The Swiss Bishops’ Conference, a member of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), has joined with other faith leaders in Switzerland in calling for increased support for and protection of refugees.
The Swiss Council of Religions issued a joint declaration on refugees on 7 November. In the document, the first of its kind in the country, the Council urges both political authorities and religious communities to step up efforts to protect people uprooted by persecution and armed conflict.
The Catholic bishops join Jewish, Muslim, Old Catholic and Protestant leaders to call for action in five areas: increased protection in countries of refuge; resettlement and other legal admission pathways such as humanitarian visas for vulnerable refugees; fair and efficient asylum procedures; participatory integration; and returns in dignity.
They outline practical steps to meet the commitments of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, ratified by Switzerland in 1955. They also advocate for a more humane approach to uprooted people, anchored in universal values of human dignity and community.
Over 18,000 people – more than a third of them children – sought asylum in Switzerland in 2017, a country of 8.42 million inhabitants. More than 65 percent of applications were rejected; of these almost two-thirds were granted temporary admission because a forcible return to the country of origin was prevented for legal, humanitarian or technical reasons.
Refugee organizations in Switzerland have voiced particular concern about the country’s strict application of the Dublin accords, which establish asylum procedures among 32 European states. They note that the regulations are being used to refuse asylum and return many vulnerable uprooted people to neighboring countries like Italy even though they were never registered there.
Under the motto “Across from you there is always a human being,” the religious leaders call on political authorities, members of their faith communities and also refugees to ensure that none lose sight of the humanity of the people they encounter.
That solidarity with refugees already exists in Swiss society is apparent through the many groups, from the local to the national, advocating for fair policies, promoting inclusion and working to counter anti-migrant attitudes. The appeal highlights the essential and unique role that faith communities in particular can and do play to protect and serve refugees, such as through initiatives supporting resettlement and integration.
“For Jews, Christians and Muslims, every human being is a creation of God and is placed under God’s protection. For us as believers there follows a particular responsibility with regard to refugees,” said the Swiss Council of Religions president, Bishop Harald Rein.
The religious leaders invite their respective faith communities to work at building acceptance for resettlement programs. They note that these can serve as a durable solution and public policy instrument for refugees who cannot return to their home country or remain in the place in which they have sought refuge.
The Swiss Council of Religions also urges increased involvement in welcoming newcomers and easing the path of integration at multiple levels – social, cultural, professional – through existing or new initiatives. Experience has shown that the support faith communities can offer refugees through solidarity groups at the local level is crucial to adapting to daily life in a new community, such as help to learn the local language or find a job.
The declaration focuses on many of ICMC’s objectives in Europe. Through its SHARE Network, ICMC promotes actions to facilitate each step of resettlement, starting with pre-arrival planning. The SHARE Network advocates for complementary pathways for resettlement and integration of refugees at the local level. Since 2018, the SHARE Integration project networks local actors in nine European countries to facilitate integration into smaller communities.
Communities are called upon to advocate for policies and procedures that protect refugees’ rights and well-being. The appeal lifts issues of family reunification, support for legal assistance and non-refoulement, or respecting refugees’ right not to be sent back to a country where they would be in danger of persecution or other human rights abuses. The religious leaders underline the need to consider the particular vulnerability of children, including unaccompanied minors.
Further, the appeal calls for support of protection efforts in countries of refuge, noting that many are run by faith-based organizations or have emerged from such initiatives.
The UN Agency for Refugees welcomed the “unprecedented appeal,” which builds on the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Faith and Protection launched in 2012 and is the fruit of collaboration between the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and faith communities in Switzerland.
The interreligious declaration “is a true pioneer project, which we hope will set a precedent for other countries,” said Anja Klug, UNHCR representative for Switzerland and Liechtenstein.