"Irregular Migration: A Challenge to European Migration and Asylum Policies"18/12/2002
Address to the Participants in the Conference jointly organised by the Church of Greece through the Intergration Centre for Migrant Workers (KSPM) of the Holy Synod and the Churches’ Committee for Migrants in Europe (CCME)
First of all, allow me to welcome you all to our Country and to the Church of Athens and to express my regret for not being able to be with you from the very beginning of today’s Conference. Our Church today honours the memory of the Holy unmercenary Saints Cosmas and Damian, who were doctors and are called “unmercenary” because they offered their medical assistance to the ill free of charge. Duty summoned me to celebrate the Divine Liturgy at the Church of the “Gennematas” Hospital and then to address the doctors. It was for this reason that I asked the Abbot of the Sacred Monastery of Pendeli, His Grace, Bishop Ioannis of Thermopylae, to represent me and to convey my thanks to all those who have made this present Conference possible and to the speakers. I also wish to thank you personally for the readiness with which you accepted my invitation and for the personal contribution of each one of you towards the realisation of this Conference’s purpose. This purpose was explained to you by His Grace, Bishop Ioannis, and there is no need for me to repeat it. Also, you were told that this Conference has been organised in view of the forthcoming assumption by Greece of the Presidency of the European Union and on the occasion of the convocation of the Fifteenth General Assembly of the Churches’ Committee for Migrants in Europe here in Greece. This is the second General Assembly of CCME to be convened in Greece, the first being CCME’s Seventh Assembly which was held at Pendeli Monastery in 1982. At that time the General Assembly was also preceded by a Special Conference dealing with a then contemporary issue: Greek Migrant workers returning home from Western Europe.The Orthodox Church understands man to be created “in the image of God” and understands society having as its ideal and model the communion of Love between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. In this loving communion or society of persons there is no room for the usual barriers or prejudices based on sex, nationality, social status, financial situation or religious faith. The Apostle St. Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians (3,28) is quite explicit and categorical on this matter.
During the twenty years that have elapsed since then, many things have changed. Our country, together with other countries from the European South such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, has unexpectedly – and hence without preparation – changed from a country that was a reservoir and exporter of labor force into a country receiving immigrants, legal and irregular, and indeed in such great numbers as to make up from 8 to 10% of its population. According to the official statistics issued by the National Statistics Service, Greece’s total population in 2000 was 10,964,020. Of these, 797,091 or 7.27% of the population was composed of foreigners. Unofficial figures provided by NGOs and the scientific community raises the alien population to 10%.
In its overwhelming majority this alien population was originally composed of irregular migrants (the mass media has established the term “stowaway migrants” to describe them), who lived in the shadows and on the margins of Greek Society and were absorbed by the shadow-economy, by those branches of the economy that are not strictly regulated, but also by Greek Society at large. During the two great, praiseworthy and relatively successful opportunities offered by the Greek Government for regularisation, approximately 600,000 individuals responded. There is still, however, a significant alien population in our country, the size of which is difficult to estimate, that for various reasons was unable, or did not want, to take advantage of the opportunities provided, and continues to live in an irregular status. To these one must add all those who in tens and hundreds succeed in illegally entering our Country from the North and the East and in by-passing the legal entry procedures. To a great extent these migrants, among whom should be included many who have the right to seek asylum, were forced to seek the services of “smugglers of misery” traffickers and slave-traders, who, organised in international networks, carry on without any scruples, their new high profit, low risk occupation. It appears that these networks are successful for many reasons, since despite the strict control measures taken by the Schengan signatory countries, official estimates raise the number of illegal migrants entering the European Union each year to 500,000 in comparison to the 680,000 migrants who enter Europe legally. It is not an exaggeration for one to claim that today there is no country in the European Union that does not host irregular migrants. Europe today, appears to live in a vicious circle: The stricter border controls become, the more the number of potential migrants or asylum seekers recoursing to the services of the trafficking networks or the slave-traders increases. And the greater the number of migrants succeeding in by-passing the existing barriers and controls, the harsher the control-measures become. The victims in these circumstances are the real refugees who have difficulty and at times are even deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to petition for asylum and protection -- a basic right guaranteed them by international treaties; those who surrender their property and heirlooms and who indenture themselves, possibly for life, to slave-traders; and of course all those who lose their lives in their attempt to reach the Promised Land. During the past decade more than 3,000 such instances have been recorded in which lives were lost in attempting illegal entry into Europe, while no one can ascertain just how many such case remain unrecorded.
