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A new element in migration for churches to deal with

As issues around migration, both voluntary and forced, become more complex, the efforts of churches are becoming increasingly critical to the survival of refugees worldwide, participants at a global church gathering have heard.

"We know the long-term solution is peace and stability, so that people can be taken care of in their own homelands," said Georges Mourad of Lebanon. "But that solution is nowhere in the future I see," he told a panel of migration experts at a 15 February side meeting connected to the ninth assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

And displacement brought on not by wars and famines, traditionally thought of as the main causes of migration, but by the economic effects of globalisation and the political effects of the "war on terror" has created a whole new international phenomenon: detention.

"What does it say about us that we imprison people who have done nothing criminal, but were only caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?" said Torsten Moritz of the Brussels-based Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe.

The numbers cited are staggering. More than 10 million in the Middle East, several million more in Africa, and on any given day in the United States, said Jennifer Riggs of the US-based aid and development group Church World Service, more than 20 000 non-criminals who are asylum-seekers are in detention.

And these are not short-term detainees, Riggs noted, "More than 7 million detained migrants have been held 10 years or longer."

Because in many places churches have the most ready access to detained migrants, their advocacy for more humane treatment and immigration policy reform is the best hope for change, panellists agreed.

Church World Service is providing extensive health care for Afghan refugees in Pakistan and post-primary education for African refugees in Tanzania, Riggs said.

Conditions for detained refugees in England are eased primarily by churches, which are allowed access to provide "pastoral care", explained Naboth Muchopa, secretary for racial justice for the Methodist Church of Great Britain.

And in Australia, where detainees are kept in facilities on remote islands far off the coast, said John Ball, churches are using email networks to maintain contact with refugees and government immigration officials. Even more importantly, he added, those churches are networking for political advocacy "that is shifting one of the harshest immigration policies in the world".

(c) Ecumenical News International