Refugees in Europe – a fence or a bridge?


Our conference in Bucharest was a great success!  With plenty of time to meet together with experts in their fields, meet with people addressing all angles of the current European refugee issue, network with agencies, churches and NGOs large and small, there was something for everyone.  So many delegates were of the opinion that it was the best conference we’ve organised so far!

Wolfgang Buesing (Director of AEM Germany) opened the conference with a warm welcome, an explanation of who the European Evangelical Mission Association is, and why this conference is being held now.  He also shared some thoughts from Matthew chapter 5, reflecting on the values and qualities which Jesus clearly thought were important.

Opening the first plenary was Martin Lee (Executive Director of Global Connections and formerly with CORD) who has 25 years’ experience of working with refugees.  He showed a brief film made of the journey made by foot by refugees from Budapest to Austria in the summer of 2015, which reminded us of the human side of this issue which can so easily get lost amid the statistics and the strategic issues.

He then gave an overview of the current situation, the causes of the refugee crisis, and an overview of the varying definitions of migrants, refugees and Internally Displaced People.  He also reminded us that in contrast to all the fuss made about refugees trying to enter Europe, 86% of refugees are in the developing world and many have been in camps for decades.

It was immediately clear how easy it is for unsympathetic governments to classify people as something other than refugees and therefore not be obliged to take care of them.  He pointed out that although there are international conventions on the treatment of refugees, every country in Europe is applying the conventions differently.

“Refugees are not objects of pity; they are human beings.”

Martin’s presentation was followed by a person experienced in working with Moslems (who was keen to maintain his anonymity).  He reminded us that there are different perspectives playing in situations such as this a human one and a divine one, which can be reflected in whether we focus on the insider or the outsider.  He then introduced a Moslem-background believer who was himself a refugee, who gave a personal testimony of the terrible things he had suffered in Syria.

Day two started with worship led by Philippe Wille and a devotional from Tim Herbert (Syzygy Missions Support Network), who drew on Biblical and historical themes to demonstrate that migration is endemic to the human condition – “We are all migrants”, but that those of us who have managed to become settled over a number of generations are generally hostile to subsequent waves of migrants.  This is contrary to God’s injunction to Israel:

Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

After greetings from Rev Dr Virgil Achilai (General Secretary of the Romanian Evangelical Alliance), Nikos Stefanidis (Director of Helping Hands) spoke about the work he does welcoming refugees to Athens.  He said that God’s plan is a new earth and a new heaven but not a new human – except as redeemed in Jesus Christ.  That includes refugees.  They come from countries that are closed to the gospel.  But now they’re coming to Europe.

“God is tired of us praying for countries, asking him to send missionaries, so he’s sending them to us”.

He maintains this is a divine opportunity for us to get out of our comfort zone and get active.  Helping Hands has been working in Greece for 23 years to proclaim and demonstrate Jesus to new arrivals.  They provide food, clothing, showers and welcome, and have many amazing stories of people meeting Jesus, many of whom choose to become Christians not because of what has been preached to them but because they see Christian love in action: “Before long you don’t have to find ways to speak to them; they will start asking you questions.”

Then another mission worker talked powerfully about the work of the church in Hungary dealing with the refugees passing through.  He quoted the General Secretary of the Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe:

“What we currently see in Europe is not primarily a refugee crisis but a crisis of refugee management”

Workshops followed, with Bert de Ruiter talking about outreach to Moslems and Martin Lee talking on Refugees – Handout or Empowerment.  After lunch Nabil Costa (Executive Director for the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development) talked eloquently about the situation of refugees in Lebanon and shocked us with the statistics:

  • Hundreds of thousands of people are living way below the poverty line
  • 67% of the most vulnerable Lebanese localities have accommodated more than 80% of the Syrian refugees.
  • 1 in 20 refugee households have a disabled person
  • At least 50% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are children – there are more Syrian schoolchildren in Lebanon than Lebanese.
  • Nearly ¾ of Lebanese street kids are Syrian refugees
  • Child labour, ‘survival sex’ and forced labour are increasing

He concluded with a powerful challenge:

Every day we pray “God change the Muslim world”.  Then he does it and we’re not happy.  To each of us, in your own country, God is giving us talents.  One day God will ask us what we are doing with these talents?  Are we like the one who did nothing?

The next morning started again with worship, and a devotional by Alex Vlasin looking at how Jesus welcomed people, consider what lessons we can learn from him.  Then Yassir Eric (Director of the European Institute for Migration, Integration and Islamics) explained some of the power dynamics currently at work in the Middle East.

“I would like to warn all of us not to see Moslems as a mission object”

Following that, Anthony Joseph (Founder of TCF International Ministries) gave a very personal testimony of his own journey as a refugee, his struggle to be allowed to stay and to settle, and the prejudice and hostility he suffered.

Then in the afternoon further workshops followed on:

  • Church planting among refugees (Yassir Eric)
  • The Importance of caring for refugee workers (Kari Tassia – Regional Co-Facilitator for Refugee Highway Partnership Europe)
  • Outreach to refugees via media (Lucas da Silva – TWR Europe)

The evening was spent listening to various participants telling their own stories of being, or working with, refugees.

The final day began once again with worship and a devotional by Arjan Schoemaker on how we welcome people, and then followed our final plenary with Kari Tassia talking about the work of the Refugee Highway Partnership.  The conference concluded with Martin Lee leading a discussion about the way forward for participating churches and agencies.

Delegates who were at the conference may view associated documents by clicking here.  We are sorry that these are not available to people who were not at the conference.