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Resolution on uprooted people

Document No. PI 4

06 February 2001

World Council of Churches
Potsdam, Germany
29 January - 6 February 2001


The WCC Central Committee adopted a major policy statement on uprooted people in 1995, emphasizing the increasingly grave plight of refugees and migrants in a time of escalating conflicts around the world. Over the past five years the situation has become much worse still. The pressures of globalization and the persistence of intractable conflicts are leading ever more people to leave their communities or their countries. Of the 150 million people living outside their country of origin, only about 17 million are recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or by the UN Relief and Works Administration for Palestinian refugees. In fact, the number of recognized refugees has slightly declined in the past five years. However the number of people displaced within the borders of their own countries has increased dramatically as governments make it more difficult for refugees to find safety in other countries. Presently they number close to 35 million.

In every region around the world, racism and xenophobia are on the rise. Refugees and migrants are viewed more as threats than as human beings in need and are used as scapegoats by political leaders under pressure to protect jobs and national economies. Uprooted people often find borders closed when they manage to get to them, and are frequently expelled if they succeed in crossing them. Governments in all regions are increasingly putting asylum-seekers into detention, or prison, as a way of deterring others from coming. People who are desperate to leave their countries are victimized by traffickers and migrants are increasingly treated as criminals.

Assistance to refugees
Uprooted people very often turn to the churches for assistance, as they have for centuries. For more than six decades the World Council of Churches has provided a focal point for the churches' response. Even before its formation in 1948 churches related to the WCC (in process of formation) worked together to help refugees escape German-Occupied Europe. Later, they played leadership roles in seeking solutions for those displaced in the aftermath of World War II and the 1948 war in Palestine. They advocated for the creation of and cooperated closely with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). By the late 1960s, WCC member churches responded to refugee crises throughout Africa as wars for independence and political conflicts generated new refugee flows. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the globalization of the refugee phenomena, with massive refugee outflows from Afghanistan, Indochina, Sri Lanka, Latin America and the Caribbean. In the 1990s, conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and later in Chechnya, made it clear that refugee issues in Europe were far from solved. In all of these cases, many churches responded generously and often courageously to the needs of refugees. In these cases, as it did from the beginning, WCC's service with uprooted people included a strong advocacy component.

Internally displaced people
At the same time, churches began to realize that the problems of displacement went far beyond traditional concerns for refugees. Growing numbers of people were uprooted because of violence but unable to leave their countries. They fled for the same reasons as refugees and often had greater protection and assistance needs, but there was no international institution like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to whom they could appeal for help. It was the WCC, in cooperation with the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), that first placed the issue of internally displaced people on the international agenda by documenting their needs to the UN Human Rights Commission.

The needs of migrants, most leaving their countries for "voluntary" economic reasons, were always considered differently from those of refugees fleeing persecution. Yet in a globalizing world of increasing inequality, growing numbers of marginalized people simply can no longer survive in their home countries. While international law draws a clear distinction between refugees, migrants, internally displaced people and returnees, the churches' mandate is to reach out to all those in need. Thus in its 1995 statement the WCC referred to "uprooted people" to encompass everyone forced to leave their communities, regardless of the labels they are given by the international community.

At the international level, international protection standards are under attack on many fronts:

  • Governments seeking to restrict the number of asylum-seekers arriving at their borders apply increasingly narrow interpretations of the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees and its 1967 protocol. Some maintain that asylum can only be granted to individuals who are persecuted by their own states, rejecting those persecuted by non-state actors or who live in a country without a functioning state.
  • While some governments have found that women persecuted because of their gender have legitimate asylum claims, others do not acknowledge gender-based persecution as grounds for asylum.
  • Under the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, decisions on the granting of asylum should be made on a case-by-case basis, but many governments now routinely exclude whole classes of individuals from asylum procedures. Some governments have questioned the widely-accepted right to family reunification, the right of recognized refugees to be joined by their families.
  • More and more governments argue that the Convention itself needs re-examination in light of increasing migration flows, leading to fears that international standards will be further weakened.
  • The UNHCR is under mounting financial pressures that threaten its ability to fulfill its mandate, and some governments tend now to turn to other actors to perform lead roles in humanitarian emergencies resulting in massive displacement of persons.
  • Despite more than 13 years of efforts, emerging international standards for the protection of internally displaced people do not yet have official UN sanction nor are they implemented in practice.
  • Ten years after its adoption by the UN General Assembly, the number of ratifications necessary to bring the 1990 International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families into force has not been achieved, and not a single country which hosts large numbers of migrants has even signed the Convention.

Other general trends regarding uprooted people are matters of serious concern:

  • Growing expressions of xenophobic and racial violence against refugees and migrants in many countries
  • Increasing tendencies to consider migrants as criminals, rather than as victims of internationally organized traffickers in human beings.
  • Declining financial assistance from government and, church-related agencies to ecumenical and church-related ministries to uprooted people in the most affected regions of the world.

Convinced that the churches can and must support international initiatives underway to arrest these trends and to intensify their own ministries with uprooted people along the lines of the WCC 1995 policy statement:

The Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Berlin, Germany, 26-27 January 2001, Recalling and reaffirming the 1995 Statement of the Central Committee, A Moment to Choose: Risking to Be with Uprooted People;

Recognizing the growing complexity and severity of the situation confronted by uprooted people and by the churches seeking to accompany them;

Mindful of the importance of international legal standards for the protection and assistance for all uprooted people in need;

Aware of the serious and growing unmet protection needs for refugees, internally displaced people and migrants

Conscious of the growing racist and xenophobic climate in many countries of the world, and

Commending the actions of churches in many countries in solidarity with victims of acts of aggression against foreigners and their efforts to create a climate of hospitality for uprooted people

Reaffirms ministry to uprooted people as a central biblical mandate for the churches;

Renews its call upon the churches in all regions to offer support, solidarity and accompaniment to those who have been forced to leave their communities, and to strengthen their own churches' and ecumenical ministries with uprooted people;

Welcomes and reaffirms the Executive Committee's statement of September 2000 on the 50th Anniversary of UNHCR supporting its central mandate of protection;

Urges church and church-related agencies to review and increase their financial support for ecumenical work with uprooted people, especially in the most affected regions;

Encourages the churches to strengthen or to undertake advocacy with their own governments, with relevant regional inter-governmental bodies and with international bodies on behalf of refugees, migrants and internally displaced people, particularly with regard to:

  • provision of adequate financial and political support to UNHCR and UNRWA;
  • the Global Consultations on Refugee Protection organized by UNHCR, reaffirming the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and an interpretation of the Convention which includes recognition of non-state actors as agents of persecution, gender-based persecution as grounds for asylum, strictly limited policies of exclusion, and the right of refugees to family reunification;
  • international discussions on the protection and assistance of internally displaced people, urging the Inter-agency Standing Committee to develop effective coordinating mechanisms, and supporting the UN's Senior Inter-Agency Network on Internal Displacement;
  • the 1990 International Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families, urging their governments to sign and ratify this convention as soon as possible and to use it to raise awareness about the particular needs of migrants in their communities;
  • the World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, advocating with their governments and in the UN preparatory process that the Conference address the particular abuses of migrants.