world council of churches




Risking to be in Solidarity with Uprooted People. Risking to be the Church of the Stranger. These are important themes in work of the World Council of Churches and in many of its 320 member national Protestant and Orthodox communions in over 100 countries. I offer a few contributions to this Congress from our work.

We offer first of all, a paradigm - uprooted people - that explains more adequately human displacement in this age of globalization, without blaming the victims. Secondly, a few words about Being the Church Together with uprooted people. Thirdly, a framework for action along three main themes.

A new paradigm: Uprooted People
In 1995, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches adopted unanimously a bold Statement on Uprooted People. This declaration put forward a distinct understanding of human mobility in the age of globalization, in the following words: "people leave their communities for many reasons and are called by different names - refugees, internally displaced, asylum-seekers, migrants. As churches, we lift up all those who are compelled by severe political, economic and social conditions to leave their land and their culture - regardless of the labels they are given by others. 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."

Globalization, however it is defined, is a reshaping of the world economy, and of relations among states, regions, peoples and social classes. This process is undeniably accelerating pressures that lead to human displacement.

The paradigm of uprooted people challenges the conventional wisdom of sharp differentiations between refugees and migrants. Refugees and asylum seekers are recognized as those fleeing persecution, and deserving protection and assistance. Migrants, on the other hand, have usually been characterized as persons moving voluntarily, choosing to leave, in order to obtain better economic opportunities. This understanding has tended to limit solidarity to a smaller proportion of the world's 125 million or more people living outside their countries of origin. At worst, this dichotomization reinforces images of migrants as economic opportunists who have chosen to leave their own counties to take advantage of the welfare and well being of other countries and peoples, when they should stay home.

In our experience, an ever greater proportion of all those people leaving their homelands have little or no choice in the matter. As the WCC statement recognizes, "war, civil conflict, human rights violations, colonial domination, and persecution for political, religious, ethnic or social reasons characterize every region and are major causes of forced human displacement today."

But that is only part of the picture. "Severe breakdown of economic and social conditions that once provided people with the means to survive in their traditional communities and in their own countries is accelerating the movement of people" across borders. As we understand it, the actual trends in globalization are deepening inequalities in wealth and income within and between nations. Emerging trade relations are working to the disadvantage of economically weaker countries. Meanwhile, technological innovations are making production and services more efficient. As a result we have what is called jobless growth, and increases of permanent unemployment in all regions. One could go on, the point is that more and more people must leave their places of origin in order to try to find work and food, simply to survive.

There is another major element. "Environmental devastation has emerged as a powerful motivation for large-scale human displacement." Current estimates of persons displaced directly for environmental reasons range from ten to 25 million. Rising sea levels, increased intensity of storms due to global warming and growing numbers of people pushed into fragile environments forecast greater displacement in the near future.

The Church of the Stranger
All of those forced to leave their homelands have a call on the solidarity of the church. The term "uprooted," is also very illustrative in capturing the multiple traumas that forced displacement inflicts on human beings.

The WCC Statement makes explicit a direct challenge to the church, to all churches, to "rediscover their identity, their integrity and the vocation as the church of the stranger.... the church of Jesus Christ the Stranger," as in chapter 25 of the Gospel according to Matthew (verses 31-46). It is a call to recognize that we all live in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual societies, although all too often we - our congregations - don't see the stranger in our midst.

The challenge is more than simply offering charity, services or protection to the stranger. Rather, the question is whether the church will stand in solidarity with the uprooted when governments become restrictive and the public - including many Christians - become downright hostile. The challenge is also whether the church will become an expression in its own internal life of the universality of the Gospel.

This is a call to risk. To respond to refugees and migrants is becoming increasingly unpopular in so many places, where there is so much to do to "take care of our own first." In some places, to work with the uprooted is dangerous. And when we challenge injustices, and the sinfulness of unjust systems and structures, that uproot people, we can expect that, as the expression goes, "there will be hell to pay."

A comprehensive, interrelated programme
The third contribution is to outline a framework for a comprehensive and integrated "programme of action" which gives coherency to the numerous tasks of solidarity with uprooted people.

