Speech at 2017 Exchange on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue

The theme of the Exchange: Migrants and refugees: challenges and opportunities – The response of religious and non-religious groups
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Discussion paper on religion and migration prepared by the Office of the Special Representative

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Despite migration being in the spotlight for the last three years, a sustainable solution is not yet on the horizon. European governments and public opinion alike have been divided into providing unrelenting efforts for the reception and integration of arriving populations and into voicing fears about their alleged civilizational differences. The religion of migrants and refugees has often been used as an argument for or against their seamless integration into host societies. Religion, which is generally perceived in Europe as a private matter, suddenly became a factor tailoring states’ migration policy.

A short overview in migration and refugee studies shows that religion and migration are linked in many ways. The one I just described reflects probably a very simplistic, but very popular perception of an uninformed public opinion. This year’s exchange on the religious dimension of the intercultural dialogue most certainly wishes to expand the understanding on religion and migration and to host debates and discussions on its sensitive aspects. Migration on its own is a sensitive issue; a discussion on migration and religion is without any doubt even more delicate. Why is that so?

A connection between religion and migration is already to be seen in the country of origin.  It could be that people leave their country of origin because they are persecuted for their faith or belief. History, as well as the present day, provides multiple examples in all parts of the world.  However, there is little information available on the number of persons who left their country due to religious persecution alone.

In the arrival and/or host country, religion is just as important. This is confirmed by its presence in the public and political discourses concerning refugees and migrants. Religion has been a powerful motivation for charity and compassion, but has also been used to justify xenophobia towards migrants and refugees. This has inevitably influenced the host state’s migration policy. In addition to entry quotas, in terms of integration, states have had to balance between silencing and accommodating the religious identity of newcomers.   

Another important connection is the religious identity of migrants and refugees. Their spirituality may be essential to help them cope with the difficulties associated with migration, difficulties such as violence, exploitation, hunger, ill-treatment, discrimination. Religion and spirituality may provide the means to build resilience and to reduce anxiety, may connect to similar socio-religious groups. However, if the host country pursues an assimilation policy, migrants and refugees with strongly held beliefs may find adaption more difficult. In any event, migrants’ experiences are mostly unique; their engagement with religion may be just as individual. For this reason, addressing migrants and refugees with assumptions related to their religious identity, may be too simplistic.

One should neither lose sight of the religious identity or motivation of those working with migrants and refugees. In this context, it is important to note the expansion in the past decade of faith-based responses to forced displacement and migration. Although extremely diverse, the teachings of major religions have many commonalities with respect to charity and assistance to those in need.

The increasing presence of faith-based actors in this field has brought back into discussion the universality of humanitarian principles; it has questioned the place of religion in and the religion‑blind assumptions about humanitarian aid.   

All the points I raised above are reflected in the discussion paper presented to you. Although the paper also presents critical opinions, I am convinced this exchange will reveal many examples that contradict those criticisms and apprehensions and will encourage a genuine debate on religion and migration.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I believe the different ways in which religion and migration connect offer substantial food for thought and for discussion. In particular, I find this exchange to be a good forum to discuss how faith-based organisations work with migrants and refugees, how they interact with states and with secular organisations.

I think it is a wonderful occasion to see ways in which faith-based organisations and non-religious organisations can work better together, how they can learn from each other and how they can jointly promote mutual respect and anti-discrimination. How they can work together to change the existing apprehension in respect of migrants and refugees and to shape migration policies in the respect of human rights and human dignity. And not the least, how to find the middle ground between emphasizing or silencing the religious identity of migrants and refugees, and the balance between freedom of religion or belief and integration or living together.

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