Therefore it is in no way strange that the theme of today’s Conference is the issue that today, in one way or another, takes up the attention of all of European Society. It engaged the attention of the Spanish Presidency; it occupies the attention of the present Danish Presidency, and it is most certain to be bequeathed to, and be seriously dealt with by, the Greek Presidency.
We of course are concerned with the matter as a Church. And as a Church it is our duty to remind those who draw up policies and determine the fate of people, of certain beliefs and values, upon which the spiritual history, the cultural identity and, as we would like to believe, the future of Europe are based. In this particular instance those values that concern us are: our perception of who man and his society are, and our understanding and attitude towards the “stranger”.
As concerns our stand or behaviour towards the stranger, we here in the Southeast corner of Europe are defined by a dual heritage: our legacy from Ancient Greece and that bequeathed to us by our Christian faith.
Greek civilization is famous for its behaviour toward the stranger and the asylum seeker, and its understanding of hospitality and asylum. The stranger is a friend and the asylum seeker or “suppliant” a sacred person. The stranger or xenos is protected by “xenios i.e hospitable Zeus” and the asylum seeker or “hiketes” by “hikesios Zeus” or “Zeus protector of suppliants and receiver of supplications”. The sacredness of the stranger was further strengthened by the ancient Greek belief that the gods often wandered through the cities in the form of a stranger in order to discern for themselves in which of these just administration and piety held sway and in which of these “hybris” and impiety were dominant. Law even foresaw the persecution of those citizens who dared to transgress the sacred obligation of hospitality and asylum: hence the well-known “court trials for bad hospitality”.
Our Christian heritage is even more radical. Christ was born as a refugee, He lived as a stranger, and He taught us, through His Parable of the Good Samaritan, to love our neighbour, who is identified with the stranger. He assured us, through His description of the Last Judgment, that our stand towards the stranger is of decisive importance in determining our justification and salvation. In Christianity the stranger is not merely placed under God’s protection, as was the case in the ancient Greek religion where he was entrusted to the care of “hospitable Zeus”: in Christianity God Himself is identified with the person of the stranger! “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25,35); “as you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it to me” (Matth. 25,40). And Christ of course makes no distinctions in his defining of a stranger. A stranger, one’s neighbour, is not only one’s co-religionist or one who shares the same blood; neither is he only a compatriot, one who shares a similar ideology, or someone with whom he is “familiar”; he could also be one who is totally different from us: who confesses different religious beliefs and belongs to a different faith, adheres to a different ideology, has a different skin colour and is of a different Nationality. Towards all these, a Christian owes respect for their persons, acceptance of their diversity, and acknowledgment of their equal honour and worth. For, as an anonymous commentator on Leveticus (19, 33-34) states: The Christian faith does not allow a man to be disparaged or dishonoured because of his origin, but rather insists that he be honoured because of his human nature. Christians should never forget the words of Christ, that we are not His only “sheep”, and that there are others, which “are not of this fold” (John 10,16), and therefore it is quite possible and natural that are different from us.
These principles and values are extremely important in carrying on our diaconia towards migrants and refugees, especially today, when our societies and the political parties quarrel over which migration policies are to be implemented today, especially after the tragic events of September 11 and the increasing problem of international terrorism. Those responsible for our security and our freedom, have, in their efforts to combat terrorism, international organised crime, trafficking, sexual and other abuses of women and children—crimes that have to be combated and, if possible, eliminated—turned their attention mainly to imposing controlling measures and restrictions. Without having any intention to contravene in the distinctive roles between Church and State, please allow us simply to refer to our experiences from the exercise of our diaconia: This experience is teaching us that the present policy of “zero migration” and of closed boarders, can neither combat the causes of migration nor limit migration as a social phenomenon per se. Present policies have contributed to changing migration into “illegal migration” and have provided ground for the appearance and activities of traffickers. They have rendered the migrants more vulnerable and have pushed them into the nets of international organised crime. They have cultivated among our fellow citizens the misconception that every migrant is a criminal, thereby fostering feelings of xenophobia and racism—fortunately for our country without violent racist acts. Present policies threaten the social cohesion of our societies and develop a class of people who are condemned to live in its shadow, who have no opportunities to exercise their human rights, and who see their human dignity daily deteriorating, their hopes for improving their lives through migration failing, and the migratory path upon which they embarked in order to fulfill their life’s dreams and to live in a civilized and Christian Europe and participate in the valuable goods of freedom, equality and justice, terminating at the police detention centers.
