Love Thy Neighbour: How the Church of Sweden advocates for people on the move

On a grassroots level, people tend to solve the problems that might look unsolvable on a macro level, say programme director Anna Hjälm.

Written by: Anna Fay. This article first appeared in the Slovak Spectator on July 8, 2019

During the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, Antje Jackelén, The Church of Sweden's first female archbishop, sought American minister Dirk Ficca’s advice on what role she should play as a religious leader in Europe.

Since 2015, thousands have perished in the treacherous search for safety while refugees who make it to Europe continue to grapple with integration, often at the mercy of those keen on making “others” out of them.

Dirk Ficca serves as a senior advisor to the World of Neighbours Initiative. Among many other things, he has served fifteen years as the Executive Director at the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. Bild: Therése N. Jonsson

“All religious communities have an obligation towards refugees and migrants - not just in receiving but in the role they play in society,” said Ficca.

As the horrors of the Syrian refugee crisis continued to dominate public and political discourse, it became clear to her that advocating and empowering refugees and migrants across Europe was of vital importance.

The call to action was loud and clear: After three years of planning, the Church of Sweden’s A World of Neighbours initiative began hosting focus groups and conducting site visits across Europe in search of palpable solutions to a humanitarian crisis.

The latest focus group on “Narratives and Media” was held in Bratislava on June 17-20. Members of the Church of Sweden, along with journalists and various NGOs and grassroots organisations throughout Europe, contributed to the roundtable discussion on how narratives in the media shape the public’s perception of refugees and migrants.

hesitant Neighbours

People on the move are often encapsulated under one collective identity - labelled either as “migrants” or “refugees”. These two terms continue to be buzzwords in the media and political circles, and they are more often than not used to perpetuate negative narratives.

“From this working group, it became very clear that the narrative arrives before the refugees and migrants. This at least partly proves that it is not the refugees and migrants that are the problem; they are more or less just an easy target,” said Programme Director Anna Hjälm.

A 2017 survey on European values, carried out by the Sociological Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV), found that a majority of Slovaks are unwilling to accept foreigners or minorities living in Slovakia as neighbours. 62 percent labelled Roma as undesirable neighbours, 43 percent objected to immigrants and foreign workers living next door, and 54 percent said they do not want Muslims as neighbours.

The working group on 'Narratives and the media' assembled in Bratislava in June, 2019. Bild: Albin Hillert

“The perceived threat and the way politicians present it is way out of proportion to those who are actually seeking refuge. Somehow, they have taken what is really not a crisis and used it as a source of political power,” noted Ficca.

There were 200 asylum-seekers in Slovakia in 2018. Five of them were granted asylum.

“Central and Eastern Europe have succeeded in keeping people out,” said Ficca, who insists that the key to changing the negative perception of diversity in Slovakia and other countries is social cohesion. Only then will the country become a more welcoming place for people on the move.

Practitioners of change

The reluctance of many European states to accept migrants and refugees was discussed during several of the initiative’s focus groups throughout the year. While the Bratislava-based group talked about narratives and media, other groups held throughout Europe focused on strengthening receiving communities, practitioners of change, and social cohesion.

All the material and insight from those groups will be carried to a pre-summit in Magme in January 2020 where 80 people from the various working groups will present their best vision for Europe. Following the pre-summit, a European summit will be held in proximity to a refugee camp in 2021. Here, A World of Neighbours will engage with people on the move, share the work of religious communities, and encourage a broader European response to the refugee crisis.

“On a grassroots level, people tend to solve the problems that might look unsolvable on a macro level,” said Hjälm, who added that there are many individuals and organisations that are advocating for and empowering people on the move, but their work is not always reported on in most media.

Ficca refers to these types of people as practitioners of change because they have one foot in the grassroots and the other in the rest of the world.

Resilience of humanity

Practitioners of change and the people they are trying to help come from many different religious traditions, so interfaith praxis is of vital importance to the Church of Sweden, which is an Evangelical Lutheran church.

“Building civil society and fostering resilience to stay humane will be helpful not only for refugees and migrants but for everyone in society,” said Hjälm.

At the “Narratives and Media” focus group in Bratislava, people of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, along with those who do not consider themselves religious, were encouraged to share their perspectives on how people on the move are treated in Europe. During the four-day discussion, which asked participants to examine patterns in the media, play devil’s advocate and brainstorm ways society can interrupt negative narratives on the refugee crisis and shed light on more positive narratives, a particular sentiment prevailed:

People have always been and will continue to be on the move.

In 2015, most refugees seeking asylum in Europe were escaping war and persecution, but future forecasts for environmental migrants, or those who will be forced out of their homes due to climate change, are staggering. By 2050, their could be anywhere from 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

It is not a question of if but when Europe will face another refugee crisis, one that will require the attention, advocacy and resources of a critical mass.

“The jury is still out. Can we find enough of a critical mass in Europe?” questioned Ficca.

However, like Hjälm, Ficca remains optimistic that through the resilience to maintain our collective humanity, European society can learn to welcome people on the move as neighbours, rather than “others”.

“I find hope for Europe in the people that are working on behalf of refugees and migrants. We can think of narratives and policies and problems, but ultimately, it is going to rest on who has decided to help others, to walk with them, to be changed by them.”