Religious communities and their organizations have a major role to play when it comes to protecting refugees and promoting their integration. With this in mind, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and current U.N. General Secretary António Guterres initiated an international dialogue on “Faith and Protection” in 2012, with the churches encouraged to continue to campaign for the protection of refugees in the future.
The religious communities represented on the Swiss Council of Religions have followed this appeal and have now taken a leading role in these efforts with their common declaration on refugees. As Bishop Harald Rein of the Christian Catholic Church of Switzerland and current Chairman of the Swiss Council of Religions emphasized: “For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, every human being is a creature of God and thus under his protection. For us believers this entails a particular responsibility towards refugees.”
Five appeals for the effective protection of refugees
These religious communities derived five appeals on Swiss refugee policy from this understanding and published them today in the form of a joint declaration. The declaration spoke to protection in regions of origin as an important goal in Swiss refugee and foreign policy. The declaration, furthermore, called for fair and effective asylum procedures that fully apply the definition of refugees in the Geneva Convention. It advocated, for example, for people affected by civil wars to be granted refugee status instead of temporary permission to stay. It also underscored the crucial importance of the right to family life and the early integration of refugees. Religious communities can make particular contributions in this regard by rolling out, maintaining, and supporting volunteer work, neighborhood assistance, and individual initiatives. The declaration, moreover, mentioned the central importance of refugees respecting local rules as a means of becoming integrated and part of this society. The values grounded in the Swiss Federal Constitution of course apply to refugees as well. The declaration also called for a repatriation with dignity for those who did not fulfill the criteria for protection. This included following human rights standards during deportation measures and safeguarding the well-being of children in all situations.
“Resettlement” for the particularly vulnerable
The fifth appeal in the Interreligious Declaration on Refugee Affairs spoke on the particularly current political issue of “resettlement”, with the state and politicians called upon to establish, as a long-term instrument in Swiss asylum policy, the direct resettlement of refugees from crisis areas. This would build on Switzerland’s decades-long tradition of humanitarianism. In recent years, Switzerland has decided to accept 3500 refugees as part of resettlement programs, chiefly victims of the war in Syria. The last such program will however come to an end next year.
UNHCR speaks of a “model project”
The UNHCR office for Switzerland and Liechtenstein has supported the implementation of the Interreligious Declaration on Refugee Affairs. As Anja Klug, head of the office and representative of the UNHCR in Switzerland explained, the national dialogue was of great importance: “The Interreligious Declaration on Refugee Affairs, which resulted from cooperation between the UNHCR and religious communities in Switzerland, is an important model project that will hopefully set an example for other countries as well.”
The declaration will be discussed in the coming days with the relevant Swiss federal offices. The urgency of the matter is beyond dispute, with over 68 million refugees around the world – more than ever before – around half of whom are children.