lives in dangerous journeys. To this end – together with many other civil society and international organisations – we call on you to open up more safe and legal ways for refugees to travel to Europe – for example through refugee resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes, private sponsorships, family reunion, student scholarships and labour mobility schemes – so that refugees do not resort to smugglers to find safety.”
The church leaders also call for greater efforts to resettle refugees throughout Europe. They point out that EU member states agreed last year to relocate 160,000 refugees from Greece; and that less than 1,000 people had actually been relocated from Greece and Italy by the start of this week.
“Despite terrible weather conditions, refugees continue to arrive in Greece and seek to move on; the tragedy yesterday at the border to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is yet another wake-up call. Therefore, we call on all European governments to fulfil their promises and swiftly relocate refugees to make this a viable and credible alternative.”
The church leaders also raise concern about the conditions refugees face once they are in Europe and call for greater social provision and better education facilities. They also express concern about plans to return refugees to their country of origin “without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law”
And they welcome the embryonic peace process in Syria and the role that the EU is playing in the creation of the International Support Group for Syria and the UN-led peace talks.
“The fragile ceasefire gives a glimpse of hope that the brutality against the people in Syria may come to an end and that negotiations for a peaceful solution to end the conflict may come into sight,” the church leaders say. “Our sister churches in the region strive for maintaining the Christian presence in the region, and therefore, peace, justice and respect for religious and ethnic minorities will have to be priorities in any agreement for the future of Syria and the region as a whole.
“After five years of violent conflict, this will not be an easy path; yet, we hope the international community, the EU included, will maintain and enhance the efforts to end this conflict.”