International church organizations have urged the European Union (EU) to do more to protect asylum-seekers and to prevent immigrants being portrayed as "potential criminals."

"A person who exercises his or her right to search for better living conditions should not be considered a criminal simply for doing so," according to a document presented to the European Commission, the EU's executive body, by the Churches' Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME), Caritas Europa and other organizations.

"Human dignity is fundamental and has to be respected, regardless of whether someone has documents or not. The churches stand for this in society and call on the EU to do so as well."

The ecumenical paper said that migration had become a "permanent global phenomenon," brought on by oppression and conflict, as well as poverty, drought and unemployment. It added that European colonialism had been a root cause of "still existing economic, political and cultural domination," and said that churches recognized a human right to travel in search of better conditions.

"We are aware that an 'open door policy' is not conceivable, and that a migration policy will certainly not solve the challenges of global imbalance," declares the text, which was also signed by the Catholic Commission of the EU Bishops' Conferences (COMECE) and International Catholic Migration Commission, as well as the Jesuit Refugee Service, Quaker European Affairs Council and Conference of European Justice and Peace Commissions.

"But a future EU immigration policy should take as its starting point Europe's heritage as an area of exchange and mutual enrichment, recalling the historical benefits of migrants in European societies. A European Union that promotes freedom of movement and residence inside its borders as one of its guiding principles should not appear as a fortress to the outside world."

The 4,000-word document was one of two presented to the European Commission after a meeting on May 28 in Brussels in response to proposals by the European Commission for a revised EU policy on immigration.

A separate church document welcomed European Commission proposals for "harmonization of asylum policy," but also warned that western European media had been too willing to "link refugees and asylum-seekers to criminality."

The general secretary of CCME, Doris Peschke, said both papers had been submitted at the request of the EU's Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, Antonio Vitorino, as part of a consultation process. She added that the commission was moving "in the right direction," towards a "pro-active immigration policy," but still needed to go further.

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"The idea of helping those in need is rooted in all churches who've opposed deportation rulings, provided shelter to families and remained aloof from the negative attitudes often found in society," said Peschke. "Thousands of irregular migrants have died on the borders of Europe in recent years, so this is truly a dramatic situation."

Church leaders have frequently urged humanitarian treatment for immigrants and refugees in Europe, where numbers have increased greatly since the early 1990s by conflicts in the Balkans, Caucasus and Middle East.

According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 346,098 people applied for asylum in EU countries in 1999, a rise of 17.2 percent over 1998.

The church organizations called for "harmonized and comparable statistics" on migration, as well as a "broad set of uniform rights," and a European Monitoring Center for Migration to provide information and advice.

"New forms of slavery can be observed, not only including the exploitation of women as prostitutes, but also of domestic workers or workers on construction sites," the document continued.

"Many migrants live among us without basic social rights or even without any rights at all."

The church document is expected to be discussed in mid-June by a European Parliament committee, and responded to by the EU Commission when formal consultations with NGOs close at the end of June.

Peschke said she believed the European Commission was "sincerely attempting" to consider independent views about policy and legislation, adding that the current Swedish presidency of the EU had "taken the churches' position seriously."

However, she added that the EU still lacked "open decision-making procedures." A parallel policy-making program for family reunifications had remained blocked in the Council of Ministers.

"Decisions are still taken anonymously, without majority voting, so it's difficult to gauge our influence," the CCME general secretary said. "Although there are signs of a growing EU openness to churches, not all countries concur that the churches' contribution is valuable."

The document follows numerous national church interventions on asylum and immigration issues. Among recent statements, bishops from COMECE said in April they were "extremely concerned" that many people with irregular status in the EU had become "victims of exploitation that denies their human dignity."

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Related Elsewhere

The CCME's site (a subsection of the Conference of European Churches' site) offers more information about the organization, as well as the documents presented to the EU and a press release about them.

The European Union Online site includes a specific site for The European Commission.

Groups signing the papers for the European Commission with Web sites include the International Catholic Migration Commission, Jesuit Refugee Service, and the Quaker European Affairs Council.

The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees official site has extensive statistics on migration and refugees.

Recent Christianity Today articles on church aid to refugees include:

Separation Anxiety | Haitian immigrants are less welcome than Cubans, but Florida churches are filling the hospitality gap.(April 24,2000)

Saving Bodies, Rescuing Souls | Chechen Muslims find Salvationist care has compassionate accent. (April 24, 2000)

In Sri Lanka's No Man's Land, Churches Provide Some Hope for Refugees | Christians mobilize to help nearly a million left homeless by Tamil conflict (April 18, 2000)

Church Aids Refugees Despite Violence | The Catholic church has been a place of refuge and reform for those opposing the Indonesian government. (October 25, 1999)

Churches Reach Out to Refugees | In many cases, the groups are relying on churches to help provide temporary housing, furniture, clothing, language training, and money for rent. (June 14, 1999)