Speech at the High-level seminar Freedom of Religion in Europe: achievements and perspectives

2nd session Freedom of Religion, Migrants and Refugees
Strasbourg 28 April 2017
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Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

The mass arrival of refugees and migrants in Europe has proved to be one of the most serious humanitarian issues of our times. It has ranked high on Europe’s political agendas in the last couple of years, often labelled as “the refugee and migration crisis”.

Each time I hear this phrase, I ask myself, do we mean a crisis for Europe, a crisis experienced by the people fleeing wars and conflict, or a crisis of values?

I will come back to this question in a little while, but please allow me to first reflect a little on the genesis of international human rights law.

It is important to recall that throughout human history millions of people have been killed, tortured and persecuted simply because of their religious beliefs. The atrocities of the 2nd World War, in particular the Holocaust, have a great deal to do with religion. The Jewish population paid the highest price in this war. We also know that between 1933 and 1945, Jews sought refuge in other parts of the world.

The international human rights system that we know today was built against this horrible historic background. In 1951, sovereign states acknowledged a collective responsibility to help those fleeing persecution and agreed on the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

In 1953 the European Convention on Human Rights entered into force. Together with the European Court of Human Rights – where we gather today – they constitute the cornerstones of the European system of human rights protection.

The Convention prohibits discrimination in the enjoyment of the rights enshrined in it, on several grounds, including on grounds of religion. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a fundamental right which is guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Council of Europe member states have negative and positive obligations to secure this freedom to everyone in their jurisdiction, without discrimination.

Refugees and migrants are right holders, including of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The European Court of Human Rights underlines in its case law that this freedom is one of the foundations of a democratic society and that manifesting one’s religion is an essential part of that freedom.

The Court has recognised that states have obligations towards refugees and asylum-seekers under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to life – and Article 3 – prohibition of torture. In this context, protection is offered to those who, if returned to the country of origin or a third country, will be at real risk of death, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and arbitrary detention, also because of their religious beliefs and affiliations.

The Court has not ruled out the possibility that the responsibility of the returning state might be engaged under Article 9 of the ECHR where the person concerned ran a real risk of flagrant violation of freedom of religion in the receiving State.

These standards for the protection of freedom of religion should lie at the heart of migration management policies.

How is Europe doing in this respect?

Unfortunately, the securitarian approach to migration management prevails. Some European countries have responded to the mass arrivals of refugees and migrants with extreme measures such as border closures, pushbacks to countries where there are real risks of torture and inhuman treatment, automatic detention of refugees and migrants, collective expulsions without any assessment of their asylum claims or without consideration of the risks of being tortured or persecuted upon their return to transit or origin countries.

Let us state without ambiguity, these measures constitute regression from the international humanitarian standards, which the international community set in law at the beginning of the ‘50s.

The notion of crisis, combined with an accentuated sense of political urgency to protect national identity and national sovereignty, is often invoked to justify these measures. 

An adversarial, discriminatory and hateful political discourse towards refugees and migrants inspires and nurtures this approach. The refugees and migrants’ religion emerges as a key descriptor or characteristic in this context.

Extremist views, which are often voiced out much more loudly than others, increasingly create the image of the migrant being the enemy. The society is portrayed along the lines of us versus the others. Extremists stimulate societal fear and anxiety against those people who are in fact seeking international protection. Islam is often singled out in this fear mongering atmosphere.

Fear feeds hate and hate in turn feeds xenophobia. The impact is felt in elections, whether local or national. Even mainstream parties or moderate candidates no longer refrain from using the language of populists to win votes, using migrants as scapegoats for societal problems.

We sadly see that some parts of our societies surrender to this fear. In the end, the same fear manifests itself through antisemitic and Islamophobic acts.

These issues are crucial to the values of democratic societies that we cherish here in the Council of Europe. Personally, in several instances I doubt whether we are respecting the principle that the European Court of Human Rights has set – that is that freedom of religion is a foundation of democratic society.

The phenomenon of normalisation of fear against refugees and migrants is also quite visible in the public sphere. The image of migrants as a threat to security or the European way of living is often propagated, both in traditional media and social media. In these cases, religion is used to identify migrants as potential terrorists.

In spite of all the negative portrayals, some pictures do lay out the stark reality and raise citizens’ awareness about the rights of refugees and migrants. The picture of a Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a shore in Turkey in September 2015 has deeply touched us, reminding us of our moral obligations and legal responsibilities of states to migrants.

Migration is about people. Unfortunately, it has now become entangled with the security concerns and in the minds of the public at large it is dissociated from humanitarian concerns. That is why we should approach migration from a humanitarian perspective before it is too late.

Rather than seeing it as a challenge or a problem, migration should be considered as way to bring cultures and religions into contact with each other. This requires dialogue, mutual recognition and inter-cultural communication.

We need to provide the tools necessary for the rapprochement of peoples and cultures. We need to put effort into living in a diverse society, which is not possible without acceptance of our differences. And we also need good examples.

While underlining the importance of respecting all religions and religious beliefs, we should take a firm stance against exclusiveness of any beliefs, counter hate speech, incitement to violence and radicalisation.

Effective integration policies are our only solution. I have drawn attention to integration issues extensively in my reports from my fact-finding missions.

Integration is not simply an act of making a group of people fit into a new society. In fact, it is an interactive process of mutual respect, willingness and adaptation of both migrants and the receiving societies.  Integration strategies should take this important factor into account.

The preparation of the Council of Europe Action Plan on Protection Refugee and Migrant Children in Europe 2017-2019, which I have been coordinating in the last couple of months, places an important emphasis on integration. A range of measures are foreseen to ensure that these children and young people are educated, trained and that they have opportunities to participate in inclusive societies, through sports, media and in other relevant ways.

Coming back to my initial question on what kind of crisis are we experiencing.

I hope the reflections I have shared with you today point out clearly that the situation we are living is critical not only for the people who are escaping conflict and wars and seeking refuge in Europe.

If we are not successful in our management of migration – and here make no mistake, migration cannot be stopped it can only be managed – if we are not successful in our integration strategies, an essential part of which is the exercise and enjoyment of freedom of religion, our democratic societies will be soon experiencing another crisis.

I would, however, like to close this intervention on a positive note. I believe that the challenges we face are many, but they are not insurmountable. In the exercise of my special mandate in the Council of Europe I am guided by optimism in order to be able to make a meaningful contribution through my work.

In conclusion, I would like to thank the Permanent Representation of San Marino and especially Ambassador Guido Bellati Ceccoli, for having dedicated this seminar to freedom of religion about which we do not hear very often, but after such stimulating discussions today, we are reminded of its tremendous importance.

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