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The Changing Ecclesial Context: Impact of Migration on Living Together

16 April 2008

 Public Statement

of the

World Council of Churches and Middle East Council of Churches

Public Hearing

Armenian Catholicossate of the Holy See of Cilicia - Antelias
Beirut, Lebanon: 14 - 16 April 2008-04-15


Migration is a fact of life. It is as much an instinct to survive as it is an inevitable consequence of globalisation. We can neither turn our backs on it, nor control it. It will have decisive consequences for the world as we know it and a massive impact on the church and the ecumenical movement both at the local, regional and global levels. We need not, however, react with hysteria and fear. Migration is as much a part of who we are as it is a part of the history that has shaped us.

However, if states continue to speak only of ‘migration' and not ‘migrants', then migrants will continue to be exploited as nothing more than cheap labour for factories or slave labour for construction sites. If populist politicians and media outlets continue to brand migrants and refugees as ‘illegals', ‘aliens', ‘queue jumpers' and ‘bogus' asylum seekers, then migrants will continue to suffer from the racist, discriminatory and xenophobic undercurrents in every society. If we as churches only see migrants as victims, then we undermine their strengths and their resilience. If source countries only consider emigration as a loss - a brain drain - then migrants will be discouraged from returning and the potential ‘brain gain' will be lost.

Lebanese representatives stressed the fact that the migration of Lebanon's youth affects all Lebanese people and that to address the phenomena of Lebanon's loss of educated youth, all facets of Lebanese society must come together to share their perspectives and articulate a vision for the future of Lebanon.

A reoccurring theme throughout the Hearing, and one that was keenly felt, was the impact of migration on the Christian presence in the Middle East.

Much of the public debate about migration is couched in terminology which is loaded and derogatory. People trying to enter another country are vilified as "illegal immigrants", "gate-crashers", "queue-jumpers", and even as "invaders" seeking to breach the defences of a country with malicious intent. The clear implication is that they are "abusing the system" and "exploiting our generosity" and ought to be punished and deterred, with strong-armed politicians leading the public charge. But they also create the impression that migrants have no right to enter, and indeed, no rights at all, justifying harsh detention centres, deportations and the like. Adding to this, the September 11 attacks in the USA not only encouraged the demonising of migrants by labelling them as security threats, but also made it less likely that people will stick their neck out to defend migrants. Yet this demonisation and scaremongering only perpetuates a vicious cycle, driving migrants back into their communities for protection, and making it harder for them to integrate.

Given their precarious legal position in the host country, irregular migrant workers easily fall prey to extortion and are highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by unscrupulous employers, migration agents and labour brokers, corrupt bureaucrats and even criminal gangs. Those committing such abuses - including human traffickers, sweat shop and brothel owners - know that they will rarely be held to account as irregular migrants fear drawing official attention to themselves, as they may risk arrest or deportation, and are thus reluctant to turn to the authorities to enforce respect for their rights. Indeed, it is the very fact that irregular migrants are vulnerable and that perpetrators are unlikely to be held accountable that allows, and even encourages, the crime and corruption states wish to combat. The same crimes that are so commonly blamed on the presence of ‘foreigners'.

While we continue to only see the impact of migration in narrow terms, we will fail to come to grips with the economic potential of migrants; the role remittances play in supporting families, stabilising countries during emergencies, and providing the vital capital needed for developing economies.

Beyond hospitality, however, the churches must be a strong advocate and defender of the rights of people to move freely within their own nations and when driven by poverty, insecurity and persecution, to leave their homes in search of their God given right to life with dignity.

The church has a responsibility to ensure that public opinion is properly informed on the root causes of migration and the factors that force people to leave their homes. We must confront racism, discrimination and xenophobia wherever and whenever it manifests itself; in churches, in our communities and our nations.

Migrants are not commodities, illegal aliens or mere victims. They are human beings. Migrant rights are human rights. We must respect the human dignity of every migrant and give holistic consideration to their needs, their strengths and the economic, social and cultural contributions they make to society. Above all, we must stand in solidarity with migrants and migrant churches, accompany them and include them in the decision-making that effects and governs their lives.

Throughout this Hearing, participants were challenged by the complexities and sheer scale of migration, but they were heartened by the good will and common goals shared by Christian and Muslim leaders, and Lebanon's Islamic and Christian communities. We call upon the churches to not only recognise the need to collaborate with other faiths, but were challenged to deepen and strengthen inter-faith dialogue and cooperation on migration.

The Public Hearing, which was hosted by the Middle East Council of Churches, brought together the World Council of Churches, Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe, the All Africa Conference of Churches, the Christian Conference of Asia, the National Council of Churches in Australia, the Initiative for Justice and Peace, CAIROS, Canada, and representatives from Church World Service, Church of Sweden, Christian World Service Australia. Open to the public it drew participation from young Christians in the Middle East, researchers, professors from the Middle Eastern University, politicians and diplomats, civil society and community organisations. 

The Public Hearing on Migration and the Changing Ecclesial Landscape in Beirut, Lebanon, was the first of eight hearings on the Migration, which will take place over the next few years in different regions of the world. It was followed by a two-day meeting of the Global Ecumenical Network on Migration, which brings together regional ecumenical organisations, churches and Christian humanitarian organisations working on migration issues around the globe.