Food distribution in the refugee camp “The Jungle”, in Calais, France (December 2015). ©Sean Hawkey/WCC 

Food distribution in the refugee camp “The Jungle”, in Calais, France (December 2015). ©Sean Hawkey/WCC 

On 5 July, the first Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrived legally in France from Lebanon in what marks an expansion of the Humanitarian Corridors project founded by by the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI), the Sant’Egidio religious community and the Italian government.

Sixteen refugees - including four families, a disabled adult and three very young children - flew via Air France and were granted an asylum-seeker visa by the French embassy. Most come originally from Homs, a Syrian town now reduced to rubble, according to the Protestant Federation of France.

Other refugees are from Beirut and Ninawa. After arriving in France, they will be hosted by families in various towns, and particularly Nimes and Le Mans. Their arrival follows the signing of a protocol on 14 March between the French minister of the interior and minister for foreign affairs, with the Community of Sant’Egidio, Protestant Federation of France, Federation of Protestant diaconia, French Roman Catholic Bishops’ conference and Secours Catholique-Caritas France.

The protocol sets out the conditions to identify, receive, accommodate and integrate in France 500 people during the 18 months from the date of its signing. Priority is given to the most vulnerable people such as single women, pregnant women, families with young children, very elderly people, single parent families, people suffering from mental or physical illnesses, and people who have been victims of torture or of psychological, physical or sexual violence.

“As we seek to work together across Europe and in the whole world to change hearts, minds and policies on issues to do with migration, the Humanitarian Corridors project is an important part of our work together,” said Jane Stranz, coordinator of ecumenical relations for the Protestant Federation of France.

In Italy, 850 stories to be told

Just one day earlier, a similar reception occurred in Italy when, on 4 July, a group of 52 refugees reached Italy from Lebanon, also thanks to the Humanitarian Corridors project. Half of them were children, mostly from Syria, some with serious health conditions.

An ecumenical team from the FCEI, Sant’Egidio and the Waldensian Board was on hand to welcome them at the Rome airport.

Refugees have been arriving through Humanitarian Corridors in Italy from the 4 February 2016, and they now number 850. Manuela Vinay, who represented the Protestant Churches, welcomed the newly arriving families.

“I invite you all to open yourselves and share your stories without fear: here is a meeting between peoples and generations. Welcome to everyone of you! There are now 850 stories to be told,” said Vinay.

Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Community of Sant’Egidio said: “We are happy to give you the possibility of a future of hope: you are receiving this first welcome full of affection with the perspective of integration. You are our fellow citizens under every respect. You children must know that our schools are already waiting for you.”

The FCEI commended the start of the French Humanitarian Corridors project as an important practice that should be replicated across the world.

FCEI president Luca Maria Negro said: “For us this is an important goal. France is the first European country to follow the Italian example, a good practice brought forward in an ecumenical way, where Protestants and Catholics work together to welcome people who lost everything because of war and persecution.”

An appeal to open safe passages

In an open letter released 3 July, the FCEI expressed concern that, even as churches actively open their doors and hearts to refugees, they do so in a social atmosphere of increasing tension and distrust.

“As elsewhere, in Italy, too, those who assist the migrants are accused of betraying the national interest in a period of persisting economic crisis and unemployment,” reads the letter. “To be effective in our ministry for the migrants, in fact, we need to halt the waves of nationalistic xenophobia poisoning our political debate.”

The letter appeals for a comprehensive reconsideration of the criteria for the humanitarian protection of the victims of the climate change, human trafficking and religious intolerance.

“Considering the Italian experience of the Humanitarian Corridors, lobby to open safe passages to your countries for migrants in situations of danger and vulnerability who deserve international protection and priority ways of access,” the letter reads.

First of 1,000 refugees arrive in Italy through “Humanitarian Corridors” project (WCC press release of 9 February 2016)

Italian Christians establish safe Mediterranean passageways for refugees (WCC press release of 17 December 2015)