Community sponsorship has started to emerge across Europe to provide safe and legal ways for people in need of protection to enter Europe. One of the most successful models so far is the ‘Humanitarian Corridor’, started in Italy in 2015 and recently launched in France and Belgium.
One such community is Protestant Church-Museum in the heart of Brussels, the historical home of Protestantism in Belgium. The first publicly opened church for this long-persecuted minority faith, two plaques at its entrance testify to the many immigrants who found ‘refuge’ there—German, Swiss and English names on the Memorial to Victims of the Two World Wars and the name of Belgium’s first king—a Lutheran—on a Memorial to its Donors.
The parish continues to live its history of immigration and refuge by supporting refugee families like Salam, a Sunni refugee from Iraq who arrived in Belgium in 2015: ‘Forty-five of us entered a boat that had capacity for ten people. I succeeded, but many did not.’ Salam and his family had no legal way to find protection. Some member of his family were supposed to be resettled in the US until Trump imposed the Muslim ban. Now they are stuck in the overcrowded camps on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Salam’s family and members of the Church didn’t want the same to happen to another refugee family. So over the past few months, they have been organising volunteers, donations and Syrian dinner gala, so that the Church could participate in Belgium’s ‘Humanitarian Corridors’ pilot programme.
Just a few steps away from the Church, in the European Parliament, the future for humanitarian visas across Europe was put to a vote. Today 11 December, MEPs passed a proposal to allow people seeking international protection to apply for a visa at EU embassies.
‘More than 90% of those who claim and get asylum in the European Union territory have made it here irregularly,’ recognised MEP Juan Fernando López Aguilar, rapporteur of the Humanitarian visas proposal. ‘There is not a single window of opportunity for those fleeing from despair to make it to the European Union regularly.’ The Parliament asks the Commission to table a legislative proposal by 31 March 2019.
“For us, as Christian churches and organisations it is unacceptable to see the suffering and dying on the way to protection in Europe. Humanitarian visas are one of the most important measures of overcoming the suffering and dying – we therefore hope for broad political support for this”, Torsten Moritz, General Secretary of the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe, added.
Community sponsorship schemes like the Humanitarian Corridor are often the only legal way for people to legally seek protection. In Belgium, Interior Minister Theo Francken, from the Flemish nationalist party N-VA suspended the government-sponsored resettlement until the next elections in May 2019. Other EU countries have only started to provide community sponsorship and humanitarian visa schemes.
Despite the many benefits of these schemes, a recent study by the European Commission found that potential sponsors need significantly more information, funding and training. Civil society is also calling for clearer rules and funding for community sponsorship through the ‘We are a Welcoming Europe’ – the first European Citizens’ Initiative on migration. Belgium is the first country to reach its target for signature collection, contributing over 16,000 signatures to this initiative aiming for one million signatures across Europe.
Last Wednesday—28 November—the Brussels Protestant Church-Museum was able to secure a humanitarian visa for a Syrian couple who hadn’t seen their only son for three years. “We welcome refugee families not only to restore dignity to their lives, but also to strengthen our community. It’s our obligation to welcome people of all faiths.” said Thomas, the church member who coordinates its volunteers and welcomed the family at Brussels National Airport.
By Susanna Carta