Since I am quite sure that nobody is happy with this situation, and even more so those who are involved in making decisions concerning such policy and especially those who are obliged to implement it,
Since all these restrictive measures place all of us who labour within the Church before dilemmas and lead us into a conflict of duties, since our faith obliges us to offer help to all those in need, and consequently to illegal migrants; by so doing, however, we violate the law. Thus, our duty to God which, for us who believe, cannot be negotiated, and our duty to respect the law as law-abiding citizens, as we also wish to be, come into conflict.
Lastly, since we desire to live in a society that guarantees and offers the preconditions for a peaceful and secure life:
As a Church Leader I should like to put before the Greek Government two requests, to which our Church attaches great importance, with the appeal that, should it consider it expedient, it promote them during the Greek Presidency, which presidency I pray will be successful as far as this is possible, given the existing political climate and tensions at present in Europe.
The first request is that the Greek presidency bring about a balance in European policy on immigration and asylum. By so requesting it is not our intention to underestimate or dispute the expediency and the usefulness of border controls. We agree that the European Union should be in a position to control the inflow of migrants. We understand that the Council is justified in considering the effective control of its external borders to be of paramount importance. We share its concerns over the increase of slave trading and organised crime, causing many to lose their lives and leading many more to dependency and to new forms of slavery. We interpret the fact that at Leaken and Seville the Council of Europe focused its attention and interest chiefly on the combating of illegal immigration and human trafficking in order to give further impetus to the creation of a space for freedom, security and justice in Europe. It is precisely for this reason that we would like to see Europe follow a more comprehensive, realistic and integrated immigration policy. A policy that does not lose sight of the causes that force people to abandon their homes, friends and family and to flee in search of safety for their lives and a way in which to secure the basic needs for their survival in foreign, and sometimes, inhospitable countries. A policy that doesn’t neglect the obligation to provide social and economic integration, to guarantee basic rights and to ensure mental balance and well-being for those migrants from countries of the Third World who already reside in the European Union. A policy finally, that takes into consideration the fact that at this very moment there are hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are scattered throughout every country in the European Union and live under a status described by law as being illegal.
As a Church we believe that it is both possible and necessary that the European Union find an opportunity to ensure that these people finally gain the right to live with dignity and honour like free and law-abiding citizens in a free and justly governed country. The common immigration policy of Europe now being shaped should be worthy of the cultural and Christian history of our continent, a continent that pioneered in the formation of spiritual civilization and provided the world with the definition and the value of humanism. It should also agree with the vision that we all have for the future of Europe.
The second request is related to the subject currently being discussed regarding the reunion of families of immigrants from third world countries legally residing in the European Union. For us as a Church, the family is of central significance because it is the cradle of life. Moreover, our society, like other societies of the European South and of the Balkans, attaches great significance to the institution and to the life of the family. For the migrant, the presence of his family has a huge significance. It is considered his moral support and possibly the only effective measure for preventing possible undisciplined behaviour. Even more important is the reunion of families, especially when there are children. Adults have the maturity and strength to hide their feelings and wait. The same does not hold true for little children. A great responsibility weighs upon the lawmaker when he decides, for example, that a minor child must wait five years—a quarter of his childhood—before he can be reunited with his family and once again live with his parents. The Intergration Centre for Migrant Workers (KSPM) of our Church has faced many family dramas and situations where serious psychological wounds had been inflicted upon Greek migrants families from Germany when circumstances necessitated that the children be separated from their parents. Many of these wounds have never healed. Our request is the waiting period for children be reduced a much as acceptably possible.
Allow me to finish with a more general appeal. We are discussing the issue of emigration at a time when sustained unemployment, social and economic exclusion, poverty and organised crime are terrifying the societies of Europe and evoking every kind of racist and xenophobic reaction against foreigners. Even in countries, such as ours, noted for their hospitable feelings, disturbing elements of xenophobic reaction are making their appearance. Our cultural heritage imposes upon us the obligation to provide an effective legal and institutional framework for protecting the fundamental rights of foreigners. However, the legal and institutional regulations, no matter how significant they might be for the foreigners’ induction into society, are but only one of the presuppositions and factors for induction. For the effective combating of discrimination against foreigners and for their dynamic social-economic incorporation into the society in which they have chosen to live, beyond legal measures the broad consent, agreement and co-operation of civil society are also necessary. The local self-government, the social partners, the non-governmental organisations, the initiative of the citizens and most especially the church parishes should join together in a common effort and in an extraordinary but also critical collaboration with the institutional organs of the State and of the European Union, in order to withstand racism emerging in its various forms and to contribute to the creation of those presuppositions necessary for the decent and creative induction of foreigners, from which our society will certainly benefit.