This framework is based on three fundamental Christian affirmations. First and foremost, "we affirm the sacredness of all human life and the sanctity of creation." As the first chapter of Genesis emphasizes, all people are made in the image of God. Thus our faith compels us to ensure that human life, physical security and personal safety are upheld in law and institutions. "No society can live in peace with itself or with the world without a full awareness of the worth and dignity of every human person..."

Secondly, "the Biblical values of love, justice and peace compel us to renew Christian response to the marginalized and excluded." In this understanding, the challenge of prophesy and of Jesus' teachings is to equip Christians to work for peace and justice, which is to address the causes which uproot people.

Thirdly, "the Biblical challenge to build inclusive community requires us to accompany the uprooted in service and witness." A ministry of accompaniment and advocacy with uprooted people upholds the principles of prophetic Christian witness and service. As our understanding of God's love has been illustrated by Biblical stories of exile, so must we today receive the living word of God through the witness of uprooted people.

In listening to the experience and offerings from our church constituency around the world, we found that nearly all church action could be described within these three themes.

Upholding life and dignity of uprooted people. This means actions and activities to protect the lives and safety of refugees, migrants and internally displaced people. It also means defending legal and human rights, and promoting international standards. Within this theme and sub-themes, we encountered many options for action already being taken by individual Christians, church congregations and church and ecumenical agencies.

Secondly, working for Justice and Peace is central to addressing the causes of forced displacement. Studying and understanding the political, economic, social and environmental reasons for uprooting is the necessary first step to determine effective responses. Peacemaking, conflict resolution, and working for economic and social fullness of life emerge as titles for much of what needs to be done. "Promoting the right of people to remain in safety and dignity in their homeland" provides the address of where we should be headed.

Creating community with the uprooted is the third programmatic theme. It speaks directly to the identity and role of the church itself. Many tasks can be identified in accompanying uprooted people and in providing services to respond to material, social and spiritual needs. It is imperative to support the initiatives of uprooted people themselves, and to engage in living in diversity. In particular, we highlight the concept of being the church together with uprooted people. This means taking steps so that uprooted Christians can be part of our congregations, transforming ourselves so that we are an inclusive community. A community cannot be inclusive if only the "other", the stranger, must adapt and conform to existing norms and identity.

Many signs of hope have emerged that give us encouragement: church initiatives to create new ministries, new ways of upholding human dignity, and expanded opportunities for ecumenical cooperation.

Global Campaign for Migrants Rights
I conclude by offering a specific recommendation to this Congress to act on what is the most critical, cutting edge issue in this ministry: the defense of the basic human rights of migrants.

The marginalization and exclusion of migrants has become one of the most dangerous trends in the world today. Migrants, foreigners, are already scapegoats, convenient targets for frustrations, anger and hostility generated by high levels of unemployment, falling incomes, cutbacks in services, and deteriorating conditions. What is surprising is the speed at which this has become universal, worldwide, an epidemic reaching virtually every country. The now common usage of the term "illegal migrant" or "illegal alien." reinforces this. By definition, this term criminalizes and de-humanizes human beings; it by a word renders people legally non-existent. For Christians, no human being is illegal.

What to do? Only a broad, assertive effort to promote and operationalize basic human rights of migrants can reverse this trend. The dehumanization of migrants must be challenged ethically and ideologically and it must be contested legally, by putting in place guarantees of human rights.

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1990. This treaty made explicit the detailed application to migrants, regardless of status, of the principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and subsequent human rights treaties. However, only nine states have ratified it so far, twenty must do so for it to "enter into force" and become operational. This dismal performance is not surprising for a treaty given no publicity, no promotion, and no organized effort to secure ratifications.

A broad coalition of 14 international civil society and inter-governmental organizations has now come together to build a global effort for ratifications. The active core of this Steering Committee comprises church, trade union, migrant and human rights organizations. The International Catholic Migration Commission is there, also on behalf of Caritas Internationalis.

This alliance launched the Global Campaign for ratifications of the Convention in March of this year. Now, it seems, grass roots campaign efforts seem to be springing up all over, in the Caribbean, the Pacific, in Canada, South America, here in Italy.

If I can leave one specific recommendation, it is to urge that this Congress make a strong recommendation for ratifications, and to suggest that parishes, dioceses, church organizations contribute to making this convention a working tool for the defense of human rights of migrants.

Thank you.

Patrick A. Taran
Secretary for Migration
World Council of Churches
27 March 1998

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